Wednesday, September 21, 2005

House, M.D.: "Autopsy"

I hate this show. OK, hate may be a strong word. Maybe the word I'm looking for is love. I love this stupid show that gave me emotional whiplash again tonight, making me sob inconsolably moments after I was laughing uproariously.

Damn Lawrence Kaplow for writing this episode, proving that Emmy award winning creator David Shore doesn't stand alone in writing thought-provoking, witty, heartbreaking scripts. Damn Hugh Laurie for proving once again how clueless Emmy voters are for not recognizing this role as the performance of a lifetime, never mind of a season.

After a frenetic season opener last week, "Autopsy" is more subdued, but even more gripping. When the patient of the week is a nine year old girl with terminal cancer, my cold dead heart's immediate reaction is: "manipulation." But if I've learned anything from watching this show, it's that the expected emotional heartstrings are not the ones that get pulled, even with this lesson in carpe diem we think we've seen a million times before. House makes its audience think without necessarily trying to be profound, but there is a real depth to its emotional core, and a willingness to risk offending some viewers to get there.

"Terminal kid trumps your stuffy nose," declares oncologist Wilson, who finally has a reason to hang around, to a sniffly House. He entices his friend to take the case of Andie, whose cancer should not be causing the hallucination she suffered, and who might have another year to live if they can cure whatever did cause it.

Since the plot veers once again from last year's formula of at least two to three wrong diagnoses and almost-deadly treatments leading to the correct diagnosis, it's probably time to stop calling that the formula. And the potential cure is as drastic as House can get: he must literally kill her to save her. But like last week's patient, a cure would put her right back on death row.

In "Autopsy," House surpasses even his high standard for shocking callousness. He scoffs at the bravery of dying children, and points out that odds are, some of them are whiny brats. "I'm not terminal. Merely pathetic. And you wouldn't believe the crap people let me get away with," he tells a flabbergasted Wilson. House is cold enough about Andie's case that even ever-patient Wilson is disgusted with him and tells him to go to hell.

But House is actually a most compassionate cynical bastard when he lets himself see her as a person rather than a case. He finally meets with his patient to encourage her to reveal what she really wants out of her short life, and as usual, the exchange reveals more about House than it does about anyone else. Andie may be the literal representative of living death in the episode, but as Wilson points out, she is more alive than House. Yet to young actress Sasha Pieterse's credit, she's never the cloying saintly child, and to the writer's credit, Andie won't let anyone condescend to her.

An episode about a dying child and depressed lead character may not sound like comedy gold, but a hysterically theatrical House shows up in several scenes, notably when he directs the operating room as his own personal Broadway production. Many of his choice witticisms are deliciously un-PC observations on our need to put tragedy on a pedestal, but there are the usual barbs directed at his team, distracting from the fact that he also reveals the depth of his trust in Foreman and refrains from mocking Cameron quite as much as he could.

Someone at House has cool friends. Elvis Costello recorded a version of Christina Aguilera's song "Beautiful" specifically for the show, and both versions play as bookends for the episode. House the show relies on music for mood too often, but I can never get enough shots of House himself absorbed in everything from opera to rock, shutting out the world.

There is an upside to the bittersweet Emmy results, which gave one to Shore for writing (sweet) but not to Laurie for performing (bitter). While everyone who owns a television – except, I suspect, the man himself – is convinced of Hugh Laurie's incredible talent and range on display in House, the popular criticism of the show has been that it is too dependent on that talent. It's been slammed as "generally formulaic" and "better at witty, intelligent dialogue and creating the character of House than overall plot, medical realism, and secondary character consistency." And that was just by me, who loves the show. But when we're tempted to focus solely on the marvel of Laurie's performance, now we're reminded that there's an Emmy standing behind the words he's speaking, too.

And "Autopsy," from script to direction to props, is another example that the show is laden with enough talent behind the scenes to support the obvious talent on the screen.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


"For man's greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes - obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes."
- Victor Hugo