Saturday, August 27, 2005

House, M.D. Season 1 DVD review

House was my only appointment TV of the 2004/05 season. I haven't been this engaged by a series since the first few seasons of The West Wing. I haven't been this fascinated by a character since ... ever. Add witty dialogue, thought-provoking issues, and intelligent humour, and we've been given one of the most refreshing shows around, taking a familiar life-and-death premise and injecting new life into it.

Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is the head of diagnostics at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, a witty misanthrope who will do anything for his patients, except meet them, trust them, or remember their names. He walks with a cane and defiantly pops Vicodin like candy because of an injury to his thigh muscles, but his most compelling damage isn't visible, it's in the way he keeps everyone at cane's distance and flounders badly when his emotions are involved. He heads a team of doctors on diagnostic fellowships: immunologist Dr. Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), a young widow who develops an unfortunate crush on her emotionally crippled boss; neurologist Dr. Eric Foreman (Omar Epps), who often disapproves of and challenges House, much to House's amusement, frustration, and admiration; and intensivist Dr. Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), who begins as eager puppy and evolves into backstabbing snitch. House in turn answers to hospital administrator Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), with whom he trades barbed banter that hides an underlying mutual respect.

I was lured to the show by my on-again, off-again love of medical dramas as well as the intriguing thought of seeing British actor Hugh Laurie, known for playing lovable twits, take on the role of a brilliant, tormented and tormenting American doctor. I knew I was hooked on House from the moment early in the pilot episode when House tells his colleague and only friend, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), that his cousin has a brain tumour, which isn't interesting enough for House to deign to take the case (“She's gonna die. Boring.”). This is not a show that fears offending. It's brave enough to put at its centre a character that some will love because he's a gleefully unapologetic bastard, and some will hate because he's a gleefully unapologetic bastard.

Turns out, enticing House to take a case is part of the formula of the show, and Wilson's claims to cousinhood are suspect. It generally starts with a pre-credits snapshot of the patient of the week, almost invariably involving seizures and a CGI shot of something going haywire in their bodies. Usually Wilson, Cuddy, or one of House's minions tries to convince him to take the case, or he overhears something that intrigues him, and the game is on.

House's patients are the ones no one else can figure out, so he tackles them like a logic puzzle to be solved. Modelled after Sherlock Holmes (Holmes/Homes/House, Watson/Wilson – get it?), the show follows the medical mystery from initial puzzlement, to wrong diagnoses making the patient worse but providing important clues, to the eventual bizarre, correct diagnosis. Sprinkled in the mix are the clinic patients House is forced to treat as part of his duties with the hospital. They often offer comic relief – such as the elderly lady with syphilis (Shirley Knight) who lusts after the amused House – or tie in to the main patient story somehow, giving House the clue he needs to solve the case. The formula starts to get tired early in the season, but the writers eventually shake it up enough to add interest without losing the focus of this procedural show that owes as much to CSI as ER, and as much to comedy as drama.

The seeds of Laurie's sublimely perfect take on the bitterly sarcastic but vulnerable Dr. House can be found in some of his previous performances - for example the irascible Mr. Palmer in Sense and Sensibility, or the grieving Roger in Peter's Friends - but that's only obvious in hindsight. The man best known (if he was known at all) in North America as Stuart Little's dad, or as part of the British comedy firmament through his participation in A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder, and Jeeves and Wooster, has defied perceptions with this seemingly out-of-nowhere, Emmy-nominated performance for best actor in a drama. As intense and heartbreaking as his Dr. House is, Laurie's comedy background also makes House palatable and compulsively likeable.

Laurie has become an unexpected sex symbol, winning TV Guide's sexiest TV doctor poll, among others, and appearing in smoldering poses in a myriad of magazines. Reconciling this gruffly handsome Dr. House image with his sweetly stupid Bertie Wooster or Prince George is enough to cause brain explosions in those who adored him previously, but would have scoffed at words stronger than “cute” and “endearing.” Sexy? God no. But sexy? Hell yes. It's not just the stubble and the piercing blue eyes, though that helps; it's the attitude. Despite House's emotional deficiencies – which in fiction are far less a hindrance than in real life - a man who can spout lines like:
“There is not a thin line between love and hate. There is, in fact, a Great Wall of China with armed sentries posted every 20 feet between love and hate.”
presents a near-ideal for many, a witty, intelligent, suffer-no-fools ideal we don't see often presented as a protagonist. Sela Ward's guest character, House's ex-love, sums up the attraction best in the season finale: House is “brilliant, funny, surprising, sexy.”

The show is far more than window dressing to his performance, with strong writing, compelling plots, and intriguing secondary characters. But when Laurie isn't on screen, a lot of the spark is lost, and while the supporting cast ranges from fine to exceptional, they are often given little to do but feed the character of House.

But what a character. If that were all this show got right, it would be enough to make it appointment television. House is an endearing mix of brilliance and boyishness. He plays piano and loves monster trucks. He reads Portuguese medical journals and People magazine. He makes jokes about Socrates and sex. He loves jazz on vinyl and soap operas on TV.

He's miserable in his personal life, and while he supposedly hates people, the difference between his misanthropic image and the sensitive idealist we very occasionally see peeking out from behind that image is what makes him so compelling. While he has no use for humanity as a whole, he cares about the individuals he lets seep into his consciousness ... which is why he doesn't let many in. We see flashes of that caring with Wilson, Cuddy, and his team, and in his connection with some patients. But he doesn't need to care about the individual to work his medical magic on them. He's taken away the personal while fighting for the person.

Lisa Edelstein takes the underdeveloped role of Cuddy and makes a vivid impression with her. She's pitch perfect as the one with the unenviable task of keeping House's eccentricities and ethical lapses reigned in, while trusting his instincts to save the patients others can't. Robert Sean Leonard, who is both a former teen idol thanks to his role in Dead Poet's Society and a Tony award winner, brings a quiet charm to House's only friend, oncologist Wilson. He has regrettably little to do except inexplicably follow House around even when cancer isn't in the diagnosis, but when Laurie and Leonard share the screen, we are treated to a beautiful, complex portrayal of male friendship, usually conveyed through the exchange of mocking barbs and the simple fact that they voluntarily spend time together, but also dipping into emotional territory in “Histories,” where we learn more about Wilson's family, “Detox,” where Wilson fights to get House to acknowledge his Vicodin addiction, and “Babies and Bathwater,” where House's recklessness nearly costs Wilson his job.

Omar Epps is a standout among the young doctors, with his Foreman going toe-to-toe with House. Arrogant but with a decent bedside manner, Foreman is horrified to think he might be more like House than he cares to admit, a gag that is played out in “Poison.” Jennifer Morrison does what she can with an inconsistently written character, but her girlish manner and the lack of chemistry between House and Cameron taints the attempts to create a romantic sublot between them. Chase is laden with enough tragic backstory to sink a stronger character, and Jesse Spencer comes across as petulant in situations where he should be sympathetic.

There are flaws to the series: occasional writing lapses, such as plot holes, awkward exposition, and character inconsistencies; an inconsistent season that began with self-contained formula and went on to slightly soapy continuing storylines; medical inaccuracies; some weaker moments by some of the secondary cast. But I often don't notice while I'm watching because the whole package has captivated me. And mostly I don't care, because the positive doesn't just outweigh the bad, it squishes it into a bloody pulp and buries it alive.

One five-episode arc involving a comically evil new board chair, Edward Vogler (Chi McBride), threatened to derail the show, but even it had redeeming qualities that elevated it above average television fare. It offered us an uncertain House, no longer head of his own empire and playing a game when he doesn't know the rules, and brought new dimensions to his relationships with the other characters. The Vogler arc was designed to add drama, perhaps to end off the season with a bang, but the drama is too contrived to stand up to much scrutiny (and, as it turns out, the season didn't end there). Though McBride is as good as he can be given his character's ridiculous motivations, the one-dimensional Vogler is a caricature more than a character.

Some of the plot and character floundering might be due to the show's uncertain season. The first several episodes aired to less than overwhelming ratings, though House at least improved on those of its weak reality show lead-in, Rebel Billionaire. The full season order of 22 episodes was doled out in dribs and drabs, thanks to that early promise plus critical approval, and then an enormous boost in exposure with its new American Idol lead-in.

The Vogler arc and the Cameron crush are two of the only continuing plotlines in the largely self-contained episodes, and they are among the weakest elements of the show. However, even if the characters of Vogler and Cameron suffered from weak writing, they served to reveal more about Dr. House. Great writing wouldn't rely on bad plot devices to reveal great characterization, but these writers are great enough, often enough, and have developed such a great character that I'm willing to forgive all and call this a great show.

Evidence of its greatness was found in the second last episode of the season, “Three Stories,” written by creator and executive producer David Shore. Like some of the other standouts of the season – I'd name “Damned if You Do” and “Detox” - it defies audience expectations of easy answers, and brings up as many questions as it answers. “Three Stories” focuses on the causes of some of House's current misery without neatly tying his personality flaws to his tragic past. “Damned if You Do,” written by Sara B. Cooper, treats faith, from religion to atheism, respectfully, and “Detox,” written by Thomas L. Moran and Lawrence Kaplow, provides no simple answers to the question of House's addiction to painkillers.

The show is visually as well as viscerally and intellectually appealing. The wardrobe and props add to the attention to detail. Each character has a particular style – Cuddy in her sexy power suits, pretty Chase in his hideously mismatched outfits, Foreman in his stylishly professional garb, Cameron in her vests and heels, Wilson in his ever-present tie and pocket protector, and House in his concert t-shirt under long-sleeved shirt under ill-fitting blazer, usually accompanied by jeans and always by sneakers. House's office is a treasure trove of offbeat toys that contribute evidence of his juvenile side. Besides his Gameboy and portable TV, House plays with a turntable, unidentified ball, and iPod, in an office full of quirky personality indicators.

The gorgeous wood and glass sets must be a pain to shoot properly, and walk-and-talk shots are a signature, but otherwise the direction tends to the clean and simple. The pilot episode, directed by executive producer Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men, Superman Returns), oddly seems to have been shot with an orange filter, but otherwise the episodes are presented here in a pristine DVD transfer.

A downside to this DVD release is that it is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. While this isn't an issue for those with regular 4x3 televisions, anyone with a widescreen TV will be disappointed at the resulting reduction in quality.

The brevity of the extras is another downside, but there are nice moments and it's not all scripted PR fluff. The biggest omission is the lack of commentary on key episodes or any other meaty discussion of the show by its creators. But the inclusion of what must be Hugh Laurie's original audition, taped in a Namibian hotel bathroom when he was shooting Flight of the Phoenix, is a treat. While the producers may seem like visionaries to have seen the potential in Laurie despite his tendency to be typecast in roles that are polar opposite to Dr. House, the reality is here: Laurie made it easy for them by absolutely inhabiting the role from the second the camera began to roll in that African hotel.

A minor quibble is that the episode order on the DVD is as they were aired on Fox, not the production order. Because the early episodes were the ones rearranged, and they are self-contained, this isn't a big issue, but there are character developments, like Cameron's escalating crush on House, that are subtly affected by the reordering.

Both the paltry extras and the decision not to anamorphically enhance the widescreen video are products of the studio's desire to rush to release the DVD set on August 30, before the second season premiere on September 13. It's disappointing, particularly since many fans' motivation to buy DVD sets is driven largely by the extra material and the higher quality of DVD over broadcast, but not necessarily a bad decision. Because the ratings doubled from pre-American Idol days to the end of the season, there are certainly fans out there who want to play catch-up before the new season airs, and enough rabid fans who will be at least mostly pleased with the new behind-the-scenes glimpses into the show.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

"Desperate maladies require desperate remedies." - French proverb