Saturday, April 29, 2006

TV Review: House -" House vs. God"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired April 25. Sorry this is later than usual, but I had technological and other issues this week.)

I use the word faith a lot when I talk about House to friends. With mock seriousness, I invoke my faith in the writers when I have the most doubt. How will they use Stacy in season two, when her story seemed nicely wrapped up until five minutes remaining in the season one finale? How will they avoid mawkishness when choosing an adorably plucky little girl with cancer as the patient of the week? How will they portray a wide-eyed faith healer without taking the easy paths of either ridicule or salvation?

My faith is almost always vindicated. It definitely was with "House vs. God," where the patient of the week is a teenager specializing in "divine health management" who has two-way conversations with God, who can touch a cancer patient and cause her to go into remission, and who chooses not to have surgery for fear it will take away his gift.

I cringed at the plot synopsis and the potential for religious or anti-religious heavy-handedness. But I had faith, because I've loved the show's take on the theme so far. Unlike race, religion is woven into the characters' backgrounds without usually being a lightening rod. Chase's life in seminary school has been highlighted and Wilson's Jewishness comes up as texture frequently. We know Cuddy (who sadly only makes a two-line cameo in this episode) is Jewish, Cameron doesn't believe in a personal God, and House is an atheist ... but not necessarily a devout one.

Season one's "Damned if You Do" was one of my favourite episodes, treating the spectrum of faith from atheism to nun with respect and thoughtfulness. And as the nun tells House: "You can’t be angry with God and not believe in him at the same time. No one can. Not even you." House's beliefs were given more shading in "Three Stories": "I choose to believe that the white light people sometimes see ... they’re all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down. ... I find it more comforting to believe that this isn’t simply a test," he says.

And now "House vs. God" paints even more of the picture of House's faith, filling in more details of his choice of faith in science over faith in a supreme being. Written by Doris Egan, who also wrote "Failure to Communicate" and seems to have a gift for complexity, this episode provides entire paragraphs of character explanation without losing itself in pedantic exposition or absolutes. And Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard deliver those paragraphs beautifully as the friendship between House and Wilson takes on a new dimension amid all the God talk.

But first, the catalyst: 15-year-old Boyd (Thomas Dekker) is brought in after collapsing at one of his session: "Daddy, I think I need a doctor," the faith healer says.

His first confrontation with House comes early on, and though it seems to set them up on opposite sides of the rational versus religion scale, it also introduces a hint that there is an element of faith to both sides, whether it's faith in God and faith in science.

House scorns the kid's gift of hearing the voice of God, which lets him know Cameron is still "harbouring vengeful thoughts" towards Foreman for scooping her medical article, and that House looks for excuses to be alone. "See, that's the kind of brilliance that sounds deep, but you could say that about any person who doesn't pine for the social approval of everyone he meets, which you were cleverly able to deduce about me by not being a moron," replies House.

It's a gift House shares, only without the voice-from-God element. "He figures out what's going on in people's lives by watching, listening, deducing," House scoffs to Wilson. "You're worried about trademark infringement?" Wilson asks.

Faith annoys House to an amusing degree. "You know, I get it if people are just looking for ways to fill the holes. But they want the holes. They want to live in the holes. They go nuts when someone else pours dirt in their hole. Climb out of your holes, people!" he rants.

His faith, of course, has so far encountered no holes in this fictional world where he solves all cases within the hour, and it's not really tested here. For that I am grateful to the deity I don't believe in, because that was exactly the road I expected from the episode, and therefore the well-travelled road I didn't want it to take.

House is, however, puzzled that Boyd knows that he doesn't want to invite the recently moved-out Wilson to his Thursday night poker game - a piece of information only House and Wilson know. Even more baffling is the fact that the tumour of Wilson's dying cancer patient, Grace, shrank after Boyd performed a healing on her.

It was an easy diagnosis this week. The team didn't even almost kill Boyd once, and just a simple MRI proved their guess. Which means, of course, that it can't possibly be the final diagnosis.

Wilson trades an invitation to the poker game for helping House convince Boyd and his father to go ahead with surgery on the tuberous sclerosis, working his Wilson magic to manipulate them with kind reasonableness, contrasted with House's unkind forcefulness in a good doc-bad doc scene.

Boyd doesn't want to be cured, since Chase tells him it will also cure his "auditory hallucinations." Weak-willed Dad (William Katt - aww, it's The Greatest American Hero, though not so heroic here) also wants to believe his son is a saint. But Wilson points out that humility is a trait of saints, so one would consider the possibility that he wasn't really chosen by God, and was, instead, simply sick.

When Boyd finds out Grace's cancer is in remission, he withdraws consent for the surgery, and House's team must prove she's not actually getting better in order to save his life. "This is insane," Chase points out. "We're diagnosing a recovery."

In the episode's most outrageous suspension of disbelief moment - though what do I know, maybe random radiation from a leaky microwave really can cure cancer - Chase is sent to investigate her apartment to find potential sources of radiation.

In brilliantly intercut scenes, we see Chase snooping in the apartment while Wilson joins House and his "buddies" in the poker match. I was unreasonably happy to find out House doesn't really have a secret stash of friends when he introduced his poker buddies as "Dry Cleaner, Tax Accountant, and Guy from the Bus Stop." He's a gambler - he needs people to gamble against. His reluctance to have Wilson join them seems explained by the fact that they know each other too well - Wilson can tell when House is bluffing. "I'm screwed, aren't I?" one nameless guy says when he realizes House is about to win, while we see Chase realizing he might be screwed too, discovered snooping.

We get a shot of Chase encountering male dress shirts and ties in Grace's closet cut with a shot of the uncharacteristically casually dressed Wilson in his McGill University product placement sweatshirt. It's subtle enough that House's deduction - a thought process that's written all over Hugh Laurie's expressive face as House also ponders his cards - comes as a shock. Well, to me, at least, but I can be pretty oblivious. Chase berates House for putting him in danger of a felony break and enter charge if the boyfriend returns, but House finally tells him the boyfriend won't be coming home at that moment. Because, he doesn't say, the boyfriend is betting against him across the table. Wilson is sleeping with his patient.

Leonard's face in the moment of revelation displays a heartbreaking mix of fear, guilt, anger, and shame, and it's a huge credit to the actor and the writers that this isn't the moment where Wilson is dead to me. He's a flawed character, in much less obvious ways than House. He's got no cane to brandish, no pills to pop, no sarcastic remarks to hide behind. Well, maybe he has the sarcastic remarks, but only directed at the deserving House. Instead, he hides his flaws behind caring, passivity, niceness.

And once House reveals his indiscretion, it all makes sense. It explains why Wilson was so outraged that Boyd had interfered with Grace, why he was so concerned with her dreams and her potential to be disappointed. It also fits with what we know of Wilson, and adds a little bit more. He's the nice one, but also the one who doesn't seem to uphold his own moral code, choosing comfort over honesty, temptation over faithfulness. House, on the other hand, is the nasty one who, while not necessarily moral by others' standards, rigidly adheres to his unique moral code.

"You eat neediness," House accuses him when he learns how Wilson fell into the relationship with Grace by trying to take care of her when she was at her sickest. "Lucky for you," Wilson replies, in an exchange that succinctly explains their relationship. There's more to it, of course, but that has been the unsaid dynamic between the two - House needs Wilson, and Wilson needs House's need for him.

Though Wilson is usually the one to force House to confront his failings, the poker table is turned here. "You're a functional vampire," House says. "Sure, you're heroic, useful to society, but only because it feeds you." Wilson's weakness is House's strength: that's where House's peculiar nobility is evident - in being the despised hero, useful to society while shunning it. And while he certainly feeds off the intellectual satisfaction of solving the puzzle, he has risked his career not for personal gain, but to save patients.

In one of those character-revealing paragraphs, Wilson doesn't let House have the last character analysis: "You're mad because I lied to you and you couldn't tell. ... That's why you didn't want me in your poker game. Because when it comes to being in control, Gregory House leaves our faith healer in the dust. And that's why religious belief annoys you. Because if the universe operates by abstract rules, you can learn them and you can protect yourself. If a supreme being exists, he can squash you any time he wants."

Their conversation is interrupted by a call notifying House that Boyd has spiked a temperature, which is not a symptom of the easy diagnosis. Walking down the hospital corridor with Wilson, we again see all the pieces come together in House's mind as he realizes the diagnosis that explains everything, from Boyd's symptoms to Grace's remission: Boyd has herpes encephalitis. His touch transmitted the virus to Grace, which acted on her tumour to temporarily shrink it.

House quotes medical journals to give precedents for this turn of events, but this is an intentional credibility-stretching moment that adds even more depth to the episode.

Chase has been keeping score on the whiteboard throughout the case: House versus God. House got a point for each correct diagnosis, from low sodium to the tuberous sclerosis to herpes, while God got a point for Boyd's deductions about Cameron and Foreman, healing Grace, and ... I think knowing about the poker game? It fittingly ends in a tie, though House thinks God should get a point knocked off because he didn't really make Grace feel better, the virus did. But Chase points out: "Do you know what the odds are? You say she won the lottery. He says miracle." It's a wonderfully untidy ending to the competition.

Boyd comes to apologize to House, and shows some not-necessarily-divinely-inspired insight. "You're lucky. You go through life with the certainty that what you're doing is right. I know how comforting that is," he says regretfully, having, apparently, lost some of his own.

Since we know that certainty is a deliberate and perhaps slightly desperate choice for House, there's a bit of pathos to the declaration. His pills, his distractions, his faith in science, even his certainty in his moral superiority are attempts to protect and comfort himself.

In a slightly tidier wrap up to the Wilson-House tension, Wilson admits his imperfections: "It is possible to believe in something and still fail to live up to it," he tells House poignantly. House, still arrogant but still needy, asks if Wilson is going to move back in with him now that he's leaving Grace. When the answer is no, he tentatively asks: "But we're OK?"

"House?" Wilson says in exasperation. "You are ... as God made you," he finishes with a smile, leaving House comforted, if not filled with certainty about exactly how that's a compliment.

Next week House we get a double dose of House, with a two-part episode spread over Tuesday, May 2 at 9 p.m. and Wednesay, May 3 at 8 p.m. (I'll do a single review encompassing both after Wednesday's airing.) I dare you to say anything bad about often-maligned FOX right now.


Friday, April 28, 2006

House fans are good people

I've had some nice e-mails and comments this week, wondering if everything's OK because of the uncharacteristic delay in my House review. So I just wanted to say a blanket thanks and yes, I'm completely fine (even bordering on cheerful now that it's the weekend and a good friend is coming to visit), just busy.

My day job is in communications with the health care system and we've been front page news lately, which is never a good thing in health care. We're not talking "Hospitals doing a fabulous job" headlines here. So work has been frantic but also pretty rewarding, and I've been taking advantage of every opportunity to decompress with friends and colleagues after work (and no, "decompress" is not always code for "get drunk").

I know, I know ... quit updating and just write the damn review already. I'm going to sleep a little and then write it tonight, because immersing myself in the fictional world of House is another great way to recover from a too-real world where no one is going to solve the crisis by the end of the day (to paraphrase what I said in my very first post ever). And if I don't do it tonight, I won't have time again until another episode rolls around.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Shh, don't tell me how it ends

So it's 9:30, half way through Pacific-time House, and I just got home from a coworker's going-away party. And there's a possibility I might be a little happy. Not drunk, you understand, just ... happy. So I wasn't sure I'd have the stamina to write my review tonight. But then it turns out that's not a problem. Because I can't watch it tonight. Because my computer-based PVR has a hard time turning the channel from ABC to FOX when the little IR blaster thingamabob that goes from the computer to the cable box has fallen off. The old VCR is starting to look good again. I could write a review of Hope & Faith and Less Than Perfect, but ... no. Please, dear god, no.

So I'll get the show via, um, other means, and write a review soon. Tomorrow night after volleyball if I'm not too happy and technologically challenged again.

[Wednesday edit:] And life interferes again, so the review will probably come tomorrow evening. I still haven't seen it, but I do know the ratings were huge, which makes me happy.

[Thursday edit:] Or maybe I'll just keep editing this same post forever and you'll stop believing that it's coming. I just saw the episode but I think I have a lot to say, and not enough energy tonight to say it after an exhausting week. Tomorrow night for sure. Oh, and my brother did inadvertently tell me how it ends, but it didn't really hurt the viewing experience. He was letting me know that the DVDs I gave him ended up converting his girlfriend, too, so she watched this week and inadvertently ruined the ending for him by saying the kid had herpes, in a whole chain reaction of ruin.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Really random update

I am cranky. Made more so because no one at work ever believes I'm cranky. I laugh too damn much. I need a guard dog for my cubicle when I'm in this kind of mood.

This had been the longest week ever, which is pathetic considering it was the second short week in a row for me. At the day job, it was frantic newsletter editing week. At Blogcritics, I got some great news I don't want to share yet, but I'm starting to feel I need to promise a kidney to finally get a firm time for an interview I've been promised. At home, I'm still an idiot for agreeing to play beach volleyball for spring session - it was 7 degrees and rainy on Wednesday evening, but at least there was no wind. And I had to turn down a vacation opportunity in New York in May because that's way sooner than I thought my friends were going to want to go, and my bank account will be tragically depleted by vet bills and other planned trips then. I think one friend and I will go later in the year, but it still feels like a missed opportunity.

So instead of anything that requires brain cells, here's a collection of random updates:

Love Monkey

I haven't been able to find torrents for the VH1 airings of the show, which makes me sad. I will have to whine until a DVD is released.

But I stumbled across a recent and interesting interview with creator Michael Rauch, done by the WGA: Monkey See, Monkey Write. I have no proof, but I suspect it was conducted before the show was pulled from CBS, since there's an odd absence of discussion about the show's sad fate. I bet they grabbed the opportunity to salvage the article when VH1 came to the rescue.

It reminded me why Rauch is an example of a great interviewee. Even though there was overlap between my questions and some of the WGA questions, he gives different but equally thoughtful responses. My immediately pre-Rauch interviewee (yes, I'm deliberately not naming names) was professional, friendly, and funny, but his answers seemed canned. I tried to ask some different questions, but a lot of what he said was a carbon copy of other interviews I'd read with him, down to the metaphors and similes. It's hard to break new ground in an interview anyway, but harder still when an interviewee talks in sound bites.

A Complicated Kindness

CBC's Canada Reads program has chosen Miriam Toews' book A Complicated Kindness as the book they think all Canadians should read. I loved it and might use this as an excuse to write a full review. In one of my long-deceased monthly random reviews, I said this:
Heartbreakingly, hysterically funny Nomi Nickel is the wry, confused narrator of Toews' novel about a 16-year-old Mennonite girl whose mother and sister have both disappeared, leaving her to live with her bewildered father in a town that suffocates her with its religious restrictions and limited opportunities. While the book offers fascinating insight into a community that has turned its back on much of the modern world, it's easy to identify with misfit Nomi.

TV goes to the web

Frazier Moore, Associated Press's TV journalist, has a fun overview on current options for television on the Internet: Rush is on for web-delivered video. It's amazing how drastically things have changed even this TV season, with more and more networks embracing the Internet to market and even deliver their shows.


I discovered my new favourite site last night via a fellow Blogcritic. Tell me this isn't the best thing in the world: LibraryThing.

It lets you catalogue your book collection online, which is moderately cool, but then you can get recommendations and read reviews from people with similar collections, which is exactly what I crave - exposure to more authors I have a good chance of liking. The cataloguing is actually incredibly cool because of how easy it is to do. You type in keywords, and using databases from Amazon and libraries, the system gives you options for which edition you have (though I didn't pay much attention to that, since I couldn't be bothered to search more to distinguish paperback from hardcover, or between publishers). I didn't mean to do anything but glance at it last night, but it was just so easy.

My collection so far is here, though it's not complete. You can add up to 200 books for free, then there's minimal charges for a year ($10) or a lifetime ($25) membership.

It's a bit of a sad exercise for me. When I moved to Mexico, I got rid of a lot of my stuff so I didn't have to store it, including the vast majority of my books. I was an English major; I had a lot of books. I'm pretty OK with getting rid of material possessions, but this is forcing me to think about what isn't in my collection that should be. It's a little heartbreaking.

But what cheered me up is that some fairly obscure books were found in LibraryThing's system - the linguistics textbooks (my minor) I couldn't part with, for example. And I was impressed that it had the exact 1930s set of Ernest Hemingway books I got at a garage sale even though I don't really like Hemingway.

The only books so far I haven't been able to add are the Canadian Press Stylebook and a couple of Spanish books. However one of those is my absolute favourite thing from Mexico - ABCDF: Diccionario Grafico de la Ciudad de Mexico. DF is the Distrito Federal, which is what the city is more frequently called, so it's a cute name for a graphic dictionary of the city.

It's full of pictures of the good, the bad, the ugly, the breathtaking, and the very, very weird of Mexico City. Under A, for example, it has Aguila (eagle), and a photo of the monument that was right beside my first apartment, with lights forming the Mexican flag of the eagle with the snake in its mouth. And it has Aire, with a picture of the smoggy skies, and Alcantarilla (sewer) with manhole covers of all designs, and Altar with a collage of the streetside alters found everywhere, and Angel with the Angel of Independence statue that towers over a traffic circle on the major Reforma boulevard, and Apartado (separate) with the random objects in parking spaces people use to reserve them, like pop bottles and crates, and many other A words with left-of-centre images to illustrate them.

Ok, now I'm all nostalgic and homesick (for a place where I was never really at home). Gotta go wallow in a tearjerker movie or melancholy music.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

TV Review: House - "Sleeping Dogs Lie"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired April 18)

I love this show's episode titles - short and simple, yet prone to multiple meanings. House has so often told us "everyone lies" that I couldn't see this one without instantly thinking, even sleeping dogs. Ha. But, I thought, of course they mean that some secrets should remain dormant. So maybe I should feel a little foolish that I forgot about the title when an actual dog was introduced into the mix, and didn't see its crucial part in the diagnosis coming. Instead, I'll credit the show with being just that clever.

Last week's episode left me feeling like I didn't have enough to chew on. This week's perhaps gave me too much - settle in for a longer read than last time - as it waded into the murky ethical waters I love so much. We're treated to dilemmas in both the medical story and also the character story, and I don't know what I've done to deserve this.

In a frenetic pre-credits sequence that's directed and cut like a horror film (direction courtesy Greg Yaitanes, whose name seems to pop up on every show on the air right now), we're introduced to sleepless Hannah, our patient of the week. Her girlfriend Max calls an ambulance when she finds the desperate woman, still awake, in the bathroom after having taken a bottle of sleeping pills. Cuddy finds House sleeping in an exam room - no subtle juxtaposition there - and lures him onto the case with that news on top of the fact that Hannah hasn't slept in 10 days. And, in case we were going to dismiss her as a whiny insomniac, Cuddy points out that the longest anyone has survived without sleep is 11.

They subject Hannah to various tests and rob her of the seconds of sleep she has been getting in order to stress her body even further, trying to prompt a new clue. "We've got rectal bleeding," Cameron informs House as the three minions stride into his office with news of one such clue. "What, all of you?" House counters before ordering them - while popping a Vicodin himself - to perform a colonoscopy on Hannah with no pain medication. (Our favourite oddball drug addict also tries a new delivery system in this episode, crushing his pills and putting them in his sandwich at one point.)

The colonoscopy is a very uncomfortable scene to watch, even though they - oh god, thank you, Mr. Yaitanes - didn't make us watch the actual procedure in much detail. While the woman writhes in pain, before blood starts gushing from her nose, Chase and Cameron set aside their professionalism to childishly discuss one of the ethical issues in the episode: Foreman has stolen Cameron's idea to write about the "Autopsy" case for a medical journal (hey, the Writers Guild agreed it was a good one, too), and his was published first ... because House sat on Cameron's paper as she waited for him to read and comment on it, instead of simply signing it, as Foreman requested.

"You know what happens when you're nice? Nothing," Foreman lectures her, in a lecture she's heard too many times before. House doesn't want to hear about the dispute - "I especially don't care if it was my fault" - and hopes Cameron will lose some of her idealism out of the hard lesson:
House: You continue to be flabbergasted every time somebody actually acts like a human being. Foreman did what he did because it worked out best that way for him. That's what everyone does.
Cameron: That is not the definition of being a human. That's the definition of being an ass.

The other ethical dilemma comes because Hannah, it turns out, has been planning on leaving Max - a fact House deduced from the clues that Hannah claimed to have had an allergic reaction to the dog Max had given her for her birthday, despite the fact that she had been on steroids which should have suppressed an allergic reaction. See, it's not that I didn't know the dog would have something to do with it, I just forgot about it by the time ... oh, never mind. Sleeping dogs and all that.

In a nice - and possibly even intentional - nod to the visual joke in "Failure to Communicate," where House was reading the book Classic Lesbian Prison Stories, we get this exchange:
Cameron: OK, well, we could either base our diagnosis on your admittedly keen understanding of lesbian relationships, or we could do a scratch test.
House: Do a scratch test.

But to buy more time to solve the mystery and save Hannah's life, the team needs Max to be willing to donate her liver. That sets up a semi-predictable alignment of House on the side of keeping the non-patient in the dark, and Cameron on the side of informing her about Hannah's intentions.

"You can't ask the person she's about to dump to donate half her liver," Cameron protests. "Does seem tacky, doesn't it?" House replies before heading off to see the patient for the first time. He is the seemingly honest and direct bearer of bad news: Hannah will die before they can figure out her ailment, because her liver has shut down. Showing his masterful manipulation skills, he gets Max to offer her liver, seeming to mull it over as a possibility before reluctantly agreeing. But, as he exits the room, his expression indicates he's not feeling particularly exhilarated about the success of his ploy.

For me, the most interesting contrast between the soft and cuddly Cameron and the hard and curmudgeonly House is that though he disparages her brand of it, they both seem to be idealists in very different ways. Cameron expects people to do the right thing and is sanctimoniously disappointed when they don't. House expects people to do the wrong thing, but often seems bitterly disappointed when they do.

"Sleeping Dogs Lie" was written by Sara Hess, who also wrote "Spin," where Cameron's ethics annoyed and puzzled me. In that episode, she was willing to break medical ethics in order to expose a breach of a patient's sports-related ethics. In this one, she argues for a greater ethical responsibility. House argues that their knowledge of Hannah's intentions is not medical, and therefore does not breach medical ethics guidelines. There are shades of grey here on both sides, since House is not as single-minded as Cameron accuses him of being. It's not just about finding the solution, it's about saving the patient, and he's looking at the flip side: the unethicality of letting Hannah die when they have the power to save her.

But as Cameron points out, Max the liver donor is now somebody's patient, and she must give fully informed consent before that doctor signs off on the procedure. So House approaches Cuddy. In a scene that gives us a welcome reprieve from the blindly mistrustful Cuddy of last week and too many other episodes, House acknowledges that he needs her assistance, and Cuddy trusts that his risks generally pay off - or why else would she put up with him? House doesn't deny that he has information he must keep from Max, and asks Cuddy not pry into Hannah's file, so she can remain unaware of the non-medical reason that might sway Max's decision.

But when House finds out that Cameron is alone with both Max and Hannah, he realizes she's likely to manipulate them into having that break-up conversation at the worst (if you're Hannah or House) or best (if you're Max or Cameron) possible time. He hurries to the room to sedate Hannah, stopping her in what seemed to be mid-reveal. It's a slight possibility that he also saved himself from the disappointment of seeing her not tell the truth. But more likely, as Cameron points out, he doesn't really believe that people will always do what's best for them, even in a life and death situation, and he thought she would tell the truth. So by knocking Hannah out before she could, he's proving Cameron's point.

The liver transplant dilemma is really the focus of the medical story, but the final diagnosis is the black plague, believe it or not, transmitted by a flea on that puppy Max had given Hannah. House takes the opportunity to tell Hannah that while they can cure the plague, they can't cure being a bitch. Which seems a little unfair, since he robbed her of the opportunity to make things right at the last minute. But not untrue.

In a beautiful twist to the dilemma, Cameron discovers that Max has known all along that Hannah was intending to end the relationship. She figures, however, that it was her perfect opportunity to manipulate the situation: Hannah can't possibly break up with her now that she's saved her life. Or so she thinks, and we don't find out differently. "I love her. I just want her to stay," she explains when Cameron objects that neither one of them could possibly be happy in that kind of relationship. This show has a twisted view of love. I love it.

Cuddy gives Cameron another reason to get over her fury at Foreman: revenge (plus she gets in a sweet dig at Cameron's petulance).
Cameron: You're on his side?
Cuddy: Sides? No, this isn't dodgeball.
Cameron: What am I supposed to do, just sit back and take it?
Cuddy: No, write another article. Kick ass until you're sitting behind some big, expensive desk and someone from Johns Hopkins calls and says "We're thinking about hiring Eric Foreman as our head of neurology" and you can say whatever you want.

Mandarin is added to House's growing list of languages, as he deals with a Chinese clinic patient and her teenaged daughter who acts as translator. She initially says her mother is having difficulty with PMS, and needs birth control pills. House realizes that the mother actually has a cold, so, hmm, who could the birth control possibly be for? He lets SAC (Stupid American Child) know that she doesn't need to lie to get the pills, and gives her prescriptions for both a decongestant for mom and birth control for daughter. When they return, mom's new symptoms indicate the girl may be just as bright as House figured, since she mixed up the two prescriptions. In what I'll take their word was Mandarin, he drops the bombshell on the mom that the daughter is pregnant (which is not true, but has the advantage of getting his point across in the nastiest way).

House does a lot of sleeping in "Sleeping Dogs Lie." Maybe it was a ploy to give the overworked Hugh Laurie some well-deserved rest, but it gave an added dimension to the theme of the episode, too. House's theory is to let the backstabbing and bickering of his underlings lie, showing, as in the whole Vogler the Evil Board Chair mess of last season, that he is truly inept at office politics. And, possibly, proving Wilson's argument that he may not be the best teacher, either. So while his excuse for sleeping on the job is the continued annoyance of early bird Wilson as a roommate, it's also a representation of how House is figuratively sleeping on the job. Foreman, Chase, and Cameron are supposed to be on fellowships, learning under House, and while we see flashes of the brilliance of his unorthodox teaching methods, we just as often see his admitted laziness at work.

The final scene is either Cameron taking Cuddy's advice and pretending to bury the hatchet, or Cameron holding steady as the "everyone must like me" girl and actually burying the hatchet. She confronts Foreman to apologize and demand a reciprocal apology - which Foreman refuses to offer - when the camera pulls back to show House on the other side of the glass, snoozing in his office. We haven't heard the last of this spat, or, I hope, House's responsibility for it.

On an unepisode-related note: As you might have noticed from my fascination with who wrote which episodes, and occasional mentions of the directors and other off-air talent, I am a compulsive credits watcher and behind-the-scenes junkie. So why did I not know House's apparently non-writing executive producer Paul Attanasio wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplays for Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show? Someone didn't send me that memo. (It's not there yet, but check the Emmy site to see if they put up a download of the webcast or at least a transcript of yesterday's Evening With House event, where among many other interesting exchanges, fellow executive producer Bryan Singer, whose name also contributes to the show's impressive pedigree, raved about Attanasio's writing. I thought he might have gotten him mixed up with David Shore, but it turns out the guy who thought Hugh Laurie was American and Jennifer Morrison the blonde was a different person from Jennifer Morrison the brunette did know the difference between "Paul" and "David.")

I suppose I can't know everything. I do know the next episode airs Tuesday, April 25, at 9 p.m. on FOX or Global in Canada.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Audiobook Review: Cell by Stephen King

I am not Stephen King's target audience. I have a hard time describing my reading tastes without being too vague - contemporary fiction - or too pretentious - literary fiction - and neither encompasses the spectrum of what I choose to read, which is often not contemporary, literary, or fiction. But in no possible description of my reading tastes do the words horror or suspense appear.

I would not have listened to the audiobook of King's Cell if I hadn't committed to writing a review. I would have stopped listening after the initial burst of carnage if it weren't for that commitment. But there's a reason Stephen King is so successful at what he does: he's creepily good at it. Once I got past the early gore, I was sucked into the story and spit out only after the final sentence.

Cell has a faintly ridiculous premise, but the execution is unridiculable (unlike my penchant for making up words). It's the cellularless King's demonization of the technology, and it's almost laughable except it's truly creepy. With folksy and unique descriptions of scenes and objects, a light touch of occasional humour, and simple but telling observations about his characters, King doesn't rely solely on plot. But it's the plot that builds momentum, as characters and complications are introduced along the way that we know bode ill for our hero and the world as we know it, but we're not quite sure how or why.

When Cell opens, life is sweet for that everyday hero, Clayton Riddell. In Boston for a business meeting, he has just signed a deal to illustrate comic books, which he hopes will prove to his estranged wife that he's not a feckless dreamer. After buying a present for her and heading off to get something for his son, he suddenly notices the people around him are behaving ... unusually. A man bites the ear off a dog, a woman tears out another's jugular, one bashes herself into a pole, some throw themselves off buildings.

Clay pieces together what happened - those who were using cell phones at that moment went viciously crazy. Those who wanted to find out what was happening or warn their loved ones picked up their cells and became one of the phone crazies. Only those like Clay, who didn't own a cell, or who didn't have one with them, or who figured out the cause and effect before pressing send, remained "normies."

Clay's driving force - and therefore the reader's to a large extent - is his quest to find his son, Johnny G, in Maine. He meets up with other normies along the way, forming a pseudofamily with Tom, a gay man whose life Clay saves, and Alice, a 15-year-old girl who had to fight off her own crazed mother. The book's gore eases off into suspense rather than horror as the phone crazies begin to evolve, developing a collective mind and acting like zombies without the bother of dying - the not-dead undead.

The three wanderers find crudely painted signs saying "KASHWAK=NO-FO" - a challenge to understand in the audiobook version, where I first assumed the line was "no foe," then "no pho," then had to look it up online to discover the correct (I hope) spelling. The confusion wasn't out of place, however, since Clay and his gang know the signs mean that Kashwak is an area in Maine where there is no cell phone coverage, and that the normies think that means it's a safe haven. But they also believe that the phone crazies are spreading the message, which means there might be foes in the no phone zone after all.

Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger, Big Night) reads this audiobook, and his soothing voice is a nice counterpoint to the suspense of the plot. The book is told mostly from Clay's point of view, but the occasional voice changes are handled deftly. There are, however, a few places towards the end where it sounds like another reader's voice is spliced in for the odd phrase, making me curious about the process of recording and producing an audiobook, but not distracting too much from the listening experience.

Cell is available unabridged on CD, cassettes, or as an eAudio download from Simon and Schuster's audiobook website, SimonSays, where you can also hear a clip and listen to a podcast about the book.

I have special powers

Despite the fact that I love writing reviews, I rarely try to push my tastes on people, and in person only gush to a receptive audience. But my obsession with House has become like a supernatural power, able to convert people simply through the power of its existence.

Proof #1

I turned my previously disinterested brother into a regular House fan. He watched the season one DVDs I gave him after his curiosity was piqued by my love of the show, and he caught up with season two through more nefarious methods in about a two-week period. Since then, after each new episode, he's sent me a new House rule:
#1: Any person exhibiting a minor ailment in the starting minutes of the show will trigger a massive, probably life-threatening condition in a near-by person.

#2: No matter how many times House is right and shows up his slave-doctors, they will always doubt and argue with him. For related examples, see "Scully."
Proof #2

My mom's last fond memories of television are from watching The Avengers with my dad back in the '60s. And I'm guessing he was the fan. She was visiting for the Easter weekend, and insisted we watch an episode of House because she knows it's my favourite show, knows I have made some in-the-flesh friends from talking about it online, knows I heard the cast and producers speak in LA, and just found out via my big-mouthed brother that I did an interview with one of the writers back in October, which I hadn't told her about because she doesn't like television (I was left by the gypsies - blonde gypsies), had never heard of the show, and hasn't shown an interest in my writing since I stopped scribbling poems about cats at about age 12.

I waffled between showing her "Autopsy" or "Three Stories." The point was she wanted to read my interview and know what I was talking about, and the Lawrence Kaplow-written "Autopsy" had aired shortly before my interview with him, so I referred to it quite a bit in the article. And it later won him the Writers Guild Award, so I would have proof for her that other people liked it.

But my mom likes Disney cartoons, not bitterly sarcastic jerks who snort Benadryl and make fun of kids with cancer (remember those gypsies). She's also extremely squeamish (OK, maybe there's a chance we're genetically related) and "Autopsy" has that whole bolt-her-head-to-the-table-and-kill-her thing. So instead, I showed her the Emmy-winning "Three Stories," which is not only by far my favourite episode of House and perhaps my favourite hour of TV ever, but shows a more sympathetic side to the character.

The woman who normally wanders off when the cube in the living room starts to glow was glued to the television, and when it was over, asked if I'd mind if we watched the episode where we find out what happened to Stacy's husband, because it was "too intense" to stop there. After that, she read the article I'd written based on the Kaplow interview, which made her want to watch "Autopsy" and "Detox," unless I was tired of watching the show. Ha! My mom's so cute.

I know this doesn't mean Fox has picked up another new viewer. But just having her willing to watch is proof of my special powers. The fact that she wanted to see more and more episodes makes me think I should put these powers to good use.

Slogging through the tulips

The Pretty

Washington's Skagit Valley Tulip Festival was a great way to entertain the mother for one day of her visit.

The Ugly

In the muddy parking lot of one set of tulip fields, I tried to be a Good Samaritan and push an old couple's car out of the mud they were stuck in. I didn't think it was good for tires to smoke like that. I knew my feebleness had little chance of making the difference, but figured - rightly - that if I tried, it might shame some of the guys milling around to come push too. The couple sped away and never did acknowledge our help. I was a Cranky Samaritan after that. But really, did I do it for the thanks?

Damn right.

No, not really, but still. Look at those pants. I'm lucky they let me import that much soil back over the border.

The Pretty Again

But how could I stay cranky?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

I'm STILL cold

Spring league of beach volleyball started yesterday. Yesterday's weather in Vancouver: 10 degrees Celsius, winds of 30 km/h (sorry, Americans, I don't know the conversion, but trust me - chilly and windy). Vancouverites are crazy. This is why gymnasiums were created.

My mom's coming to visit for the long weekend (which includes Monday for me, yay), so I'm not likely to post again until my next House review on Tuesday. I know, don't cry.

EDIT: A couple of people asked about the cartoon, and I finally found the link - I made it long ago from this site (it seems to have a lot more options now). And no, my cat doesn't play volleyball. His sport is basketball.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

TV Review: House - "All In"

"All In" begins with the coolest class field trip inside a model of a giant heart, with effects to rival, say, a prime-time medical show. My class once went on a field trip to make candles. But I can take consolation in the fact that the heart lost its cool factor as soon as the pregnant teacher - our pre-credits decoy - shrieks in pain, and the adorable little boy with the big blue eyes asking her where the bathroom is ends up with seeping bloody diarrhea.

But when we first see our main cast, all thoughts of disgusting bodily fluids are banished, to be replaced with thoughts of shiny, pretty clothes. They are attending the hospital's charity poker tournament, a wonderful excuse for the costume designers to spread their wings, and for us to revel in the photogenic cast rocking some formal wear. House in an unrumpled tux, complete with fancy cane, is a sight I thought would only be seen in a dream sequence, but I have to say, Cameron and Cuddy looked equally fabulous.

Would it be bad if House pretended it were a soap opera, and the characters walked around in formal wear for no apparent reason? Or if House-and-therefore-Hugh-Laurie could play the piano every episode for no apparent reason? The show is a prestigious Peabody Award winner now, though, so I suppose that might be unseemly. Oh well, I enjoyed it while I could.

I sadly enjoyed the shallow visual and aural spectacle more than the rest of the episode, which was light on both the laughs and the character development this week. I know it seems unfair to say about a medical show, but it relied too much on the medical mystery, interesting though it was. And, I'd like to assume, credible, since this episode was written by the show's actual doctor writer, David Foster.

The kid, Ian - who House refers to as "The Kid" throughout the episode, of course, causing me to wrack my brain to remember the character's name - is Cuddy's patient, but Cuddy listens to his symptoms while at the poker table with Wilson and House and decides it's gastroenteritis, a simple stomach bug. Something piques House's interest, though, so he sneaks off to check on The Kid, who he finds is having trouble coordinating his muscles, too.

House rounds up his reluctant team for help - most notably an on-the-make Chase, whose attempt to impress a woman at the party with tales of shark punching is interrupted by House inquiring about his anal fissure. The reason for House's interest in the case is yet another layer of House obsession, but one that doesn't really add to what we know about the character. Twelve years before, he lost an elderly patient with the same symptoms as The Kid, and has been trying to solve the case on others he's encountered with those symptoms. We know this old case means a lot to House because he actually knows the dead patient's name: Esther. Or Ester, if you believe the patient chart. But he almost knows her name, and that's significant enough for House.

Though the team-against-House arguments get a little tiresome sometimes when we know, and they should know, that he only ends up with extremely oddball cases, and that his crazy ideas are not actually crazy, this time Chase gives us a reason to be on the team's side for once: House in the past has subjected patients with a stomach bug to invasive tests on his quest for closure. Still, the tension between whether House is right or his doubters are right is never quite enough to sustain an episode.

Because of Esther/Ester, House knows the progression of symptoms The Kid will face, a progression that quickly leads to death. He also knows he needs to keep Cuddy away so he can have time to solve the mystery before the little boy faces the same fate as the old woman. He phones Wilson to get his help in distracting Cuddy, but both Wilson and I were fooled by the real nature of his plan - he's actually "helping" Wilson to lose, so Cuddy will stay in the game.

The team, and later Wilson and Cuddy, worry that House's obsession with his 12-year-old lost case is affecting his decision making with Ian, but also that if he loses again, the obsession will only intensify. He'd even started taking out his frustrations on the poor, innocent white board. The difficult part for me was that the emotional attachment House has to the case are rooted in a dead patient we've never met, not for the little boy in front of him. And his obsession isn't personal, it's professional, so the emotional stakes aren't high enough for me to agree with Wilson's assessment that "obsession is dangerous."

Except maybe it is dangerous for The Kid, who gets shocked endlessly when the heart biopsy House subjects him to causes him to go into cardiac arrest. I don't doubt that House would be tormented if the boy died, or was permanently brain damaged by the resulting oxygen deprivation he caused, but I only saw the single-minded determination to solve a previously unsolvable puzzle. And we've seen that before, many times.

There were flashes of fun in "All In," including most of the poker scenes, but the attempt to tie in Wilson's poker prowess with House's final medical deduction didn't work for me. Maybe I just don't fully understand poker (a good bet, since I last played on our Intellivision set when I was a kid), but the connection just wasn't strong enough for me between Wilson's hidden aces and the initial and also final diagnosis of Ernheim-Chester disease, which hadn't yet reached the intestines where they originally tested. But then it's also a good bet that I don't fully understand medicine, either, since I last practiced on Sam, from the Operation board game.

A new episode of House airs Tuesday, April 18 at 9 p.m. on FOX, or Global in Canada.


Good Show, Bad News: An Interview with Sons & Daughters Creator Fred Goss

"People are always saying 'oh, this crazy dysfunctional family,' " puzzled Fred Goss, the multitalented creator, writer, star and director of the midseason ABC show Sons & Daughters, which centres around that family people are talking about. "You know, I don't think they're that dysfunctional. Unless my family was totally different from everybody else's."

The show is a half-hour hybrid of improvisation and script, comedy and drama, about "the modern state of the extended family." Goss plays Cameron Walker, the central figure in this tangle of divorces, remarriages, half-siblings, single parenthood, long-lost fathers, smart-ass teens, and exposed secrets.

He and his partner, co-creator Nick Holly, drew on their own backgrounds to create the family tree populated with sympathetic characters who not only share a genetic pool, but the tendency to make the same mistakes.

"Our background has a lot of teen pregnancies. There's a lot of divorce in my family, a lot of repeating the same bad behaviour without learning," said Goss. "Tons of stuff in the show is taken from personal experience."

The show examines everyday challenges through the lens of a supportive and loving family, though, so Goss's own hasn't complained much. "The bottom line is that the people on the show love and care about each other," he added. "They might argue and lose patience, but they're in close proximity because they want to be."

Sons & Daughters is touching and wry at least as often as laugh-out-loud funny. "The show is about trying to find humour in the mundane or the sad," Goss said. The audience that embraced it reacted positively to that blend, with effusive viewer support on Goss's ABC blog as well as critical praise.

"Nothing seemed to help it as far as the numbers went"

But despite having his creative stamp all over a refreshingly creative, heartfelt, and entertaining show, Goss isn't celebrating. Because in TV, it's all about the ratings, and Sons & Daughters' ratings were more sad than mundane.

ABC put the show in what Goss called "a death spot" against formidable competition and without a strong lead-in to boost its numbers. It normally aired opposite House, which has been attracting over 20 million viewers lately, The Unit, an earlier midseason replacement earning strong ratings, and Scrubs, a similarly quirky comedy similarly struggling in that spot. Sons & Daughters lost even more of its viewers — and its potential to build momentum — when it aired against the competition-crushing American Idol.

Still, ABC stood by its plan to air weekly back-to-back episodes before a pre-emption by The Ten Commandments this week. A not-particularly-upbeat Goss hasn't given up hope that his show will get another chance, and that the one unaired episode will eventually be seen. "I think what they're wanting to do is to figure out a time to rerun the episodes in the early summer, and then they'll probably tag it on there as sort of a bonus episode," he said, before saying that while the ratings don't justify a second season, ABC's support allows for a bit of optimism.

"It really has been a collaboration with ABC from the start," he said, explaining that the network's president of entertainment, Stephen McPherson, approached him and Holly with the idea for the show after seeing an example of their improvisational approach. "They asked us to do it. That's why they've been so great. People don't believe me when I say how great they've been. They just think I'm kissing their butt. But they really have, because they wanted to try something new."

"They never thought this would change the face of television, it's just a different way to make a show"

What's innovative, though not entirely unique, about the show is its use of improvisation to create naturalistic dialogue. "I wanted to do a show where we used improvisation more like an Altman approach, where we use improvisation as our creative process, but we don't necessarily need you to know that it's improvised," Goss said.

ABC made sure viewers did know, however, by beginning the show with a verbal and written message that the dialogue was partially improvised – a "warning" Goss wasn't fond of. "It either looks like an apology or bragging," he laughed.

So what does it mean to be a writer on an improvised show? "Instead of just being this raw improv from the actors, its more like we're all writing it on the fly, both in front of the camera and behind it," Goss said.

"There's no jokes in the script. There's no dialogue in the script. What we'll do is we'll write the basic story first, so everything makes sense and we know what the drive is. Then we go through and we start to analyse what can you possibly do to get comedy out of this," he explained. "Then we'll do another pass where we go through and say 'let's work in a couple of good physical bits.'"

The actors are presented with a thorough description of what each scene is supposed to achieve. "How they go about it and the words they use to do it are up to them, for the most part," Goss said. "We'll get halfway through shooting and we'll let the actors do their thing at first. And then if we're not quite there yet, we'll start to mould it from behind the camera and say 'why don't you try saying this' or literally 'I need you to say this' because that's going to be the line that takes us to the next scene."

The process results in a lot of footage – between 12 and 14 hours for each 22-minute show. "It becomes like a puzzle, where the pieces change depending on who's putting them together, because there's no one way to put an episode together," he said. "There are multiple ways to do it. There's a lot of bad ways and there's a few good ways."

Goss, who is also an editor, would work with the show's editors or assemble some scenes himself. "It's a two-week process where it slowly starts to come together the way you picture it in your head," he added.

"What they really needed to do was to put us with something that gave us a big lead-in number"

The use of improv, the extended family focus, and a viewer-as-fly-on-the-wall sensibility lend themselves to the easy – and lazy – way to write a review: "It's like Arrested Development meets Curb Your Enthusiasm and they go have drinks with The Office." Except while it may have shades of all of those shows, it really emulates none of them, and the comparisons may have hurt more than helped.

Audiences tuning in looking for a sitcom filled with joke after setup would instead find a show that touched the heart as much as the funny bone. Goss pointed to ABC's Emmy-winning success with half-hour dramedy The Wonder Years, which ended its run in 1993, but the form's relative rarity on network TV has perhaps contributed to its struggle. Half-hour non-sitcoms often clash with audience expectations after they see promos highlighting the comedy and ignoring the drama, and with networks' expectations for ratings.

Whether the show returns or not, Goss said NBC Universal, the studio that produces Sons & Daughters, is eager to put out a DVD, likely this summer. "There's so many great things we couldn’t put in because of network standards. Even things that aren't dirty, but alternate takes that were just as good as what we used, but you have to choose one."

If you want to show ABC your support for the show, write them at:

Sons & Daughters
ABC Audience Relations
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521-4551

Oh, and watch it if it returns.

For more on my conversation with Fred Goss, check out the full Q&A.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Q&A with Sons & Daughters Creator Fred Goss

I spoke with Sons & Daughters writer, actor, and director Fred Goss on Monday for the Blogcritics article Good Show, Bad News. I requested the interview before finding out that ABC had pulled the show from the schedule with one episode still unaired, but the not-similarly-ignorant Goss readily agreed to talk about the show, the creative process, and his hope for Sons & Daughters' future.

I was sad to hear ABC doesn't have the last episode scheduled. Any word on when it might air?

FG: I think what they're wanting to do is to figure out a time to rerun the episodes in the early summer, and then they'll probably tag it on there as sort of a bonus episode. I know they can't put it on within the next couple of weeks because their schedule's already locked down. That was the deal. We were pre-empted by The Ten Commandments, they're scheduling a Hope and Faith and Less Than Perfect the week after that, then I think there's a Barbara Walters thing. So where do you put this single episode that's been detached from the rest by a month?

Have they given you any indication that it might get a second season?

FG: No. If we're going just by numbers, then it wouldn't. Since the network really likes it a lot and they understand that they put us in kind of a death spot ….

What they really needed to do was to put us with something that gave us a big lead-in number. You know how Crumbs went on after Dancing with the Stars? Dancing with the Stars got 18 million viewers and the first episode of Crumbs lost 5 million but retained 13 million, so they had a base to work with, you know? We never really had that.

When do you find out? Is that May?

FG: Yeah, by mid-May.

In one episode, Carrie comments that "families are invasive - get used to it," which seems to be a running theme. Do you think the show makes the case for that being a mixed blessing?

FG: No, no, it's a good thing. People are always saying "oh, this crazy dysfunctional family." You know, I don't think they're that dysfunctional. Unless my family was totally different from everybody else's. But everyone's got their issues. Yeah, we're ramped up a little more because we're a comedy, but the show is about trying to find humour in the mundane or the sad. Mainly the mundane. You know, a guy going through problems with his teenage son is meaningless to anyone except the dad and the teenage son, because everyone's got their own problems and it's not interesting enough to steal your focus. So that's what we try to do in the show, is to show that struggle that goes on between people that most of the time you don't see in a comedy.

When you're writing an episode, are you looking for a comedic premise first, or are you really going for the family drama as the backbone?

FG: We tell the story first. There's no jokes in the script. There's no dialogue in the script. What we'll do is we'll write the basic story first so everything makes sense and we know what the drive is. Then we go through and we start to analyse, well, what can you possibly do to get comedy out of this. Sometimes, you just throw up your hands and say there's really no way to get comedy out of that particular moment. But it's OK, because you can surround it with this moment and this moment and this moment. And then we'll do another pass where we go through and say let's work in a couple of good physical bits.

Like in "Film Festival," Carrie and Henry talking about the film festival, and walking and talking. Originally Jeff pulling up in the car wasn't there, but there was no way to get any real comedy out of their conversation, so we thought we'd make the comedy happen behind them, by having his car break down.

That's what we'll do. We'll go though and figure it out. Like me walking in and having Aunt Rae have a Hitler mustache. The discovery wasn't that big before, but we realized that it would ramp it up if I walked past her and did a double take. We try to figure out where can we put physicality in the show. Otherwise it becomes very talking heads, because it's improvised. It's hard to have cameras follow when they don't know who's going to talk and how long it's going to take.

It's not typical in other ways, too – it's been pegged as a comedy, but there's as much drama to it. Do you get the sense that audiences don't quite know what to make of half hour shows that aren't purely sitcoms? Or that networks don't know how to market them?

FG: I've been getting really good feedback on discussion boards that people seem to be really into that element of it. The last show that ABC had that did that was actually the last half hour they won an Emmy with - The Wonder Years - and that was a dramedy too. That was a really interesting show.

Did you think of that when you were creating this one?

FG: No, we didn't really.... We had created something called The Weekend for NBC, my partner Nick (Holly) and I. ABC had seen it first but we sold it to NBC. So two months into making the pilot for NBC, ABC called us back – Steve McPherson – and said, you know, I can't stop thinking about this show. He said, I get why you had to sell it to NBC, because of your affiliation with Lorne (Michaels of SNL, a producer of Sons & Daughters), but he said could you make something similar for me, only make it like a Parenthood thing, with an extended family. I said an extended family is good for me, but can we show the modern state of the extended family, with a lot of divorces and half-brothers. He was into that, so that's how the show came about.

It really has been a collaboration with ABC from the start. It's not like we came in trying to push an agenda on them. They asked us to do it. That's why they've been so great. People don't believe me when I say how great they've been. They just think I'm kissing their butt. But they really have because they wanted to try something new. They never thought this would change the face of television, it's just a different way to make a show, in this format.

What appealed to you about the format?

FG: My whole background is in improvisation. All of my scripted acting has been done by preparing for it improvisationally. I've done improv comedy since I was 19. I'd always been looking for a way to make improv work within a structured format like TV, but it always seems to become gimmicky, like Whose Line is it Anyway, or indulgent, like Reno 911!. Not to say it's an indulgent show, but you know that it's improvised. It's obvious that they're improvised.

That always kind of bugged me, so I wanted to do a show where we used improvisation more like an Altman approach, where we use improvisation as our creative process but we don't necessarily need you to know that it's improvised.

And that was the plan, originally. We weren't going to lean on that at all, but then ABC started to focus group it and test it and found that audiences responded well to the idea that it was improvised. But honestly, I think you could put the show out there and not tell anyone it's improvised and no one would care. I don't know that the improv either helps or hurts it. Nothing seemed to help it as far as the numbers went.

It seemed like almost a parental warning at the beginning, saying "the dialogue in Sons & Daughters has been improvised."

FG: Yeah, that I don't like. That was the network responding to testing and it either looks like an apology or bragging or something. I can't quite figure out how I feel when I see it, but it's totally unnecessary.

What does a script look like? You said there's no dialogue at all. Is there just the outline of the scenes then?

FG: They're usually about 11 or 12 pages long, and it's all descriptions. Scene by scene, it will give a very thorough description of what the actors are supposed to achieve within the scene, so the actors have these really strong bullet points they have to hit in order to propel the story forward for editing purposes. We make sure they do that. How they go about it and the words they use to do it are up to them, for the most part. We'll get halfway through shooting and we'll let the actors do their thing at first and then if we're not quite there yet, we'll start to mold it from behind the camera and say "why don't you try saying this" or literally "I need you to say this" because that's going to be the line that takes us to the next scene. So instead of just being this raw improv from the actors its more like we're all writing it on the fly, both in front of the camera and behind it.

How many writers do you have?

FG: We have six writers, and Nick and I made eight, to start out with. And then we'll only have Nick and me on the set and maybe two other writers, and we'll try to get somebody who's good with story and somebody who's good with jokes. I'd like to say that Lexi (Jourden) came up with "I made a number two but they haven't found it yet" on her own, but it was actually one of our joke writers. Colleen – Dee (Wallace) – had gone into this thing about "Well, she did her number one but she didn't do her number two" and we trigger off of that. As she was saying that, someone was trying to formulate what could happen here to add a joke, so we gave that line to Lexi and she delivered it beautifully.

It seems like that process would require a certain amount of trust in your actors, as the guy with your name up there as creator and writer. Had you worked with these actors before, or what was the audition process like?

FG: I'd worked with Jerry Lambert. He and I worked together at the ACME Comedy Theatre in LA. And I had worked with Alison Quinn briefly on Significant Others, which was a Bravo show that ran two seasons that was also improvised.

I had met Gillian Vigman, who plays Liz, a couple of times, trying to put her into projects, and it hadn't happened yet, but she came in for my wife and she was great. She actually is half Jewish. Some people don't believe she's Jewish, but she is. Her mom is British and converted to Judaism because she married a Jewish man. Usually if the mom's not Jewish they don't necessarily consider themselves Jewish, but since her mom converted, she's Jewish anyway.

Dee Wallace I did not know, and I did not know Max Gail.

I wasn't even supposed to be in the show. What we did for the casting process was I would be sitting off camera and we would improvise. We'd choose two characters and I would normally play Cameron because he was more my comedic voice. So I would play Cameron with my mom, or Cameron with my dad, and I would be off camera improvising.

We'd do 20 minutes and then we'd take that 20 minute tape and cut it down to the best 2 minutes. Which is kind of what we do on the show – we shoot for an hour to get 2 minutes. So we would take the discs in to the network and they would watch it, and Steve and the VPs and everyone were listening to me off camera playing Cameron and they just got accustomed to hearing my perspective.

When we got around to auditioning Camerons, they had a hard time warming up to anybody else, and they said we think you should do this. I said I can't, I'm in the NBC pilot. I'm under contract. So he did with me exactly what CBS is doing with Gillian Vigman right now, which is to take me in second position, and kind of bank on the fact that the other project won't get picked up. Which isn't as big of a risk of Gillian to do that - it might cost CBS a bit of money if we get picked up - but for Steve MacPherson to do it for our pilot was kind of dicey because he was basically gambling the budget of the pilot on the idea that the NBC show wouldn't get picked up. So it was flattering, but also really scary because I'd kind of settled into the concept of producing and directing the project and being able to oversee how it looked, and then when all of a sudden you're in a lot of the scenes, you're directing blind and it's a little weird. But it's not anything I hadn't done before on a smaller level, so I just jumped in.

Sounds like it would be a crazy workload though.

FG: What you have to do is get a team around you that you really trust. We've got a great DP. We've got three camera guys that are terrific. You know, we shoot with three cameras all the time, all handheld all the time, because it's really impossible to shoot with one camera because you have to get everybody talking all at the same time. You can't just turn around after 20 minutes of talking and say "OK, whatever all that stuff you said was, can you say it again?" It never comes out as good. Nobody ever remembers, anyway.

You've directed a lot of the episodes, and you're involved in editing, too aren't you?

FG: Yes.

How is the process of putting together an episode different than it would be with a scripted show?

FG: Well we get between 12 and 14 hours of footage to build a 22-minute show, so it's a little bit closer to a reality show, except ours is very well scripted, so we know what we need in order to tell the story. But there is a lot of footage there, so it becomes like a puzzle where the pieces change depending on who's putting them together, because there's no one way to put an episode together. There are multiple ways to do it. There's a lot of bad ways and there's a few good ways.

And you hope to find the good ways.

FG: Yes. So we had three editors, and I'm also an editor, so I'd sit down at night and assemble certain scenes, or I'd tell them what I wanted them to do. So it's a two-week process where it slowly starts to come together the way you picture it in your head. Then you give it to the network and they give their notes, and you toss it back and forth a couple of times until everyone's happy.

Do you have a longer production process than a scripted show?

FG: We did this year. We would never have this scenario again, because we were picked up and we went into production last summer, and then we kept getting backed up. We didn't go up in November, we didn't go up in January, we went up in March. So we had an enormous amount of time to labour over the cuts. We had nine months to do 13 episodes. Normally we would shoot for four days, turn it in and edit in two weeks, so we'd have three weeks per episode.

Your character is pretty much the hub of the show, but how do you think Cameron sees his role in the family?

FG: That's how Cameron sees it. It's like when he teed off on Henry, when he was cutting the hedges after he'd been fired. Maybe the rest of the family doesn't see him that way, but that's how he sees himself, as the anchor. I think that's true, I don't think other people see him as the anchor, I think he sees himself as the anchor. He will remain the anchor, but we're also going to try to merge into more of an ensemble style where the other characters' storylines get developed more.

Is there a philosophy that we're doomed to repeat our families' mistakes? There are some patterns to the characters, with young mothers, absent fathers, questionable choices in men.

FG: My partner Nick and I, our background has a lot of teen pregnancies, there's a lot of divorce in my family, a lot of repeating the same bad behaviour without learning. Tons of stuff in the show is taken from personal experience. The whole thing with Aunt Rae was loosely based on a moment with my grandmother when I brought my wife and kids back. My wife and kids are Jewish, and I'm not. And the divorce - my dad's been divorced five times, my mom's been divorced five times. I'm an extreme case, but you need that kind of cartoon extremity to translate into a TV show, I think.

Does your family call you on putting them in your show?

FG: A little bit [laughs]. I don't think I ever put them in a bad light. And the bottom line is that the people on the show love and care about each other. They might argue and lose patience but they're in close proximity because they want to be.

Are there plans for a DVD yet?

FG: Oh, absolutely. NBC Universal is the studio so they're going to be handling that. They're very excited. I think it will come out, I'd guess probably sometime this summer. There will be a lot of special features on it. There's so many great things we couldn’t put in because of network standards. Even things that aren't dirty, but alternate takes that were just as good as what we used, but you have to choose one.

What can viewers do to show ABC their support for the show?

FG: They can write the ABC audience relations address:

Sons & Daughters
ABC Audience Relations
500 S. Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521-4551

Friday, April 07, 2006


In which I overexplain my process of writing the House episode reviews.

Amanda writes about my "Safe" review:
You wrote: "Mom cuts him off, pointing out that the one time she left her highly allergy-prone daughter alone on a weekend, she ate a peanut butter cookie, had a reaction, crashed her car, crushed her chest, and needed a heart transplant, proving to mom that she is, perhaps, underprotective."

However, it was a chocolate chip cookie that the daughter ate, which had peanut butter in the dough.

You also wrote: "But then House takes Wilson's jacket to sit on, so it's a never-ending cycle of smiles."

However, House took Wilson's pillow to sit on, not his jacket.

She also says nice stuff, and I completely don't mind if people point things out like that - feel free to put them in the comments so everyone can see them. I'm a bit of a perfectionist and would rather be corrected than protect my ego. And while I made the pillow change, I feel like in blogolandia, it's kind of more honest to leave the posts warts and all and have people point out where I'm an idiot in the comments. I don't know why I think that, though, so maybe it's silly.

I actually knew it was a chocolate chip cookie with peanut butter in it, so you could call that carelessness, but I just saw it as the simplest way to explain in an already long sentence. Peanut butter cookie versus cookie with peanut butter in the dough? I don't see my way as wrong, it's just not the whole truth - the chocolate chips weren't the important part. I waffled between pillow and jacket, thought I'd seen a sleeve, and didn't feel like rewatching. I write these reviews very quickly, posting them within a couple of hours of seeing the episodes, so lots of things creep in that make me cringe afterwards.

Though I have to say, those aren't really examples of that (well, maybe the pillow a little bit). I often catch spelling mistakes, stray clauses that should have been deleted which make the sentence make no sense, etc. that torment me afterwards.

For some reason it's errors in writing more than errors in show details that bug me. I guess because I watch the show once and write my instant reactions, so these aren't well-thought-out articles, and details are bound to escape me, and I accept the limitations of my decision to write them the same night the show airs. But I feel like I should always be able to string a sentence together. If I catch mistakes within a couple of days (which Amanda did in this case), I can make the changes myself on the Blogcritics posts. Beyond that, I need to get an editor to do it, and I wouldn't have asked them to do it for these instances, where it doesn't change the substance of what I'm trying to say.

To me, the glaring problem with the "Safe" review occurred to me even when I wrote it, but it's a structural problem I'm not going to try to fix now. It was sloppy writing to put the detail of Wilson filing House's cane before the summary of how he helped House with the case, since it made it seem like cause and effect, but it just flowed better that way since I wanted to continue on with discussion of the case afterwards. These aren't exactly recaps, in that I never write them as chronological summaries of the episode (they're not even exactly reviews – Blogcritics makes me call them that. I think of them as analyses). But still, I made it sound like Wilson was mollified after his practical joke, when I meant he was mollified after House revealed his motivation for tormenting him. With more time and thought, I could have rewritten it better, but at a certain point, I just want to go to bed.

In other mea culpa news, I was flat out wrong about there being more episodes than weeks until the end of May (though I expressed my doubt, so I feel like I'm covered). There are, however, more episodes than weeks left until the season finale on May 23. Vadim says in the comments that there's a double episode on May 2 and 3 – I can't find confirmation of that, but it explains the discrepancy. My math isn't really that bad, but I have odd number-related lapses, like I can't figure out time zones to save my life, and figuring out the number of weeks between two dates seems to be beyond me, too.

But yeah, don't hesitate to correct me on anything, whether it's a nitpick or a challenge to my opinions. I'm certainly not the voice of authority. Speaking of … in other reader mail, I've been asked a few times in both blunt and vague ways if I have any association with FOX or the show, and the answer is no, I'm not that cleverly secretive. I have no inside knowledge and my opinion means no more than yours.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Dr. House meets Kenny

So House won a Peabody Award today, and I feel obligated to report it, even though I don't have much to say other than: good for them. (That sounds sarcastic, doesn't it? I'm not being sarcastic. It's a great thing and they should be proud. Really. OK, I'm going to stop protesting too much, because I was honestly being sincere.)

It's a vaguely prestigious award given out under the vaguest of descriptions: "The Peabody recognizes distinguished achievement and meritorious public service by stations, networks, producing organizations and individuals." All they had to say about House was:
An unorthodox lead character – a misanthropic diagnostician fond of saying humanity is "overrated" – and cases fit for a medical Sherlock Holmes have helped make "House" the most distinctive new doctor drama in a decade. Heel and Toe Films, Shore Z Productions, Bad Hat Harry Productions, NBC Universal Television Studio.
I guess that's distinguished achievement, then, and not meritorious public service. It's the first (I think) award for the show as a whole, after writing awards for David Shore (Emmy) and Lawrence Kaplow (WGA) and acting awards for Hugh Laurie (Golden Globe, TV Critics).

But ... what makes me love the Peabody people even more today is that they also honoured South Park:
Primitive animation is part of the charm of TV's boldest, most politically incorrect satirical series. Its simple style also makes possible the show's unmatched topicality. Comedy Central.
When I think Peabody, I think stellar news coverage, I think The West Wing. Now, I'll think Kenny and Cartman, too.

There were other TV series winners: Battlestar Galactica, The Shield, and Boston Legal. More are in the Peabody press release and full list of winners.

Love Monkey Gets Some Love from VH1

(Hello regular readers of this blog. I know, I already mentioned this news, but this is the slightly more article-y Blogcritics version and it's different enough I thought I'd post it here too. Think of it as two for the price of one.)

VH1 recently announced that it has picked up the eight episodes of CBS's Love Monkey, five of which have never been aired.

Starring Tom Cavanagh (Ed) as a music exec attempting to not screw up friendships and romance, the show will be airing in the timeslot known in my house as Yes There Can Be Too Much Of A Good Thing When There's Only So Much You Can Record Day. That's Tuesdays at 9 p.m. to you.

I'm actually not that upset that it's been added to the period already occupied by my favourites House and Scrubs, as well as The Unit, Veronica Mars, and a few other shows that are getting killed in the ratings. I don't get VH1 anyway.

Wait. I think that upsets me. Too bad there isn't some other way of, say, sharing TV programs over some sort of network of devices.

The first three episodes will air back-to-back on Tuesday, April 11 beginning at 7 p.m. EDT, while the remaining episodes will be shown Tuesdays at 9.

I spoke to Love Monkey creator Michael Rauch after the second episode had aired on crime-procedural-happy CBS, and had lost viewers from its already low-rated debut (that conversation turned into this article). He was pragmatic but faintly hopeful about the show's prospects, answering the obvious question before it could be asked.
DK: Love Monkey is very different from your average CBS show ...
MR: It certainly is.
DK: Do you have any worries about ...
MR: I certainly do.

After that flatly droll response, he later added: "It's a small show on a big network, so anything we can do to get people to watch it - if they watch it once and don't want to watch it again, that's fine, we just need to get them to watch it once. I think that's where we're going to find our audience."

It's not exactly too late. This announcement doesn't mean Love Monkey is saved. There's no hint of a renewal for a second season, and odds are slim. But the consolation is that those of us who loved Love Monkey won't be tormented with the thought of unaired episodes, and new viewers will have a chance to see the Monkey's antics for the duration of the show's run.

Except those of us who don't get VH1.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

TV Review: House - "Safe"

Melinda (Michelle Trachtenberg , Buffy the Vampire Slayer) is a rebellious teen whose rebellion is stifled not just by her overprotective mom (Mel Harris, thirtysomething), but by her overreactive body. She suffers from severe allergies which indirectly caused her to need a heart transplant six months ago, so her parents force her to remain in her allergen-free room. Her boyfriend comes to visit, leans in for a kiss, and ... cue pre-credits dramatic anaphylactic reaction.

Post-credits, we see House continuing to play the torture game with new roommate Wilson, by refusing to do the dishes and drinking straight from a container marked with Wilson's prim warning label. As they spar, Wilson tells House about a phone call from Cuddy informing him of the intriguing new case. "You answered?" House sneers. "Turns out, that's how you stop the ringing," Wilson replies.

When Melinda goes into heart failure in the hospital, the team is afraid they are faced with two puzzles, instead of two pieces of one puzzle. Staring at "anaphylaxis" and "congestive heart failure" on the white board of differential diagnosis magic, their overriding puzzle is how to tie the two symptoms together. House looks on the bright side by indicating that one of the symptoms is good news, and Chase takes his familiar role of coasting along the path of least resistance:
House: What's the good news, and what's the bad news?
Chase: Congestive heart failure.
House: Is which?
Chase: Good news.
House: Why?
Chase: I don't know, it just sounded like you.

Chase is also the advocate for not telling Melinda's parents that her allergic reaction was caused by having sex with her boyfriend (he said he'd taken penicillin, which they deduce must have been present in his semen, and which she's of course allergic to). It's not that Chase doesn't think they should know their 16-year-old had sex - "they'll find out when they get the bill" he tells Cameron - but because he doesn't want the discomfort of telling them. Some day, maybe he'll have minions of his own to interact with patients.

It's not just Chase who gets to exercise his character. House's team is fleshed out surprisingly well in this episode. If Matt Witten got my Wilson-Cuddy Memorial Award, then I should bestow the Minions Memorial Award on Peter Blake, who wrote this one and the earlier Chase-centric "The Mistake."

We also get strong and sassy Cameron instead of the preteen Cameron, and she proves her time under House's tutelage has not gone to waste. Not only does she come up with the eventual correct diagnosis - poisoned by a tick tramped in by the boyfriend who sneaks in through Melinda's window - but she shows off her well-trained snark (though Cameron doesn't get much credit for being right since she didn't fight for the correct diagnosis at the time, and also shares in the blame of the wrong diagnosis).

When House questions her on what she means by saying Melinda's boyfriend loves her, and therefore would not intentionally hurt her (wait, did she not learn anything from last episode?), she replies: "Love is an emotion certain people experience, similar to happiness. No, maybe I should give a more relatable example." Oh, snap! thinks Diane. "Oh, snap!" says House.

And when the boyfriend has to give a semen sample to determine if that's what set off her allergy, Cameron remarks to the previously wimpy (and also previously bossy) Chase, with whom she slept in a drug-induced passion several episodes ago: "Too bad it's not you giving the sample. We'd be done by now." Oh, snap! thinks Diane. " !" says Chase.

Foreman is back to being a competent, compassionate, but judgemental doctor, who can face House head on and win ... sort of. They battle over control of the whiteboard - "there's a reason they call it white," House tells Foreman in another of his racial taunts that Foreman volleys back. "Give me that black marker," he demands when House's attempts to reconcile the two symptoms fails, and House ends up taking direction from him to focus on the heart problem first. They also literally battle over whether to search for the putative tick while House has trapped them in an elevator, with House pushing Foreman with his cane, and Foreman pushing back. But when he realizes House might be right, Foreman shrugs off the annoyance (some might say "assault") and gets to work.

He hasn't lost his judgemental streak, though. Appalled at how controlling Melinda's mom is, Foreman tries to lecture her on being the most overprotective parent he's seen, and starts to relate an anecdote about when he was a child. Mom cuts him off, pointing out that the one time she left her highly allergy-prone daughter alone on a weekend, she ate a peanut butter cookie, had a reaction, crashed her car, crushed her chest, and needed a heart transplant, proving to mom that she is, perhaps, underprotective.

Later, Foreman tries to persuade Melinda that rebelling against her mother's overprotection while she's in the hospital with heart failure is perhaps not the best idea, and tries to tell his anecdote again. Melinda confesses: "That's what makes this worse. All her craziness makes sense now."

Poor Foreman never did get to finish his story. We may never know what happened when he was eight ... and his mom ... and he was sick, but not really sick ... but by the end, it seems his efforts helped mom loosen her grip a little. That, and the terror of seeing her daughter give up hope, but then Foreman had a little to do with that, too, giving her the news that the paralysis she was experiencing was creeping up her body toward some vital organs.

The House and Wilson near-sitcom-setup continues with far more emotional depth than I expected, a credit to the writing that rarely takes the obvious or easy path, and to Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard, who look like they're having fun while also maintaining the characters' melancholy undertones. Not to be heartless, but Wilson's marriage breaking up is great news if it gives us more of Wilson without having to throw cancer into the diagnosis mix every episode, and gives us more of Wilson and House outside the hospital.

Wilson's breaking point over House's games comes after he is trapped outside the apartment for hours because House set out his signal that he was having sex - a stethoscope on the doorknob. "Where's the ... hooker, I assume?" Wilson asks when he's allowed to enter, only to find out that House was alone (even when alone, he claims to need a lot of foreplay and cuddling afterwards). He also finds out that House erased messages telling Wilson about a condo he'd intended to move to.
Wilson: You're miserable and you're lonely and you're going to trap me here to keep me every bit as miserable and lonely.
House: Yeah, and you're happy, happy, happy.

House doesn't let Wilson get away with the martyr act, and not with the obvious rejoinder that Wilson is no more trapped than every hotel in the Princeton-Plainsboro area is full. House isn't torturing Wilson out of sheer meanness - that's just a side benefit - and he's not simply trying to get Wilson to face the cold, harsh reality of his destroyed marriage. He's trying to provoke retaliation, so Wilson can experience a smile or two in the midst of his misery.
House: I did not make you miserable.
Wilson: Oh, so this is therapy?
House: No, it just makes me smile.
Wilson: I'm finding a new place tomorrow.
House: Right. But not tonight. ... You're not going anywhere. You're going to sit on my couch and depress us both because you just can't admit that it's over with your wife. ... So long as you're here, it's just a fight. As soon as you get a place, then it's a divorce. Everything sucks. Might as well find something to smile about.

House's ploy works to practical and hilarious effect. For the hilarious, Wilson had filed part way through House's cane, causing it - and him - to collapse in the hospital hallway. Wilson only smiles on the inside, but House actually grins.

For the practical, a slightly mollified Wilson assists House on Melinda's case by tricking Cuddy, who doesn't believe House's theory that an undiscovered tick is causing all of Melinda's symptoms. His maneuvers allow House and Foreman to be alone with Melinda in the elevator, which House stops in order to perform a more thorough search away from the objections of Cuddy and the girl's parents.

I know that "searching for a possible tick" does not sound like the most compelling medical mystery, but the case was actually gripping, and at its climax in the confines of the elevator, Melinda's declining heart rate acts as the stopwatch countdown they have to beat. Foreman calls time when it gets dangerously low, and releases the emergency stop while House realizes there's just one place they haven't checked. When the elevators open to show the parents a view of House performing a pelvic exam, he's saved by finding the tick in the nick of time.

In a nice touch that shows a bit of character continuity and a bit of corporate synergy at the same time, a morose Wilson ends the episode watching Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo - film rights owned by Universal Pictures in a show brought to us by NBC Universal. What poster have we see hanging in Wilson's office? Vertigo, of course. (That's the kind of detail I'm truly ashamed to remember, when I can't remember my new coworker's name. Damn you, mind crowded with useless trivia.)

He also tells House he finally called a divorce lawyer, and informs House that one of his pranks - immersing Wilson's hand in water while he slept, a trick practiced by every junior high schooler - is now one of Wilson's. "You might not want to sit exactly there," he says when House sits next to him on the couch that is also Wilson's bed. But then House takes Wilson's pillow to sit on, so it's a neverending cycle of smiles.

In more character continuity, House offers us proof that Steve McQueen lives, though we haven't seen him since his introduction in "Hunting". Steve McQueen the rat, that is. I believe Steve McQueen the actor is still dead. How much do I love that a rat and a guy in a coma are recurring characters? Too much, I think.

The FOX website says: no more breaks until the season finale! The FOX TV spots say: straight through May! Can we do a differential diagnosis to tie those two statements together? It could be a case of tomato, tomahto, except I thought there were two more episodes than we have weeks until the end of May. I will concede that might be my inability to do the math, however, or the TV promo people trying not to remind us of the sad fact that the season will, indeed, end. In any case, FOX is spoiling us with another new episode of House next Tuesday, April 11 at 9 p.m.