Tuesday, November 15, 2005

TV Review: House, M.D. - “Spin”

The patient of the week in “Spin” is a cyclist, Jeff, who disproves House's pet theory that everybody lies by readily admitting to a variety of bizarre performance enhancing techniques. This unexpected development leads House and his team to ponder multiple possible causes for one symptom – respiratory distress – rather than the usual multiple symptoms with an unknown cause. And, as the episode title suggests, “Spin” offers viewers various takes on the issue of athletes who cheat.

Unfortunately, it did little but make my head spin. House is normally brilliant at combining self-contained episodes with a steady, slow building of character, until a quick, devastating moment reveals something unexpected about these people we've come to know. This week's “Spin,” however, was not part of that smooth ride. Instead of the usual crackling dialogue, most of the lines were of the not-particularly-funny, tell-don't-show variety, offering us large chunks of backstory on the characters with little context or subtlety.

We do learn significantly more about Wilson and Cameron, but the attempt to equate cheating on a spouse with cheating in a race isn't as compelling as most of the thematic tie ins on this show. And the attempt to link House's drug use and handicap with Jeff's doping and performance enhancement is an awkward fit, too.

Cameron, Chase, and Foreman offer us the Cliffs Notes version of the ethical debate – bike racing is just a game, anyone who idolizes athletes deserves to be duped, we all try to enhance our performance (caffeine, anyone?), athletes enter into an arbitrary, accepted set of rules and should abide by them, doping is dangerous, blah blah blah. Cameron drew the short straw and got to be the voice of judgement, seeing the black in an issue that had far fewer shades of grey than we're used to seeing on House. It's preachy, from a show that rarely preaches unless it's going to turn that sermon around on us.

The character's ethical outlook here makes my head hurt. So determined is she that Jeff is ethically wrong, she is ready to violate patient confidentiality to reveal him. The woman who is in love with her ethically questionable boss, and who last season thought it was completely appropriate to blackmail a date out of him, is suddenly deciding that we can't control our emotions, but we can control our actions (a cliche I agree with, along with "practice what you preach"), and is presented as the paragon of self control. I know we women are supposed to be enigmas, but that doesn't justify creating a character who makes no sense.

Though pretty-boy Chase is the butt of many of House's barbs in this episode, he finally gets more than a couple of lines and scenes after a few episodes with little to do. And while Foreman is comparatively invisible, he does seem to have finally learned not to bet against House.

House himself doesn't fare well in “Spin”. It's too easy to gloss over Hugh Laurie's acting now that it's pretty much a universally accepted truth that words can't describe how amazing he is in the role. I really need a macro that will insert some superlative praise in every review. He usually makes even flawed scenes work. But in “Spin,” there's little for him to salvage when House's actions and words don't offer much reason to be on his side, rationally or emotionally.

Since last year's season ender, we have seen that the presence of Stacy, House's ex-love, is throwing him off. Wilson is making more sarcastic remarks about his drug use, misery, and destructive tendencies. It's partly the poignancy of these truths, and his acerbic humour, that makes House so appealing. Take that away, and you're left with the determined House of “Spin,” manipulating Stacy and her husband, Mark, in order to advance his cause of ... what? Thinking that he can win her back by being even more of an ass than usual? There is little evidence in this episode that he still loves her and is tormented by that fact – evidence we've seen before, and probably will again, but not here. There is evidence that she still loves him and is being tormented by him. But the storyline only works if I'm at least partly on House's side.

One of House's defining characteristics is his brilliance, in his profession, in the art of manipulating people, and in his humour. But his manipulation of Stacy's husband Mark is completely transparent, should be counterproductive - are his actions really designed to make Stacy pick him over Mark? - and apart from a few choice lines, isn't even funny as a payoff. (Though the setup to that manipulation, when House barges into Mark's group therapy session, is hilarious. “I've come for the healing. ... If it's a problem, I'll go deal with my rage privately.”) In the season finale last year, House couldn't figure out if he wanted to punish Stacy or win her back. It's still not clear, but whatever his goal is, his actions seem either stupid or cruel.

There's an almost-touching scene where House comes into Stacy's office to apologize and to ask if she loves him or hates him. She replies “I hate you. And I love you. And I love Mark.” He says, resigned: “And you don't hate him.” It's almost the glimpse of the tormented House I needed to buy into his actions ... until he smirks on his way out.

This isn't the character I love or the show I love at its best. But I can't bet against House either - I'm betting it will be back on its game next week.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)