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TELEVISION REVIEW

'House' returns to get his house in order

A stellar supporting cast joins Hugh Laurie as his troubled character rehabs.

September 21, 2009|MARY McNAMARA | TELEVISION CRITIC

Fox's top medical drama "House" returns tonight with an innovative two-hour season premiere that follows up on the final scene of last season: Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), plagued by Vicodin addiction and hallucinations, checks himself into a mental institution.

"House Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." There, it had to be said.

The exterior of the Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital may look like something from a Bronte novel, but inside it's a clean and functional if not precisely pleasant place, and though homage is played to "Cuckoo's Nest," down to a Nicholson-esque ski cap, there isn't a Nurse Ratched in sight. Unless you count House.

After vomiting and sweating his way through detox, House considers himself ready to go home. His psychiatrist, Dr. Darryl Nolan (Andre Braugher), thinks otherwise. Although House, as a voluntary patient, is free to leave, he won't get the necessary letter of recommendation that will allow him to resume work.

Irritably, he joins the inhabitants of Ward 6. Casting a derisive glance at his fellow patients, he quickly and callously diagnoses them -- suicidal, paranoid, anorexic, manic -- and attempts to get his referral by being as mean as humanly possible.

Not surprisingly, House eventually learns that "physician, heal thyself" is not meant to be taken at face value, that while he may be a whiz-bang diagnostician, he doesn't understand jack about mental illness. Or himself.

Bonding with both his roommate, Alvie (Lin-Manuel Miranda), and the lovely sister-in-law of a fellow patient (played by "Run Lola Run's"House"" Franka Potente), House realizes that human contact is not necessarily fatal and that pain comes in all forms, some of it treatable, some of it simply to be endured.

You have to hand it to creators of "House": They're never afraid to shake up things. Executive producer Katie Jacobs directed the premiere, and it's a pleasure to see House out of his element and Laurie allowed to flex his dramatic wingspan a bit. Amazingly, and refreshingly, no medical mystery is solved, no deviant behavior explained away by an MRI finding. House rattles an X-ray only once!

The episode has a few sentimentality issues (any plot point involving a music box walks a very fine line), but it doesn't matter much because the characters are so vivid they even outshine House at times, which can only be good for him. Potente is a sexy, no-nonsense wonder, and Miranda, hot off his Tony-winning "In the Heights," may still be projecting to the back of the house a bit, but he gives us an Alvie both frenetic and soulful.

Also too good to go unmentioned is Dale E. Turner as a mute patient named Stomp. Watch his face and his hands; it's a small miracle of a performance.

So different is the premiere that the savvy "House" (and Fox) viewer may expect the revelation that it was all a fever dream. That does not seem to be the case, and one assumes that Laurie and the writers will be bringing a different version of their now-iconic character back to Princeton. Not too different, of course, but different enough.

With any luck, we haven't seen the last of Braugher, Miranda, Potente and Turner. Maybe the reason Stomp can't speak can be solved by a very thorough MRI.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'House'

Where: Fox

When: 8 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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