Monday, February 23, 2009

Not Burning Down But Perhaps Leaning in the Wind

Fox via DVR

No matter how astray the plotting and the distribution of screen time for the regulars go, there are still details that will keep me loving "House" forever. There aren't many characters on TV who can make me crack up for an entire commercial break with a mere "hmrmph" and half-raise of a finger, but Robert Sean Leonard's Wilson is one of them. Wilson and Cuddy's little House-management strategy meetings have become the show's equivalent of Dr. Claw plotting to foil Inspector Gadget.

With too many supporting characters vying for storyline time, the show has gotten some balance back by focusing on the bizarre codependency between its big three. Lisa Edelstein and Wilson are getting good stuff, with Cuddy's adoption and Wilson's new awareness/complicity in his encouragement of House. But the battle for scenes between Chase, Cameron, Kutner, Thirteen, and Taub is hurting all of their characters. Omar Epps' Foreman found the right level after the fourth-season reshuffling fairly quickly -- the purpose and role of his character has always been to serve as House's shadow and intellectual rival, and the writers rapidly made that more or less his official job. But everybody else is getting screwed. And what's more, the formula part of each episode -- the interactions between the diagnostic team, the patient, and their family -- is getting short shrift. "House" gets away with being a bit of a cookie-cutter show in most of its non-event episodes because the characters are so strong. The strength of the formula is such that you don't notice it until you start hitting a run of episodes like we have now where the sick people hardly have room for lines with all the "Degrassi" interdating and double-crossing going on.

Thirteen is getting way too much screen time, which actually isn't fair to Olivia Wilde because she's not all that bad. Longtime fans resent the hell out of her character not because of anything about her but because her big role is perceived as boxing out Chase and Cameron. Kal Penn's Kutner remains a cipher -- he's the butt of everybody else's jokes, and once or twice it's implied that he has an inclination towards the medically bizarre but that notion and his personal life remain entirely unexplored. Peter Jacobsen, the dark horse from the fourth-season reality show competition that selected House's new three assistants, surprisingly has been the most compelling of the group. Taub is the only grown-up in the building most episodes, and his underplayed marriage problems and low-key sense of humor provide a nice human-sized anchor for the massively overblown misadventures of the rest of the regulars. If he, Thirteen, and Kutner were getting rotating subplots on a basically equal basis, he might be more appreciated.

The spanner in the works is the ghostlike presence of Jesse Spencer and Jennifer Morrison, still in the main credits but with absolutely nothing to do. They're the rare television actors who most definitely don't want out of their long-term contracts (seven years is the industry standard when folks sign on for a pilot, which is why so many shows end up shutting down after seven seasons) but there just isn't enough running time in the average commercial-stuffed episode of "House" to justify the use of all these regulars. Frankly, it was tough from the beginning, since Hugh Laurie's lead is so compelling. During the first three seasons before the big shake-up, Cuddy, Wilson, and Chase all went through periods where they were being glaringly underused.

So what happens now? "House" conspiracy theorists say that Thirteen, a Huntington's patient, will die as soon as the end of this season. That would clear the decks for Cameron, exiled to the ER, to return to House's team. Chase, a surgeon, feels less extraneous than Cameron does at this point and he could stay in that role. What's more, now that he's free of House he's become his own man, stubbly, sarcastic, and kind of awesome. With the addition of scenes detailing the relationship of those two -- particularly with Cameron working closely with House again -- the doctors' light use in seasons four and five could all make sense in the long run.

The writers also have to give Kutner a juicy, multiple episode plotline as soon as they can get Thirteen's drama out of the way. Kal Penn deserves it as he's a bigger star than Wilde or Jacobsen and he's been a good sport about being the comic relief guy thus far. After his relationship with Thirteen (ridiculous at first, but kind of growing on me) is resolved, Foreman can go on the back burner for a while. And they should keep using Taub exactly as they have, except to perhaps mix him up with more of the cast rather than having he and Kutner as the dynamic duo week after week. I can't remember a non-montage that had both Taub and Chase in it, and you'd think they'd have an interesting dynamic, the plastic surgeon and the ridiculously good-looking guy.

Oh, and I know I'm complaining about there being too many characters already, but they should bring back Michael Weston's Lucas as a steady recurring character. "House" has never had any open-ended recurring characters, just arcs, and Weston's dynamic with Laurie is fabulous. Also, every single one of the regulars is a medical doctor, and one of the signature bits of artistic license that "House" gets away with is the fact that nurses and hospital technicians are treated as total nonentities. A civilian perspective might be nice once in a while. I have an idea for a "House" spec script told from the perspective of three or four nurses who have been serially abused by the doc over the years. I need to do some research to find the right wacky medical condition around which to frame it.

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