Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kumar and the Werewolf Are Partying in Nepal

Fox via DVR

Wow, can you believe they killed Kutner? Who saw that coming?

Everyone, really. Not least the "House" producers, who went as far as to set up three separate red herring storylines to make it appear as if it would be Taub, Thirteen, or even Foreman leaving the group of regulars in order to relieve the enormous overcrowding pressure that has troubled the show ever since the fourth-season premiere. As the biggest star among the new cast additions, Kal Penn seemed relatively safe. Everyone knew from the beginning that his character was going to make it out of the fourth-season "reality show" competition. The question was whether it would be Amber or Thirteen taking Cameron's babe role and who the third would be. The writers, I think, surprised even themselves by landing on Peter Jacobson's Taub.

But it all paid off in the best "House" episode in quite some time, certainly since the last major death of a recurring character, Amber's swan song in the two-part Season 4 finale. And the episode's emotional linchpin, while all the other regulars were focused on House's disturbing reaction to his employee's sudden suicide by gunshot, was Jacobson's extraordinary, wordless outpouring of grief towards the close. In a long, unbroken shot, Taub poured it all out for the enigmatic Lawrence Kutner, possibly the best friend he made in his entire adult life. Meanwhile the relationship between Thirteen and Foreman, clumsy and forced when first introduced, gets more likable as it becomes more underplayed, more of a part of the background of the show rather than a minor two- or three-episode arc (which Cameron and Chase's relationship, before their exile at the end of the third season, always felt like).

The story behind Penn's decision to leave the show, and how the producers prepared for it, is an interesting one. It reminds me a lot of when Seth Green left "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" after the sixth episode of the fourth season, after more or less the same service time on the show as Penn had on "House" -- one season as a recurring guest, one season as a regular. Green was terrific on "Buffy" and although the role hardly resembles anything he's done since, or the effusive actor's own personality, it in no doubt put Seth Green in the minds of a lot of casting directors and kicked off his subsequent rise to B-list stardom.

He was an asset to the show (although at times in the third season, his only full one as a regular, the writers struggled and didn't always succeed in finding realistic ways to force his basically passive Oz into the weekly storylines) but he wasn't necessary to its continuing in any way, and with the first Austin Powers hugely raising his profile as a movie actor, it was only a matter of time until he bowed out. Joss Whedon and his team accordingly worked out a whole season-long storyline for Oz and Willow that would give Green a suitable sendoff. Then, he quit after six episodes, forcing them to telescope an entire season's worth of subplots into about three episodes. This is one of the many details about the chaotic fourth season of "Buffy" that makes it many fans' least favorite -- and, for much the same reason, my very favorite.

Rather than working out relationship drama for the entire season, "Buffy" reacted with a series of episodes -- really four or five solid ones in a row -- that made Willow's grief over Oz's sudden departure (he cheated on her with a girl werewolf, then ran off to the Far East to learn better how to control his lycanthropy) a major plot point. This was really interesting, as grief is usually something that lasts on television for about a scene or two, or an episode tops, before the ever-forward demands of plot take over. And it also led to the writers' either organic (if some are to be believed) or utterly calculated decision to give Willow a different, er, orientation immediately afterwards.

So the show lost a strong actor and a good character but emerged much the better for it. The focus of "Buffy" was always on not the heroine by herself but the close-knit foursome of the slayer, Giles, Xander, and Willow. If it had taken the whole of the fourth season for Oz and Willow to end, it would have been much more about Oz's problems than Willow's, and despite everyone's best efforts Oz remained a peripheral character to the end. (He was only ever mentioned once, in a throwaway Xander line, after Green's cameo in the fourth-season finale.) The fifth season of "Buffy," my least favorite besides the totally awful last year, was dragged down by a relationship decision that went the other way. Buffy and Riley's breakup dragged on for half the season, even though it was obvious from the first episode that they were toast.

That brings us to Kal Penn and Lawrence Kutner and, most novel, Barack Obama. Penn was hyperactive on the campaign circuit for the president, leveraging his minor celebrity into big rally crowds on college campuses. To his credit, he got on the bandwagon early, over a year before the general election, and accordingly he's now reaping the spoils. He's going from network TV star to midlevel Executive Building functionary, in what I'm fairly certain is an unprecedented career move. It's surprising that Penn is leaving for this specific reason -- and it maybe the least little bit disingenuous, since the Democrats generally have a hell of a time keeping appointed staff in place for more than six months or so, and I highly doubt we've seen the last of Penn as an actor, even until the Obama administration ends. He'll probably have another movie out by the end of next year. But in any event, he told the producers of "House" he might leave at any point during the season, and like Green's early departure from "Buffy," I think the show's narrative is much the better for it. Not knowing exactly when the axe was going to fall kept the writers from being tempted to spread clues. The lives of all the other characters continued to develop in their own ways and all of a sudden, they're all blindsided by this shocking loss. That's how suicide works in real life.

Although the jobs they left for diverge -- Seth Green just couldn't keep himself locked into a supporting role on a TV series, not with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do "Four Kings" and Idle Hands and Without a Paddle, while Kal Penn might actually have to do some legitimate hard work in the White House press office -- the logic works the same in both cases. Both were too big for the parts they played, marquee talents who were utterly inessential to the overall dramatic health of their series. The delicious irony in Penn's stunning, memorable exit from "House" is that in death, his character becomes roughly a billion times more interesting than he ever was in life. Kutner was a genial cipher, with only the barest hint of a backstory and a very lean list of memorable moments on a show that's pretty good about spreading them around among the main cast. The one thing that really stuck out about him before was the way he was completely unaffected by the death of his peer Amber.

And that's probably what took Kutner out in the end, if I had to guess. "House" didn't allow any solid conclusions about his reasoning to enter into the narrative, even though his suicide was revealed in the first act and Dr. House himself spent the entire episode trying to figure it out. But although he became expert at hiding it, from his coworkers and his adoptive parents, Kutner was a guy touched by death. His fascination must have overwhelmed him. I don't think he was necessarily depressed, at least by the usual definition. I just think his curiosity got the best of him, as in the episode where House deliberately electrocuted himself just to see what would happen. Whether the show ever articulates that is something that remains to be seen.

Personally, my interpretation is that House can't figure out Kutner because the two were, on the inside, quite alike. They acted out their philosophies in different ways externally, but both had an essential darkness, a basic hopelessness, House due to his constant pain and Kutner due to his irreconcilable early loss (the shooting death of his birth parents). When alive and in differentials, Kutner never reached the same level of electric interplay with the boss as Taub and Thirteen both did. In death, however, he returns the focus of the show away from the battle for relevance between an overbooked slate of supporting characters and back squarely to where it always should have been, the title character. House has seemed off his game, predictable even, this season. We were supposed to be caring about Cuddy's adoption, Wilson's new wariness, and Thirteen's self-destructive behavior, but it was hard to when Hugh Laurie wasn't being quite as acidic, quite as peeved as usual. Now he's going to go totally off the rails again and it makes me excited to watch "House" again in a way I haven't been since Penn first started his run.

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