Tuesday, October 03, 2006

DVD Review: House Season Two

The season two release of House brings the most sublimely misanthropic medical show to DVD in a hugely improved technical package from season one.

This past season didn't hit the highest highs of the first, which skewed the bell curve with the stunning, Emmy-winning "Three Stories." But the series was even more consistently excellent and took more risks, spiraling its main character into darker places than before, and breaking the usual format more often and more assuredly.

A mesmerizing Hugh Laurie completely inhabits the character of Dr. Gregory House. A cynical idealist, he expects the worst in people, then is disappointed when he's proven right. He's insensitive but not uncompassionate. The most moral character to ever have a drinking, gambling, and hooker problem, and the most likeable character to treat people with such utter disdain, House is as reckless with his patients as he is with himself, though with better cause. He gets the cases no one else can figure out, and each episode revolves around his search for the medical truth, which is usually buried in some personal truth.

That may be the show's formula, but it's not entirely predictable. Plot and character revelations are often as surprising as they are logical. Everybody lies, as House says, and the motive for the lies tends to be the key to the case and to the character.

Even on repeat watching, many of the medical mysteries are still a mystery, because the path to the final diagnosis can be so convoluted, it's difficult to remember the specifics of the journey or the destination. The medical case of the week allows for some terrific guest stars, including LL Cool J ("Acceptance"), Ron Livingston ("TB or not TB"), Cynthia Nixon ("Deception"), and Howard Hesseman ("Sex Kills").

The best episodes use the medical case to illuminate House's character in new ways, explore intriguing ethical issues, and take unexpected turns. But it's the ongoing personal stories that offer the additional hook. Even when they aren't completely cohesive or consistent, they are a reason not to miss a single episode of this hybrid procedural-character study.

Season two delves into House's twisted romantic life, as he alternately repels and pursues ex-love Stacy Warner (Sela Ward). Other longer-term story arcs include the marital troubles of House's friend and emotional interpreter, Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), and tension and changing dynamics among House's team of doctors.

Need supposedly objective proof of the show's quality? Besides Hugh Laurie's numerous accolades, which include an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe, the show was nominated for best drama at this year's Emmys, earned Peabody and Humanitas awards, and writer Lawrence Kaplow won a Writers Guild Award for the episode "Autopsy."

That was one of a few stand-out episodes of a stand-out show's second season, which showed no signs of a sophomore slump. I'd name format-shattering "The Mistake" and "No Reason" as other highlights. Even the least successful episodes are still entertaining, thought provoking, and witty, and often better than almost anything else on television.

Which isn't to say the show is flawless, and season two captures the weaknesses as well as the strengths. House falls into familiar ruts, particularly episodes that rely on the team or his boss, Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) doubting House's abilities.

While the episodes are largely self-contained, the longer story arcs are occasionally frustratingly paced. At the end of season one, for example, House's ex, Stacy, was introduced as a recurring character, but she was left with little to do in some episodes, and the will-they-or-won't-they felt both drawn out and then rushed.

An even more significant failing is the underdeveloped secondary characters. While they each have defined personalities - Eric Foreman (Omar Epps) arrogant, judgmental and driven; Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer) laid-back and obsequious; Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) dangerously empathetic yet shrewd - they're the most likely to serve the plot at the expense of consistent characterization, often in order to represent all sides of an argument, or to stand in contrast to House's opinion.

Once or twice a season, House's team gets episodes specifically designed to showcase their characters. This season, it was Foreman's turn in "Euphoria," Chase's in "The Mistake," and Cameron's in "Hunting" and "Spin," though she fares better overall than the boys. She is, in fact, set up as something of a moral compass - an idea made overt in "Daddy's Boy" - though the needle can be a little shaky at times, like when she's dismissive and even cruel to a mentally ill patient. But in many episodes, all three are little more than a medical Greek chorus, guiding us through the jargon of the case of the week in sometimes clunky expositional dialogue.

Despite its flaws, House is one of the most entertaining dramas on television ... and one of the funniest comedies, if it weren't faintly ridiculous to classify it that way. Frequently touching, thought-provoking and challenging, the show raises issues such as patient rights, transplant ethics, and the sexualization of teens. In fact, with the focus on illicit sex as a key factor in so many diagnoses, perhaps this season should be played in schools to scare kids into abstinence, despite the parental warning FOX insists on before each broadcast.

Technical Quality

The technical presentation of the season two DVDs are a huge leap forward from last year's season one discs. This time, Universal has splurged for what-should-be-standard anamorphic widescreen, and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.

DVD bonus features

The extras are decent, though not much extra effort was involved in putting them together. Most are reworkings of existing footage, like a silly segment which is short enough not to belabour the joke, which is pretty much delivered in the title: "It's not lupus." They could have easily chosen vasculitis or paraneoplastic syndrome, too, but it's nice to see they have a sense of humour over the trusty standbys in the differential diagnosis scenes.

My extras wish list didn't include hearing Lisa Edelstein and Jennifer Morrison perform two scenes in Valley Girl accents, but they're worth a giggle. I can only imagine it's an in-joke, maybe something the actresses started to do on set to relieve tension, instead of something a DVD producer came up - "you know what would be a GREAT idea?" But you know what? Morrison and Edelstein make it work by being just so charming and committed to the joke, they, like, totally put a smile on my face.

Less baffling and even more enjoyable is a blooper real. After reading interviews where Laurie describes himself as a pain in the ass on set, he demonstrates a more adorably goofy side than anyone playing such a prickly character has a right to possess - but he also swears like only a character on HBO has the right to do (bleeped out, because this is a network show, after all). It's nice to see these lighter moments that aren't simply a flubbed line repeated over and over again, and funny asides from the actors plus some ad libs gone wrong.

More meaty is the "Evening With House" hosted by critic Elvis Mitchell, which gathers the entire cast and the executive producers to talk about the show. While it's got some nice insight and repartee, it's a minor disappointment that it was edited so that occasionally the context of the participants' remarks are not immediately obvious. I'm sure hardcore fans, the ones who pour over things like DVD extras, the ones like, well, me, would have been more than happy to have the uncut version in their hands.

A welcome addition are episode commentaries on "Autopsy," the episode that won writer Kaplow a Writers Guild of America award, and "No Reason," the mind-bending season finale written and directed by creator David Shore. Two commentaries may be paltry, but it's better than last season's grand tally of none. While it may be disappointing that none of the cast were involved, particularly Hugh Laurie, Shore and fellow executive producer Katie Jacobs do a fine job, except when they succumb to the malady of many DVD commentators, of watching the show instead of talking about the show.

To Buy or Not To Buy?

For House fans, season two is a definite required addition to a DVD collection, not just for the high rewatch value of the episodes, but for the glimpse behind the scenes, all packaged in a fine technical presentation.