Greetings, dwindling core of diehard House fans. Zack has pressing business elsewhere, so Uncle Phil is stepping in tonight to take the bullet. Tonight's episode, "Carrot or Stick," was a hunk of filler sandwiched between last week's very special episode, which introduced Candice Bergen as the fearsome Mother Cuddy and her planned return two weeks hence in what looks like a very damn special episode, with shouting and bad weather and everything. From the start, House has always been one of the most formulaic dramatic shows of its era, a show that, at its most formally pure, can make Law & Order look like The Mighty Boosh. Still, it hasn't always gone as fully to autopilot as it did tonight.
We all know the drill. An episode of House will begin with two people onscreen killing time while waiting for the opening titles to show up. One of them will look as if he let himself go a little, while waiting to be released from quarantine: pasty, red-eyed, puffing, wheezing, possibly bleeding from the nipples, and very likely engaged in some strenuous, cardiac-inducing physical activity. The other person will invariably look healthy as a horse. After a decent interval, the healthy-looking one will suddenly grunt, clutch the body part of his or her choice, and collapse in a heap. This unfortunate—tonight it was a military instructor who worked at some facility that put juvenile delinquents through basic training in order to sweat the bad out of them—will be hauled off to the hospital, where a member of House's team will develop a special fixation on them, either because the doctor is deeply impressed by something the patient represents or so appalled by something they represent as to object to the patient's very existence.
Tonight, this role fell to Amber Tamblyn, who took one look at the patient and listened to his speeches about how he wanted to help troubled kids the way that military service had helped him and just saw a bullying bad-dad figure. Little did she know how on the button she was or how ironic his speeches about how young men have to learn that "actions always have consequences" were. In a daring break with House convention, it wasn't long before the other guy who'd been in the opening sequence, a kid who especially hated the instructor because the instructor had been riding his butt especially hard (because, for some mysterious reason, he especially cared about this kid), was doing his own groaning and clutching and was soon filed alongside patient #1 in the next bed. There was a big revelation that I found genuinely shocking, because I still thought the writers had more shame than it turns out they're packing. Suffice to say that Amber Tamblyn managed to get out the line, "He doesn't need a drill instructor; he needs a dad!" without gagging or crossing her eyes.
According to classic House formula, our hero—please consult the title of the series if you've forgotten who that might be—would have been in there with his sleeves rolled up, trying to get to the bottom of what was ailing his patient or patients by the time-honored method of running every test known to science and then triumphantly diagnosing the condition and prescribing treatment. Because this would happen only 20 minutes into the show, the triumphant diagnosis would be wrong, and the patient's kidneys would fail. (I myself can barely diagnosis my own headaches, but even I know that if I'm watching House, there's at least a 70 percent probability that somebody's kidneys are going to be failing.) This process would be repeated until the closing credits are practically in the viewer's lap, and then House, in the course of discussing some unrelated topic, would say, "Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," or "What time is it?" or "Play that funky music, white boy," or something, and then stare into the middle distance for a few seconds before running to the patient's bedside to announce his final, correct diagnosis. In Tube of Plenty, his classic history of early television, Erik Barnouw wrote about a 1949 series called Man Against Crime, starring Ralph Bellamy, which was broadcast live. In every episode, just before the end of the show, Bellamy would enter a room and discover a clue that would clinch the case. Running times on live TV could be unpredictable, so "if time was short, he could go straight to the desk where the clue was hidden; if there was need to stall, he could first tour the room, look under sofa cushions, and even take time to rip them open." Hugh Laurie silently staring into the middle distance is House's equivalent of the director miming, "Five minutes, Mr. Bellamy."
This week, the well-timed silent stare into the middle distance was just about the only moment when House seemed to remember that he had a case. Mostly, he was busy playing with Cuddy's goddamn kid, whom he decided to surreptitiously groom for her audition to get into a prestigious preschool. Cute! When Bill Murray managed to play around with an infant in Ghostbusters II and still hold onto his dignity, did the international society of professional portrayers of curmudgeons take that as some sort of challenge? It didn't help to have poor Robert Sean Leonard drop by just long enough to accuse House, who was using Pavlovian reinforcement techniques on little Rachel, of treating the kid as if she were a dog. Has Wilson made this charge before? It seems like such an obvious thing for House to do that it felt as if it were a recurring incident, even if nothing like it has ever actually happened before. That's reason enough to never do it at all. The combination of Cuddy becoming a mother and House and Cuddy becoming a couple has turned out to be a perfect storm of bad ideas.
Because House is such a formulaic show, it's always been important that it take good care of its lead character, because House himself—both the conception of the character and Hugh Laurie's performance—is what keeps viewers coming back every week, long after they've given up hope that there will be any surprises besides the occasional bad one. But there isn't really much left of House, the tortured, intellectual puzzle solver who saves people's lives as an almost incidental byproduct of his method of keeping his brain distracted from how miserable he is. He's turning into a lovable, grumpy guy who just can't let on how much he really loves his friends and even his girlfriend's kid; maybe the show is setting him up for a fall that'll leave him more miserable than ever, but for now, he might as well be Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace. Laurie is still enough of a charismatic presence to coast on star power, but the betrayal of the character he once created is growing deep enough that you can sense the backlash starting to build. Laurie used to tell interviewers that viewers might think they wanted to see House change, become a nice guy, and find stability and happiness, but that he and the writers knew better. If he and the writers have forgotten, the viewers might get smart enough to tune out and remind them.
- In the ha-ha-it's-funny subplot, Chase got cyber-pranked by the only unmarried, straight woman in the New Jersey area who ever passed up the chance to sleep with him. She commenced hostilities by posting a doctor picture online that cast aspersions on his groinacological region. Chase's first response to being teased about this by his colleagues was to offer to whip out his pride and joy, so they could admire it for themselves. This came less than 24 hours after Matt LeBlanc, on Episodes, bonded with his colleagues by treating them to private audiences with his junk. Funny the trends you spot developing when you watch too much TV.