Thursday, May 19, 2011

House has not (yet) left the building

Earlier this week, Lisa Edelstein who plays Cuddy on House announced that she wouldn't be returning for the eighth season. Cuddy was a redemptive figure, a sane counterbalance to her ex-boyfriend's raging immaturity. Never one to roll over and die, she was constructed to effectively parry House's genius for manipulation.

Edelstein's decision will upset those fans who have invested much emotion in 'Huddy' (the hurl-inducing label they stuck to the characters' union). While their repetitious on-screen clashes could have stirred a paralyzed patient into reaching for the remote, it was the seesaw sexual tension that lent the show its distinctive unpredictability. For, let's be honest: House otherwise gives off the impression of running on auto-pilot. From citing one exotic disease per season on every episode as a kind of in-joke for fans, right down to patients displaying some gory new symptom in time for the next commercial break, the viewer is trained to respond to certain stimuli. A slightly overused trick, it cannot always create a deeper connection to the show. It affects me far more to see such a strongly relatable character go.

Given how much buzz non-diegetic developments generate on the Internet, it will be tough to maintain the veil of fiction and handle Edelstein's departure with grace. We may be certain that there will be no contrived episode of idealistic blathering or suicide; but ending the seventh season without a cliffhanger, without breaking the fourth wall while knowing that Cuddy is gone forever, will take some delicate engineering.

Usually when a pivotal character quits, it is in everyone's interests to wrap up the series, a case in point being That 70s Show, which jumped the shark right about now during its own run. The enormously successful Two and a Half Men might yet survive beyond a season or two, if That 70s Show alumnus Ashton Kutcher can exploit the furore in Charlie Sheen's wake and take the show in a different direction, although Kutcher has too much money riding on him and this may be a case of trying to salvage a seat cushion from a car wreck.

But House is a little more complex than most shows. The lead character's personality has undergone so little transformation over the seasons, he would fit within the narrative conventions of a sitcom. Indeed the first few seasons of House could be read as a 'dramedy'; its subsequent generic evolution unintentionally mirrors Friends, a purported comedy that ultimately morphed into a full-blown soap opera -- and this depends on your taste -- complete with unlikeable leads.

I am only half-joking. It goes without saying, however, House has a lot more strands to work with. The philosophical possibilities are limitless when your protagonist is an amoral genius. Like a President entering his final year in office, the writers should go all out and tackle all kinds of taboo material, thereby reclaiming the show's early reputation as brilliantly non-conformist.

As it stands, the show is a watered down, emasculated version of what it used to be. I know I would have stopped watching House long ago had it not been for the presence of the irrepressible Hugh Laurie. Ted Danson's Becker (from the eponymous show) is not a patch on Laurie's interpretation of the irascible genius trope. Laurie himself is a genius and yet -- going by his interviews and other performances -- nothing like the character he portrays, which makes his skill appear all the more impressive. Outside of America the Englishman is best known for his comedic talent. He was marvelous as the clueless Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster; hilariously creepy when singing from a pedophile photographer's point-of-view and surreal as a man lodging a complaint with the police on the skit show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

House is Laurie and Laurie is House. Every other character on that show could be replaced and House would still be watchable, however unwatchable House got. Seven seasons have produced some extraordinarily moving moments, several mediocre episodes but no rank bad ones. The show's fans continue to impose high expectations. End it well -- not like Lost, thank you -- and the suicides and divorces will be forgiven.

How might the writers resolve the big questions? From a narrative standpoint, in the time left I would like to see House hook up with the prodigal wild child, Remy Hadley aka Thirteen. It's the only permutation left that makes any sense. The chemistry is apparent and it is smoking. Apart from the obvious tension and competition it would provoke between House and Eric Foreman, his perennial second-in-command (not to be confused with the protagonist on That 70s Show) who was once involved with Thirteen, there's something compellingly tragic about a gifted diagnostician falling for a beautiful young woman with Huntington's disease, and knowing that try as he might to save her, he will for once not get to play god. It would also be entirely in line with his character, for House is nothing if not twisted.

Who knows: having to chase an independent, high-functioning (yet emotionally dysfunctional) woman whose affection he cannot take for granted might even make a man of House.

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