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House: "Office Politics"

Illustration for article titled iHouse/i: Office Politics
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We've had principled women on the show. There's Cuddy, obviously, whose role (before the last couple seasons decided to really amp up the romantic angle) was largely regulated to tsk-tsking anything fun and showing her cleavage. (Which she still does a lot of, by the way. I was actually relieved to find her wearing a buttoned coat in the final scenes.) There's Cameron, whose Pollyannish approach to medicine both attracted and repelled House. Cameron was never really a great character—she had her moments, but there was always a spoilsport quality to her idealism, same as Cuddy. Cameron's objections came in the voice of a tired conscience who doesn't really think it will be heard, but insists on speaking regardless. Debates of ethics and philosophy have always been a part of House's core, but you need at least a little foundation in character. You need someone who doesn't just believe what they're saying; they believe it so fervently that they can't be pushed aside by House's sarcasm.

Meet Martha M. Masters (Amber Tamblyn), genius med student, and newest addition to the Coke Zero Team. Unlike previous new hires, she is not generically hot. She is, however, socially awkward, possibly as smart as House, and deeply principled. Almost crazy ethical, in fact. Martha loses her job at least six times in "Office Politics," and it's not because she's boring or slow; despite her awe of Dr. Grouch, she refuses to lie to their patient, or allow House to ignore the patient's requests. In short, we have a new goody-two-shoes on the show, but for once, we have one who is as interesting in her moral behavior as the others are in their crimes.


I will most likely be overrating this episode's worth tonight, because this is the most excited I've been watching this show in quite some time. House has had its solid episodes in the past few years, but since Amber died, it's mostly been a show struggling to find new ways to repeat itself, and largely losing its soul in the process. "Politics" doesn't reverse this process—House and Cuddy are still dating, their relationship is still bizarre, and the cliffhanger at the end of the episode promises lots of pointless kvetching ahead—but it does manage to pull out of its hat the one trick the series hasn't managed in a very long time: a believable, engaging character dynamic. Even better, House himself is involved in it! For once, instead of Foreman or Taub or Chase simply adopting whatever stance the writers pulled out of the hat this week, we have someone whose actions clearly stem from their personality.

A lot of the credit here goes to Tamblyn, who plays Martha as a collection of tics and insecurities but with a strong, immutable center. This is a character type that appears regularly on other shows (and I'm sure we've seen variations on House before in patient form), but this is the first time we have a major female role who isn't a sexy lady who uses her sexiness to sex up the place. Sex. Tamblyn is adorable in her way, but she's also young, vulnerable, and distinctive, and there's something vital in her confrontations with House. For once, it's easy to understand what's bothering both sides of the argument. Too often, the writers will leave House's motives ambiguous to try and create false drama (this can work from time to time, but use too much of it, and the trick starts to show through), but here, we have strong-willed people refusing to back down, and, well, it's not Shakespeare, but it's pretty thrilling.

As for the rest, we've got Jack Coleman (aka, the one good thing about Heroes back when Heroes had that one good thing) as the PotW, a political consultant who comes down with all sorts of nastiness in the days leading up to his boss's campaign. The mystery here provided a number of ample opportunities for House and Martha to butt heads, and it also had a nice level of ambiguity; Coleman claims he got hepatitis from the Senator when they shared the same needle, but maybe they slept together? Taub's feelings of insecurity were amusing, and I enjoyed his basketball game against Foreman, but a lot of this felt like checklist work, scenes that go into a show because the writers feel like, hey, we have to have the regular team do something, right? The only real blight on the ep came in at the end. House fakes a blood test to fool Cuddy, and is troubled that he isn't more troubled about this; Cuddy finds out, and then walks away in slight slow motion, because there will be consequences. Oh please. Don't end the relationship that no one ever wanted in the first place!

It's frustrating because so much of "Politics" was given over to a legitimately entertaining struggle between the Ends and the Means. I don't know how long Tamblyn will be with the show (surely Olivia Wilde will come back eventually?), and I'm almost afraid to check. She'll be back next week, at least, and here's hoping the show uses her as well then as it did here. Irresistible force, meet immovable object. Whatever happens next, the explosion should make for a nice change of pace.


Stray Observations:

  • "She's like the Internet with breasts. Oh wait, the Internet has breasts." Laurie made this work, but the line itself doesn't quite land for me—too many words, I think.
  • "The road to dead patients is paved with 'or's."
  • "I think he's lying. Dugan said—" "The technical term is 'speaking.'"
  • How great was that "No!"? I can't remember the last time somebody stood up to House quite so vehemently.
  • "I smell like jail."

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