When House first started back in 2004, it had a simple but compelling premise: a driven, acerbic doctor played by Hugh Laurie uses his wit to solve the unsolvable. Sure, he was a misanthrope and he said some nasty things to people, but he saved lives, and just as importantly, those "nasty" things were almost always based in some kind of truth. The series had most of the usual cliches of television medical dramas—absurd medicine, stock characters, the occasional banality—but Laurie's lead performance, along with reliably sharp writing, made it stand out. While the first three seasons dealt openly with the frustrations that someone like House could create, on the whole, he tended to win as many arguments as he lost; more, even. There were musical montages, and beautiful moments of the human spirit, but there was also a lot of bleakness and bitter pain for which there was no solace.
But that's a tough balance to walk. On-going series on major networks don't tend to traffic in the soul-searing for very long, and trying to toe the line between popular drama and subversive cynicism took its toll. By the third season, the cracks were starting to show—the David Morse plot-line tipped arguably too far into darkness, and then season 4 was back to distractions with a shiny new team and, gasp, a doctor death. Amber's fatal bus crash was a high-light for the series, but also a sign that the writers were reaching to keep the tension up. Season 5, we get another death, Kutner's suicide (driven by an Kal Penn's abrupt departure from the series, sure, but there were other ways he could've gone), and endless stylistic gimmicks designed to distract us from a general paucity of new ideas. The patients were more outlandish, and House become increasingly apathetic with each episode. So the writers killed off his dad, and then pushed him into a relationship with Cuddy that made no organic sense. And then the hallucinations started.
Things ended on a high note, or at least a strong one—House, realizing he'd had some kind of mental break brought on by a Vicodin addiction and the death of two colleagues, had checked himself into an asylum to come down, clean up, and get well. Which at least meant we might have some kind of change coming. I'm a sucker for that. The problem is, that change means coming down on the easy side of the dilemma at the heart of the series. It means saying not only is House broken, but that he's wrong to be so bitter, and that he needs to be fixed, because society is great, society is good, and hugs will save us all in the end.
"Broken" picks up where that thread left off, and for the first half, I found it nearly unbearable. Opening credits aside (always nice to get something new, especially when it involves Radiohead), this was basically the easiest way to take last season's cliffhanger, sticking our hero in one more of a long line of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-style loony bins, bouncing him off the easy-to-type freaks, and grinding him down one platitude at a time. There's his wacky, manic depressive roommate (who was more annoying than actually manic), the paranoid guy, the skinny guy, the woman who won't talk—and there's always somebody who won't talk, isn't there, like the most perfect representative of mental illness is a person who responds to social instruction by refusing to participate in any way—we've got the basic checklist here. (Why is there always one of each psychosis? Is there a quota?)
Well-performed or not, none of them rise above stereotype level. The only fun we have with them is watching House screw with their heads, a pleasure largely diminished by the fact that anybody could do what he does. The premise that House is mentally disturbed to the point that he needs to be committed for an extended period of time is at odds with everything we've spent the first two seasons of the show learning. Back then, House lived in a world where being kind of screwed up wasn't unusual—everyone around him was screwed up, he only had the temerity to have some fun with his pain. Back then, the vicodin addiction was more of a challenge: if the addict is able to function, how dangerous is the addiction? How justifiable? But now, House has to be "cured." He's a problem with a solution, and he has to learn important lessons in a nuthouse before he can move on with his life.
It's a surrender of one of the series best, and most distinctive elements, and it doesn't bode well for the weeks to come. "Broken" manages to save itself from completely awfulness in its second half, eschewing the go-nowhere Ward 6 antics in favor of putting House toe-to-toe with guest doctor Andre Braugher. Braugher is always a welcome presence, and the therapy sessions between the two are straight-forward enough that they go down easy. There's a decently funny sequence with House and his sort of girlfriend Franka Potente lying to strangers at a fundraiser, so House can find out about trust; if the episode had stuck with this sort of thing, it would've been a lot less objectionable. We've been teased about House changing for so long that it'd be good to finally get some follow-through, and something as small as, "Well, y'know, just because things can suck doesn't mean they shouldn't ever happen" isn't exactly a terrible thing to discover. But that was just one piece of a larger lecture that ended with the not-so-good doctor leaving the asylum in a smiley face shirt.
There's still some ambiguity here, thankfully. Braugher lectures House on trying to "fix" one of the patients (whose condition House is partly responsible for), but if it wasn't for House's efforts to help the guy, the guy wouldn't have come out of his catatonia, and the Chief Bromden stand-in wouldn't have started talking again. So score one for House, I guess. Really, though, "Broken" is just a confirmation of what had we'd all been suspecting for a while now, and it comes one step closer to bringing what used to be one of my favorite shows on the air down to the same level of Grey's Anatomy. It's professionally made, with all kinds of neat songs (although more than once, it felt like someone was trying much too hard), and Hugh Laurie is, as always, super cool. But this is truly sub-par stuff, and the edge that used to make even the corniest moments bearable is gone, possibly for good. I can see the old Greg rapping at a talent show—but I'm pretty sure he would've picked some better rhymes than these.
- House, to Franka: "Yes, cast aside the useless cripple. How very German of you."
- Gosh, manic depressives really are wacky, aren't they. (Did any of the doctors refer to Alvarez as "manic-depressive"? Because last I heard, it was just "bi-polar disorder.")
- Ooop, judging by the previews, we'll be seeing the return of Chuddy soon enough.
- I can see arguing for a higher grade on this one for the Braugher sections, but my problem is, even the best moments were too silk-purse-out-of-sow's-ear for my taste. What did you guys think?