Mysteries of a full `House'

Smart characters, episodes bring in 25 million viewers

May 02, 2006|By NEWSDAY

So why has House, Fox's medical procedural, become the hottest show on television? Twenty-five million people tuned in to last week's episode, a high-water mark that will almost certainly be trumped tonight at 9, when the first of the two-part "Euphoria" airs. (Tomorrow's conclusion, with a guest turn by Charles Dutton, airs at 8 p.m.)

There's a mystery here, people, and we intend to crack it after the last commercial break ... er, by the last graph. Let's begin with the obvious, and that's American Idol, which has fed a sea of humanity into House since January. But (apologies for the TV lingo) House has retained an astounding 80 percent of the Idol viewing base, or "lead-in," when a typical (and respectable) one would be 50 percent. This means Fox will likely use House to establish a beachhead on another night next fall.

Next, we turn to one David Shore, and in the spirit of our enterprise, let's call him exhibit B: This Canadian-born 46-year-old lawyer came south of the border in the early '90s to write TV shows and landed a gig with Law & Order, which - in TV parlance - is called "Getting Accepted to Harvard." More than 10 years (and a few busted pilots) later, he pitched an idea for a medical procedural to Fox. Short story made shorter: This past March, Shore, the creator of House, signed a new contract with his show's production company (NBCU) that has just made him one of the richest and most influential people in TV.

Ask Shore what he learned from his days at L&O, and in a recent interview he credits "the importance of smart product. I don't think of this as a medical show, although clearly it is, but the important stuff is what the medicine gives rise to ... a smart person solving a dumb mystery is by definition not smart, so what I learned is your characters are only as clever as the challenges presented to them."

What does this mean? Simply that these "stories" then help viewers "learn something about the characters who are dealing with them on a moral and philosophical basis."

And that brings us to exhibit C, or last week's particularly competent episode about the 15-year-old preacher-boy and faith healer who enters Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital after collapsing. Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is predictably scathing of the lad, and sputters that there's "nothing in this universe that can't be explained - eventually." In fact, the female cancer victim who appears to have been "cured" by the kid may have simply picked up a rare form of herpes from him when he touched her face - herpes that temporarily shrinks tumors.

Which leads to exhibit D: If the typical House medical storyline often seems like ill-disguised hogwash - and it does - then it is at least plausible and smartly packaged hogwash. Like any good puzzle, House's pieces fit elegantly together, and while they may have little bearing with the real world - that's hardly a requisite of any procedural - they do have a bearing on the real center of the show, which is - exhibit E - House himself.

There are few characters in prime time that we love to hate as much as Laurie's House, or, for that matter, hate to love. He's a perversely endearing beast who's conspicuously modeled after Sherlock Holmes, with his Vicodin habit (Holmes was a cokehead), abusive sanctimony (Robert Sean Leonard's Dr. James Wilson is, of course, Watson) and withering contempt for humanity. He's one of the most richly drawn misanthropes in TV history - a Voltaire or Jonathan Swift in wolf's clothing who hates everyone.

So why care about him? Because House, at its best, is about faith vs. reason, science vs. God, the knowable vs. the limits of knowledge. Or put it this way: Millions of viewers understand what Gregory House clearly does not, which is that life is full of mystery and that the age-old battle of faith vs. reason is far from over, and may well never be. They're empowered every time he stumbles and falls - and, by association, his science - as he so often does, and did resoundingly in the kid-preacher episode because it was purposely left unclear whether House's diagnosis was even correct.

And for all his brainy, bumptious bluster, he's a vulnerable child, or as Wilson tells him, "religious belief annoys you because if the universe operates by abstract rules, you can learn them and then you can protect yourself."

Indeed, tonight's two-parter actually feels less satisfying and more hollow than most episodes, simply because it does steer mostly clear of the ethical traps that are set so expertly and so often for House. This one's about Dr. Eric Foreman (Omar Epps), who contracts a mysterious and potentially fatal disease that initially puts victims into a state of euphoria. It's more of a straight-ahead procedural instead of an ethical minefield, and it's the latter that typically gets this gem airborne.

Mystery solved.

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