Patients take backseat to doctor drama in “House”

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September 16, 2008

5:01 PM

The moment you know this new season of “House” is going to interesting? A cleavage shot in the first minute.

“House,” which premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on Fox, returns two months after the intense conclusion of last season. Amber (Anne Dudek), former prospective diagnostic team member and girlfriend of James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) died — thanks in part to the dependence of Greg House (Hugh Laurie) on Wilson.
As the episode opens, Wilson is resigning from the hospital having taken time off after Amber’s death. Despite attempts from House and administrator Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) to placate him, Wilson says he needs distance both from the hospital and from House.

Meanwhile, House “accidentally” reveals to the team that Thirteen (Olivia Wilde), the token female doctor on House’s new team, tested positive for Huntington’s disease, a neurological disorder that leaves her with only about a dozen years of quality life left. Thirteen is in many ways an interesting character; consider her disease, her name — which she has yet to reveal — and her sexuality. Although it’s only been hinted at on the show, Wilde revealed this summer that Thirteen is indeed bisexual. That doesn’t fit in with House’s definitive, bimodal world view, although it does amuse him to no end.

Kutner (Kal Penn) and Taub (Pater Jacobsen) are still disappointingly ambiguous. Both have strong backgrounds with plenty of room on which to expand, but so far neither has actually developed. Kutner has more radical methods than House, which is intriguing, but Taub still hasn’t revealed his personal quirk, which leaves the writers plenty of freedom to test out multiple possibilities before committing to one.

The premier’s medical mystery focuses on a hard-working corporate assistant. (The cleavage shot, by the way, comes when she is hallucinating that she is covered in ants; we get a bird’s eye view of the little buggers.)

If you aren’t a big fan of change, don’t worry; this is one of those too-frequent episodes featuring rectal bleeding.

But back to the main drama: the House-Wilson wars. To show Wilson how serious he is, House apologizes for Amber’s death — “It’s hard to imagine such a world,” Wilson retorts. To prove his sorrow, House walks out of the hospital just as a patient enters into cardiac arrest.

“Your friendship means more to me than this patient,” he tells Wilson. And no, that is not an editing error; House actually and explicitly states his feelings for Wilson. Watch the background closely; you may just see a pig flying.

Ambivalent and unbelieving, Wilson ultimately leaves, and House starts trolling for a replacement.

“Do you have some ethical problem with what I’m doing that you can express in a unique way which might actually make me think that I’m wrong, even though I’ll never admit it?” House asks a random doctor in the cafeteria.

“Yes,” the doctor fires back. But it’s no good; House is platonically smitten with Wilson.

“But wait,” you interject. “This is a show about doctors. And not some crap show about doctors like ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ where they talk about heart attacks for 30 seconds and then make out.” “House” is the kind of show that focuses on the patients, that explores their stories and reflects on the lives of the characters, or that leads to a fascinating ethical debate.

Sorry, but those days seem to be over. The third season saw a sad decline in patient participation as the drama unfolding around the cast increased, while the fourth season featured character building of Thirteen, Taub and Kutner. Now, the patient almost seems like an afterthought — a reason for them to pedaconference around the inexplicably well-designed corridors of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.
If “House” is to be restored to its former glory, it must refocus on the things that made it great: slow character development framed around a strong guest star patient.

Next week’s episode doesn’t improve on that lack of guest star development, but it does bring a new and exciting development: House’s first spin-off. House hires a private investigator to look into the life of that episode’s patient, but the PI — much like House in regards to observational skills and dry wit — knows that he really wants him to spy on Wilson.

Lucas, the PI, is excellently portrayed by Michael Weston, (“Six Feet Under,” “Scrubs”). It appears Lucas will be at least a recurring character during this season. According to “House” creator David Shore, the character’s introduction will serve to create a spin-off show that really has nothing to do with “House,” but features a House-like character.

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