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'House': Watching Is the Best Medicine

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2004; Page C01

"House" introduces us to the most electrifying new main character to hit television in years. No, the show is not about a house or even life as a house; it's about life as Dr. Gregory House, who, as played perilously close to perfection by Hugh Laurie, catapults this Fox series into a select group: the finest shows of the season.

Dr. House is a fascinating and daringly cantankerous enigma, the proverbial bitter pill who also happens to be a highly intuitive medical genius. He despises interacting with patients and prefers dealing with diseases -- with medical mysteries that leave other doctors scratching their heads in befuddlement. Each episode documents one major case and a few minor ones.

As Dr. Greg House, Hugh Laurie provides special treatment for a patient (Dillon Basu) and his mom (Maya Massar). (Alan Zenuk -- Fox)

In the stunning premiere, tonight at 9 on Channel 5, we meet House and his inner circle, a first-rate ensemble that includes Omar Epps as Eric Foreman, Jennifer Morrison as Allison Cameron, Jesse Spencer as Robert Chase, Robert Sean Leonard as James Wilson and Lisa Edelstein as House's boss and nagging nemesis, Lisa Cuddy. They are doctors all, but Cuddy is also a bureaucrat. She runs the Trenton, N.J., clinic that is part of a highly regarded teaching hospital there (those who travel the East Coast regularly will get a silly thrill from seeing the immortal "Trenton Makes, the World Takes" bridge in the opening credits). Cuddy is there to make House miserable, which is about as difficult as getting on Zell Miller's nerves.

Laurie is charged with the task of making a disagreeable, self-pitying, deeply sarcastic and sometimes smug character not so much lovable as admirable. There is no cuddly compromising, however; Laurie taunts viewers into merely tolerating Dr. House at first, with no attempt to make us want to bounce him on our laps. "House" brings a new realism to the medical show not so much in its graphic details as in the bluntness and penetrating truth of its characters and their behavior.

The show has one obvious "CSI" influence. A few times in each episode (as many as the budget allows, one assumes) the narrative is suddenly interrupted for a fantastic voyage into the human body -- veins, arteries, organs, muscles. The main patient in the premiere, a young kindergarten teacher who's been leveled by what appears to be a crippling stroke, is lying peacefully sedated in her clinic bed when the camera moves in for a close-up -- closer, and closer, and closer, and before you know it, right up the poor woman's nose, first step on a trip to and through her brain.

It may not tell us anything, but it sure is a kick. Elan Soltes directs the visual effects for the series. They're definitely of "CSI" caliber or better. And they really are more than pretty or gory pictures. They are reminders of the wonders inside us all; with such a labyrinth of conduits leading to such a mishmash of machinery, it's hardly surprising that things go wrong. The mystery really is that more don't. By his acts and words, House would seem to be an atheist, but I kid you not, some of these whirlwind trips through inner space are at least on the verge of being religious experiences.

Laurie's effects are the most special, however, and as directed in the premiere and second episode by Bryan Singer, he is as compelling as an approaching tornado. He isn't what you'd call explosive, but Laurie projects strength and power in clever ways of his own, all the more impressive since House has what used to be called, and maybe still is in some circles, a bum leg. The pain is severe and intractable enough that the dear doc walks with a constant cane and pops narcotic painkillers all day long.

When a young man comes to the clinic with a memorized list of symptoms for a particular condition, however, House sees through him with no X-rays at all. He gives the kid candy drops from a vending machine with a Vicodin label on the bottle. The boy accepts it gratefully, assuming he's pulled one off. House is a man not easily fooled, though he can be stymied, perplexed, even briefly mistaken. Being wrong sometimes is part of the investigative process when every avenue of inquiry leads to a dead end.

Dead ends are obviously what House and his team struggle to avoid.

"Crusty but lovable" is, of course, one of TV's oldest cliches, going back to Fred Mertz and Grandpappy Amos (Walter Brennan on "The Real McCoys") and up through Dennis Franz's Detective Andy Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue." Laurie's performance is a lot more complex than crusty-but-lovable. Writer David Shore gave him plenty of acerbic asides to establish his credentials as a cynic: "Humanity is overrated," is one of them. "Reality is almost always wrong," he declares in the second episode. Sometimes he's bluffing. To Epps tonight he lectures, "Truth begins in lies. Think about it," and Epps says, "That doesn't mean anything, does it?"

The skirmishes between House and Cuddy could get awfully tired, but by the second episode there are already some provocative wrinkles in what had seemed a simple situation. The interplay among the young doctors is strikingly well-written and free of predictability. Leonard has been playing upstanding young men for what seems like forever, but he's still one of the most outstanding upstanding young men in the acting racket.

As for the interestingly gorgeous Jennifer Morrison as Allison Cameron, the only female on House's team, he frankly tells her that yes, she was hired partly because of her good looks. She's instantly offended, but then she listens to his explanation. He can make a helluva lot of sense.

In addition to Singer, executive producers of the series include Paul Attanasio, onetime film critic for The Washington Post, and his wife, Katie Jacobs.

"Not another medical show" would be a logical reaction to "House" on hearing the concept. It's not a medical show as much as a character study, and not one but two main characters are being studied: Dr. House and The Human Being. Both are anything but well-behaved, but both are capable of coming through in glory at the last minute, if not sooner. House would scowl at the proposition that life is a miracle, yet he keeps proving it. Survival can be a miracle, too.

Calling "House" a miracle would be going too far, but it has some miraculous qualities, one of them being the subtlest and most artful kind of sentimentality imaginable. It has caustic humor, though certainly not as much as ABC's "Desperate Housewives." The point in bringing that up is that "House" ties it for the honor of best new drama on television.

House (60 minutes) airs tonight at 9 on Channel 5.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company