Everybody lies
A UK region 2 DVD review of season 2 of HOUSE M.D. by Camus
 
"The game is an itchy foot..."
A symptom noted by Hugh Laurie as the
irascible and Holmesian House, M.D.

 

Twenty years ago I got on a plane with a fever. Yes, OK. I had the fever, not the plane. I was flying to California so for many hours I was in a perfect incubatory environment to just get worse and worse. By the time I landed I could hardly stand. My employers did the wise thing; shut me in a spare bedroom and plied me with chicken soup until I was through it. It was something of an enforced holiday from life itself but I had the perfect companion in those weeks of ever decreasing shivering misery, a book on a reachable shelf. Those who read voraciously probably have a mental list of works they really feel they should get around to devouring. In unguarded moments, weaker readers (like myself) reach for Dan Brown, the literary equivalent of KFC. We all know the more worthy tomes because they have seeped into our culture in many guises. Endless TV adaptations of Pride and Prejudice have still not prompted me to pick up Austen and lavish budgeted Russian epics have not managed to get me page-turning Tolstoy. In my recovery room was a single weighty tome that presented itself as my only distraction while my body slowly drove out the offending illness. It was one of the works on the list.

One very famous literary character has been played on screen by hundreds of actors (I believe Tarzan is as multi-performed and I still haven't read a single one of the twenty-six the original Rice-Burroughs novels). This character's methods and persona were as well known to the non-reading population almost as much as they were to those steeped in his Strand magazine origins. For that you probably have to thank Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for their movie interpretations of the character and his loyal sidekick. Before the fever, I was in the former population group – movie fed only. Post-illness, I had become a member of the latter. I was yet another devotee of the literary Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan-Doyle's cold and calculating detective, to the extent of visiting the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, the real location of his faked death. There is a rather delicious irony in there being a TV doctor based on Sherlock Holmes currently enjoying massive popularity in the US. Conan-Doyle's detective was, in point of fact, based on a real doctor. How's that for neat? Dr. Joseph Bell, of Edinburgh's Royal College of Surgeons, even wore a deer-stalker while bird watching. The ironies pile up further as House's lead actor's father was a real honest-to-goodness doctor (earning significantly less per annum than his pretend-doctor son. Only on planet Earth, folks, can you earn fifty times more by faking public service than by actually practising it).

I think I read (and possibly re-read) every Holmes story in that two-week period. I was dazzled by the enormous pleasure I had reading them and was terribly touched by the reverence and even love that his sidekick Watson managed to squeeze out between the lines (each story is told from Watson's point of view and is usually centred on a crime and its investigation). The tales usually end with Holmes – by virtue of deduction and acute observation – theatrically revealing himself to be unlike ordinary men and solving the case with a flourish. Yes, crime fiction is usually loaded in favour of the errant genius at its centre but like Doctor Who (stay with me), Holmes has a moral core that is unassailable. Holmes didn't always play by the book (the one written by the letters of the law) and often made judgements that set murderers free (oh, how wonderful is the climax of The Devil's Foot)? But he was always – within the society in which he operated – morally right and hang the rules. It's this trait more than any of the other playful nods to the detective in the rather excellent US medical drama House, which cements its bond with Holmes. It is, in fact, the House key to Sherlock, so to speak.

Those playful nods to Conan-Doyle, when caught like Monarchs in a net, were brightly coloured targets for Holmes devotees to knowingly grin at. During its first season run on Channel 5 in the UK, I suddenly clicked with the Holmes connections and felt quite smug until I wikipedia'ed the show and discovered my personal epiphany was old news. House is a synonym of Holmes of course and his best friend is Wilson rather than Watson (remember Watson was also a doctor if not a cancer specialist oncologist). House lives in an apartment numbered 221B and is a habitual drug taker (even the moral absolutist, Sherlock Holmes, did recreational cocaine abuse. It was necessary, he reasoned, in those moments of acute boredom when his massive intellect was a powerful engine running on empty). House takes opiate painkillers for another reason. After a misdiagnosis, he was treated to the experience of going through muscle death, an infarction in his right leg (tissue demise due to the lack of oxygen rich blood). When you actually see the wound (in the episode Skin Deep, 29 minutes and 10 seconds in) you begin to understand what it must be like to live with that amount of pain. Ow. Watch enough episodes back to back and you end up limping. Maybe that's just me but it's true.

The walking stick, pain and limp are as much part of his character as the pipe and deer-stalker were for Holmes. I'm not sure about Holmes and prostitutes (nothing in the written word subtext as far as I could gather) but House isn't afraid to avail himself of their uh, distracting services. The subtler nods are far more satisfying. In the opening credits, our first glimpse of the man is through an x-ray. In the pilot the name of the patient is stencilled in the top left of the x-ray – 'Adler'. The very first Sherlock Holmes short story starts with the lines "To Sherlock Holmes she is always THE woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex." And do you want to guess 'THE' woman's name?

"The universe always settles the score," says House. "Does it?" comes the reply. "No... but it should." Which is where House comes in. House himself is a misanthropic, cold-hearted bastard who sees diseases as logic puzzles to solve. His honesty and withering criticisms are as raw as blow-torch blistered flesh but importantly they are also true, sickening, jaw dropping and in turn hilarious. If Bill Hicks passed a medical exam, he'd be House. His and his fellow characters' smarts are played front and centre. It's a show that makes you feel like you could keep up with these massive intellects. Medical terms fly by so fast, but again, nothing needs to be fully understood to fully engage. As in The West Wing, you feel the actors have to be at least as smart as the characters they are portraying. House's genius is kept in practical check by his boss, Cuddy (played by ex-West Wing high priced call-girl, actress Lisa Edelstein) and his diagnoses deliberated with three super-smart specialists, Chase (the put upon Aussie, Jesse Spencer), Foreman (the put upon black guy, Omar Epps) and the beautiful but damaged Cameron (the soft touch, touchy-feelie one, Jennifer Morrison. Who's put upon). House's 'Dr. Watson' or Wilson is played by an all grown up Robert Sean Leonard who's lodged in my brain as the poor kid with the delectably nasty Kurtwood Smith as a father in Dead Poet's Society.

The writing is super-slick, cynical and funny and the performances are across the board utterly convincing. The biggest magic trick of all is how on Earth did the simpering Prince Regent of Black Adder III ("The Prince and the Porpoise" indeed) land the choicest role on American television? The dim but well meaning Bertie Wooster is a far cry from the scheming, uncompromising cad of Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. There's only one explanation. Hugh Laurie is a damn fine actor with reserves of pain and cynicism to draw on not to mention a flawless American accent. He broods very attractively on film (and it is film, not HD). Laurie is a treat to watch, plain and simple, even though he manages to play House with an almost mystical power of not being held in any way accountable for his outrageous actions.

This is the aspect of the show that plants it in the fantasy category. A friend of mine – a senior nurse – has a problem watching the show for this very reason. Like Futurama's Bender or even Homer Simpson, we know that House is immune to lasting change and we just love it when he whips the bedclothes off to reveal shrunken testicles to prove a point. His theatricality is another thing he has in common with his Victorian counterpart. My favourite moment in season two involves him in a lift trying to find a tick that's pumping poison into a young girl's body. Let's just say the tick was to be found inside her body (but accessible to gloved fingers) and that the girl was played by Buffy Summer's sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). The offending tick in this case was found at the crack of... no. Let's not but it was fun to speculate if any of the crew came to the same conclusion.

In season one, House's format doesn't change but like all US dramas, the arcs just keep sparking. Late in the season we are introduced to an over the top bad guy in the form of Vogler, a businessman with a hundred million to give to the hospital. He's right out of 'Bad Guys Inc.' and is not a good enough or three dimensional enough a villain for House to eventually beat and humiliate satisfactorily. We are introduced to House's ex-wife Stacy, something that sets up the main arcs that run through the second season. And it's a cracker. Seventeen and a half hours of comfort TV. At HMV, the box set is/was on offer at twelve pounds – that's fifty pence an episode, a bargain. Of course, House is not challenging TV but as an example of just how good intelligent TV can be, it's a great example. Yes, it's formulaic but that's part of its comforting nature. House's clinic duty (something his boss says that to avoid, he'd give his own mother herpes) is a constant delight to us and a dull routine for him. But invariably (as in formulaic TV) the sub-story leads to the resolution of the main story, or 'disease of the week'. It doesn't shirk from the vomit, blood and CG medical zoom-ins (how come CG blood looks like fruit pastilles?) but neither does it shrink from making House really caustic and sometimes howlingly politically incorrect. House's creator, David Shore praises Laurie's skill, a talent that allows the writers to go as nasty as they like because Laurie can pull it off. As Laurie says in interviews, House doesn't care if people think badly or well of him. From an acting point of view (a profession notoriously sensitive about what people think of you), that's manna from heaven.

The arcs in season two involve House's unfinished business with his ex-wife (the bounder breaks into her therapist's office and photocopies her file just to slink under her psychological radar, what a bastard!) and the deterioration of Wilson's marriage effectively turning Holmes and Watson into Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison (or The Odd Couple). The actors riff off each other so comfortably it's no surprise to learn the men are close friends off set as well as on. It's in these scenes that you begin to understand the oft-heard criticism – that House is emotionally eight years old. There's a scary two parter for one of House's team and a very satisfying episode titled House vs. God and I'll let you fill in those blanks. In this episode House's reading of his best friend is perilously close to someone too close to me for comfort. It made me squirm watching it. You even get a humdinger of a cliff-hanger with some H.P. Lovecraft gore sprinkled liberally and sometimes jet propelled. The final episode will make the male inside you wince. More than once.

The overall direction and production values are top notch. The incidental music (American Beauty-lite) fits snugly coating over the seeming harshness with tinkly piano soothing undertones. This is to assure nervous viewers that House's heart is in the right place despite his obnoxious nature. Massive Attack's rather brilliant 'Teardrop' (sans lyric) – House's main theme – is featured on the DVD but curiously not on broadcast in certain territories. All those complex rights issues. T'chah. This series has something else that a lot of shows do not have; a uniformity of excellence. There's not a Spock's Brain among them... Highly recommended.

sound and vision

Originated on 35mm film (which I have to say surprised me given the industry's love affair with High Definition) and presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic, the picture looks gorgeous. Deep blacks, rich colours and contrast levels by the book. There are even many instances of creative lighting using a broader colour palette than is usual on US TV.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is really subtle. Yes, it's a show dependent on dialogue (very faithfully reproduced) but when the sub woofer creeps in and the rear speakers start to push, you really are drawn in. In the episode Distractions, House hallucinates after a shower and the music and effects really envelop you, so much so that you think you start seeing things yourself. I love it when the film-makers use the tools properly. It's kind of an anti-Michael Bay style... I like it.

extra features

Disc 1:

Crew Commentary on episode Autopsy
Executive Producers David Shore and Katie Jacobs on the yak track. Weird but with Commentary OFF, the main theme is replaced by the end theme (those rights issues again). Nice to note that the writers and execs encourage the cast to improvise. It's hardly surprising that Hugh Laurie comes forward with character ideas but nice to know they riff off each other too. Jacobs often stops the commentary to enjoy the show – perverse but cute in its way. Let's just say they do not incessantly witter on. "It's all based on stories of really stupid people..." says Shore of the patients that test House's own. Also good for the execs to acknowledge the difficulties of showing a nine year old cancer patient wanting, and getting, a real kiss from Chase. It's a moral minefield (it couldn't be just a peck) but everyone pulls it off tastefully. "Nothing better than writing for a guy who's so obnoxious..." Shore has a point there. It was also a surprise to find out that Elvis Costello recorded especially for the show. He must be a fan. If I had to sum up this commentary, 'dry' would be the word but what do you expect from the folks who make this kind of show. Dry is good.

Disc 5:

Blooper Reel
Pretty amusing 5 min 22 sec line screw-ups and general tomfoolery. Hate to say it yet again, but that looks like a fun set.

Alternate Takes (1) Daddy's Boy & (2) Sleeping Dogs Lie
An odd but funny alternate line read on two scenes from two shows. Edelstein and Morrison perform their roles as California airheads (everything is 'like' and 'totally' and 'cool'). It's more of an arched eyebrow curiosity, obviously an in-joke for the girls.

It Could be Lupus
An utterly meaningless compilation of all the season's announcements of the ever-quoted and never blamed condition of Lupus (the auto-immune system of the body biting into that which it's meant to protect).

Disc 6:

An Evening with House (18m 19s)
Cast and crew do a Q&A on the genesis of the series; "What do doctors really think of their patients and let's have them say it in front of their patients..." Robert Sean Leonard argues that theirs is not a Holmes/Watson relationship. It's more like Pooh and Tigger. Cute. Also good to hear Laurie's take on TV characters essentially remaining who they are (like life)...

Crew Commentary on episode No Reason
"Just turn the damn pancake over..." Executive Producers David Shore and Katie Jacobs again on the commentary track. Not wearing any clothes apparently. Show creator David Shore is doing a Joss Whedon (writing and directing the season closer) and their smarts and humour come through but again it's sparse. It's also good to realise that the film-makers load in metaphor (visual as well as words) and have the time to do such work. In this episode's case, repeated viewings are rewarded with a whole slew of incidental detail that Shore gently mocks as they were his ideas.

summary

House is American TV at its most formulaic but also bite-sized satisfying. The nature of House is cheerfully refreshing despite the fact he's staunchly moral. His rough edges and sometime devastating demeanour are aspects to a memorable character that US TV does not usually push to the front. I'm trusting where the show is going (season three's six episode arc of House verses the cop Tritter is particularly satisfying) because of the talent behind the camera. What will stop it dead in its tracks is semi-permanent romance between the leads and I read somewhere that Shore is setting up a House/Cuddy pairing up. That could be the end of House as we know it but I'm more than willing to keep watching.

House M.D.
Series 2

USA 2005
1044 mins
directors
Daniel Attias
Deran Sarafian
Peter O'Fallon
Ron Livingston
Fred Gerber
Gloria Muzio
David Semel
Jace Alexander
James Hayman
Felix Enriquez Alcala
Greg Yaitanes
John F. Showalter
Daniel Sackheim
Martha Mitchell
David Shore
starring
Hugh Laurie
Robert Sean Leonard
Jesse Spencer
Jennifer Morrison
Lisa Edelstein
Omar Epps

DVD details
region 2 UK
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras .
Executive producer ommentary on 2 episodes
Blooper reel
Alternate takes
It Could Be Lupus featurette
Cast and crew Q&A
distributor
Universal
release date
23 October 2006
review posted
1 May 2007