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House on Fire

In the blistering medical drama, Hugh Laurie’s character, Dr. House, is so engaging that he verges on mythic.

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Illustration by Paul Willoughby  

See House, the super-doc and sacred monster, in his panopticon of a teaching hospital, a transparent ministry where, through glass walls or from balcony boxes, everybody can see everything all the time: bleeding bodies, mummies on trolleys, humming machines, and IV snakes and slinkies. Even the clocks are readouts counting down. We are accustomed to seeing a super-doc presented as a Magus or mahatma, or at any rate a baritone. But House the series ups the ante to fantastic. House himself, the infectious-disease specialist and crack diagnostician, limping along in tennis shoes with a cane, popping pills and wincing in pain, is some kind of centaur. Or maybe a manticore or hippogriff. Anyway: fabulous and mythological.

Last week, House troubled us with blood clots, fertility pills, muscle flailing, Ritalin addiction, liver tumors, Huntington’s disease, stroke, and paranoia. As usual, none of these really explained anything, any more than ultrasound would disclose the whole truth or biopsy betray the guilty secret. To his patient, who was every bit as much a supermom as her attending physician was a super-doc, the bestubbled Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) was heard to snarl, “You don’t have to lie to me, we’re not married.” And this was before he called off his rekindled romance with hospital lawyer Stacy Warner (Sela Ward), even as she had made up her mind to leave a husband who’s in a wheelchair. Even House’s only friend in the world, oncologist James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), was dismayed. To the locked door of Wilson’s office, House said, “I know you’re in there; I can hear you caring.” To which Wilson would eventually respond, “You’ve got to be miserable.” And they were both right.

Except that Wilson has taken an interest in House’s love life that’s almost prurient, as if to commit vicarious adultery. And what is it with supercute Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), the immunologist on House’s team, that she wouldn’t want to know whether she’s HIV-positive? And does the fact that truculent Eric Foreman (Omar Epps) was a thief before he became a neurologist explain his mania for power and his fear of breaking rules? About the final teamster, Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), we know he is blond and sensitive, from a realm of privilege he resents, and probably also a tattletale. I have begun to wonder if these people put up with the abusive House because they have domination and submission fantasies, or repressed sadistic urges, or martyr fixations and short circuits in their libidinal cathexes.

Whatever. The psychodynamic is different from any other series, even those forensics shows that likewise rub our noses in their wounds. This week, House, like an exorcist, will actually induce in himself the mother of all migraines, in order to sabotage an old enemy from med school. He ought instead to be paying closer attention to the 16-year-old burn victim of a dirt-bike crash who shouldn’t be having seizures because he isn’t epileptic, nor does he have MS, nor is there a brain virus anyone can find. Now, I can make it through the lumbar puncture and the liver-enzyme test. But I draw the line, and so will you, at maggots. Yes, maggots, imported to eat dead flesh. Watching most hospital shows, we envy the treatment patients get; what a health-care plan! Watching this one, we run for the hills.

It’s as if executive producers Katie Jacobs (Gideon’s Crossing), Paul Attanasio (Homicide), David Shore (EZ Streets), and Bryan Singer (X-Men) could only resolve their differences by dropping acid and reading Freud under Frazer’s Golden Bough. And so they come up with this mesmerizing and unpleasant hero, either a Philoctetes with a magic bow and a smelly wound or the captive monarch in Gabriel García Márquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch, dragging his graveyard feet along corridors of darkened mirrors and singed tapestries, with a single spur wrapped in velvet.

House
FOX. Tuesdays, 9 p.m.


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