Tuesday, September 05, 2006

TV Review: House - "Meaning"

Running? Running?! Are you freaking kidding me?

Season three of House picks up a couple of months after "No Reason," where the dyspeptic doctor got shot by a disgruntled former patient. It's full of scenes of Dr. House jogging to work, skateboarding around campus, and in general having fun with his newfound mobility, from cartoonish end runs around Cameron to athletic displays you wouldn't expect from a man whose physical fitness routine seemed to revolve around exercising his thumbs with a GameBoy and iPod.

So, obviously, the ketamine-induced coma he requested for his gunshot surgery worked, relieving him of the chronic pain caused by his long-ago infarction. And, apparently, also curing the nerve damage and missing thigh muscle we've been told was the result of his leg surgery.

I usually ignore any potential medical inaccuracies in the show, even in the rare cases where I think I spot them, because I don't want to work hard enough to fact check, plus people who look for accurate medicine from a TV show should be forced to be treated by a doctor who got his license by mail order after watching a lot of Discovery Channel.

But they're not just asking for willing suspension of disbelief on this one, they're looking for magical levitation of disbelief.

Perhaps this is still part of House's season two ending hallucination, and next season will begin with Hugh Laurie limping out of the shower to discover this entire season was a dream.

Deep breath. OK. I'm willing to let it go now and focus on the rest of the episode. (But ... running?!)

We're given a throwaway line about House's shooter getting away, which gives us either a plot thread waiting to be picked up at any moment, or the only resolution we can ask for that wouldn't be anti-climactic after the can't-top-this-for-interesting hallucinated resolution.

The rest of the episode deals with House taking on two seemingly straightforward cases of two paralysed patients.

The first case, of yoga girl who is inexplicably paralysed, is dispatched quickly, with House initially believing she's faking her symptoms, then realizing she's suffering from scurvy. The second, of a man whose brain cancer surgery had left him all but a vegetable, and who drove his wheelchair into a swimming pool, is first an exercise in simply increasing his quality of life.

It's a previously unheard of goal for House, and he finds that he's not able to get satisfaction from the family's gratitude - a "thank you" earned when he puts a Housian yet positive spin on the possibility that the swim was a suicide attempt, saying that at least it shows there's something left to kill - that something remains of the husband and father.

"I wasn't sure what I was supposed to feel," House confesses to Wilson, who reminds him that those emotional muscles have atrophied from lack of use, as well as the leg muscle.

When House begins to try to cure the incurable patient, Cuddy, Wilson, and his team think he's trying to create his own puzzle by needlessly complicating the case.

Wilson: You really don't give a crap, do you?

House: Does that make me evil?

Wilson: Yeah.

Wilson is unusually tiresome in this episode, telling House "the reason we crave meaning is because it makes us happy" and following him around spouting about the levels of happiness (House: "Seventh level - you going away.")

He also encourages Cuddy to lie to House when House's theory works and causes the man to regain meaningful consciousness. The rationale is that they don't want to encourage House to be reckless with a patient and base his theories on no medical evidence. Because that would be different from half the diagnoses in most of the episodes ... how? Often the only reason he's excited by a theory is because it fits the symptoms, which this one did, no matter how he came to embrace it.

While cooling off in a fountain after a job, House has the epiphany that the paralysed patient might have been trying to do something similar. Proof of the theory would come from a simple injection, but despite the fact that there's no downside to the treatment, Cuddy refuses because he has no rational reason, and she believes his motive isn't to solve the puzzle, but to create one. The fact that she later administered the injection herself makes her a hypocrite on top of an idiot for yet again refusing a reasonable request from the admittedly unreasonable man.

"For the first time in years I've got no opiates in my system, and now you question my judgement?" he asks. The entire non-House cast is treating him like he's lost his medical mojo, like in his hallucination except he knows basic anatomy this time.

But later, House tells Wilson that she was right to refuse, saying he had "no objective reason to think I was right."

That's the most interesting thing about this disappointing episode - House's doubts about how to find meaning in his medical decisions and in his life, when he can no longer define himself by his disability, his pain, his misery.

There's a scene where he asks Cameron to go for a drink, maybe dinner, and she turns him down. He's not disappointed, making it seem like simply a test - of her or him, I'm not sure. Perhaps he was trying to exercise some atrophied muscles again and see if he'd respond differently to her now. Or maybe he wanted to see if she'd refuse him when he's no longer the wounded puppy for her to take care of.

But that was always the meaning he gave to her interest in him, not necessarily objective fact. And she - reasonably - explains that she's refusing because he's just recovered from surgery and isn't himself. She also adds in reservations about the employer-employee relationship, which didn't seem to phase her before, but her general babbliness shows the poor girl was thrown by the question and can't be expected to give airtight testimony.

More tellingly, House tells Wilson he's beginning to feel leg pain again and asks for a prescription for Vicodin. The man who's dulled his emotional pain and created highs for himself through medicine - both ingested and practised - is finding life has lost some meaning without those highs.

He probes his patient's wife to find out why she insists on taking care of her husband instead of putting him in a facility, what she gets out of caring for him herself. Finally, he realizes:

Taking care of him doesn't fulfil you, make you happy. But not taking care of him would make you miserable.

If happiness is out of reach, then, the closest you can come is the absense of misery. And for a man whose happiness muscles have atrophied, the closest he can get seems to be numbness. He ends the episode by writing himself a prescription, on Wilson's pad. Wilson may have annoyed me, but I'm not sure he deserved that.

There were the usual amount of laugh out loud lines in "Meaning," but it seemed devoid of the usual gleeful, joyful nastiness of House. He didn't even make a single sexist, flirtatious comment to Cuddy when he saw her in her skimpy PJs. I miss sexist, flirtatious House. The show may be back for another season, but I don't quite feel like the character is yet.