Tuesday, May 09, 2006

TV Review: House - "Forever"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired May 9)

I was in a pretty good mood today. The sun's shining, the mountains are showing off their snow-tipped peaks, birds are singing ... well, maybe I couldn't hear any birds, but the rest is true.

And then I watched House.

Usually, the show makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I'm not quite sure why. It's not because there's much warmness and fuzziness to the show itself. It's not only because it's nice to have proof that intelligent entertainment can get great ratings. There's just something beautiful about House's misanthropy. Something that makes me feel almost philanthropic. It's like I'm a nice Dorian Gray, and House is my picture in the attic, getting meaner instead of older. Or something.

But "Forever" was a downer of an episode for many reasons. The primary reason is that a baby dies. There's also the fact that the mom, Kara, killed him, because she was crazy as a result of undiagnosed celiac disease, which caused polagra, a nutritional deficiency. Only they finally diagnosed and treated her, so she regains her sanity, and the full realization of what she did crushes her spirit and makes her decide not to get treatment for the stomach cancer they also detect. Oh, and her husband blames her, but also himself, because House berates him in a moment that seems heartless on the surface, but is actually hugely compassionate - just not towards the husband. As House points out, he abandoned Kara to her psychosis and left her alone with the baby rather than have to deal with her agony ("you slept while she went nuts").

Yeah, it was an uplifting hour of television.

Which isn't to say I want it to be all happy endings and sunshine. Though House the doctor never fails to solve the mystery, House the show occasionally will kill a patient. It makes for better television; the peril of every medical mystery is more real with the knowledge that the patient might not pull through. But when you go from almost-drowned baby, to baby's OK, to mother smothers baby, to House saves baby, to baby's not doing very well after all, to baby dies ... well, it's hard not to feel manipulated, because there's more emotional weight attached to its very babyness.

Still, it's far braver of the show not to attempt an "everything's going to be OK in time" ending after showing the mother's heartbreak at learning what she'd done, and the father's rage and guilt and half-hearted attempt to forgive. In the time elapsed, it would have been jarring for it to end on a hopeful note after such a momentous death.

House attempts to convince Kara she wasn't responsible for her insanity any more than a diabetic is responsible for not producing enough insulin. But his "you don't deserve to die" is answered with the unanswerable "maybe I don't want to live." His acceptance of that argument is very House-like, and while I think she's going to let herself die, less morbid viewers can imagine Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital has some non-doctor health care professionals trapped in an attic somewhere, from which a social worker or psychologist will emerge and talk to the woman. But the medical story ends where it must in House's world.

Also depressing was Foreman's return after last week's life-threatening illness and life-altering treatment, because our belligerent House-antagonist has gone all Chicken Soup for the Soul on us. The episode-ending cliffhanger revealing his left-right side reversal is dismissed with his announcement that that's all better now, though he suffers from residual effects from the brain biopsy his new friend Cameron had ordered at his request. House, naturally, calls him Scarecrow among other nasty "if you only had a brain" jokes. He also sends him to the patient's home to scout out any possible culprits for Kara's illness, proving House doesn't feel that guilty about sending him to his almost-doom last episode.

The non-battle between House and Foreman is the funniest thing about this not-hysterical episode. House attempts, as usual, to bait Foreman, with no result. He posits his crazy theories and treatment ideas, with no attempts to refute him. He ridicules Foreman's perfectly reasonable theories, all with no complaint from Foreman. And it all drives House crazy, which is pretty funny. "Is almost dying any excuse for not being fun?" he complains to Chase. Cameron - who is usually pretty Chicken Soup for the Soul herself - ends up saying "oh, give it a rest" to nauseatingly nice and passive Foreman.

However, contributing to my sadness is that this episode felt the need to spell out what's been obvious to most of us with more than straw for brains - House likes to get a rise out of people.
Foreman: You're addicted to conflict.
House: (staring at the Vicodin he's about to pop) Did they change the name?

That's one of the funniest moments, and it comes just before the saddest, when we learn House can run when the adrenaline's pumping, can remember a nurse's name when he's really motivated (I think - did he say "crash cart, Debbie, stat"?), and Hugh Laurie can turn on a dime from anguished attempts to resuscitate the baby to snarky remarks at Foreman and be believable at both in the same second.

House diagnoses Foreman with fake contentment, accusing him of compensating for his frustration at his new limitations. "You just wanted all that crap you went through to mean something," he says. Foreman cops to this theory pretty easily, and he ends the episode intently studying medical flashcards with multisyllabic words and pronunciations one one side and definitions on the other (I bet those will come in handy when Omar Epps has to study next season's scripts, too).

The mystery of why ever-obsequious Chase is working in the NICU - where he is responsible for the baby's care - and not on House's team is solved in a fairly anti-climactic way. Does he need to get away from House? Is he thinking of quitting? Did he really need a break from lying patients? No, he just needed the money of the extra shifts, because despite the death of his rich daddy, he's not rich. I believe - and hope - there will be more to the story, because right now I'm finding it hard to sympathize with poor not-rich doctor, even if Jesse Spencer did nicely convey Chase's guilt, conflicted faith, and despair when dealing with the death of his tiny patient.

I even found Cuddy depressing in this episode, though there was a lot to like too. Lisa Edelstein always injects life into this already lively show, and she's wonderfully awkward and vulnerable in a storyline that has her asking Wilson for dinner and House and Wilson speculating on whether it's a date or an oncology consult. "She's smart, funny, got a zesty bod. I think it's great you can look beyond the fact that she's the devil," House tells the hoping-for-a-date Wilson - because, Wilson says, the alternative is cancer, before pointedly questioning why House is so interested.

The depressing part is that I don't want to think of strong, cool Cuddy auditioning her subordinates as sperm donors, which is what House deduces she was doing with Wilson. And really, the fact that he's tracking her menstrual cycles enough to know when she's going to ovulate is just creepy, even for him. Plus, it's a huge leap for me to buy the premise that she wanders the maternity ward and indulges in frozen treats in a regular monthly cycle. The revelation that Cuddy is on fertility drugs and is shopping for sperm poses the intriguing and slightly horrifying "are they really going in that direction?" question. "When's our date?" House asks, possibly with a tiny trace of jealousy. No, they wouldn't really go there, would they?

This season, House only has two more episodes to go anywhere. Sigh. That's depressing, too. The next one airs Tuesday, May 16 at 9 p.m.