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.