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House: “Twenty Vicodin”

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For the past couple years, House's season premieres have been, well, odd. Season six opened with our hero in a mental institution, having voluntarily committed himself after realizing he'd hallucinated a sexual encounter with his boss; season seven's premiere spent most of its running time stuck in House's apartment, as he and the aforementioned boss dealt with the fall-out from a real sexual encounter. (Funny how it's never occurred to me until just now how utterly bizarre that is.) And season eight (yes, that's right, season eight, an impressive marker to be sure, and a good three seasons already past the point where the show was actually creatively viable) starts with House in prison. Last season ended with House driving his car into Cuddy's home, his reasoned, mature response to learning his ex-girlfriend had moved on to seeing other people. It was… a bit extreme. For a series that had become increasingly slapdash with its character motivations, willing to throw common sense and consistent behavior to the side in favor of anything that might create some temporary spark of life, this was both the triumph of the philosophy and proof of its ultimate self-defeating nature. Because now, House is serving jail time for his crime, and his friends have abandoned him, and despite the fact that Hugh Laurie is the only familiar face we see the entire hour, it's entirely clear that the question of the fall is going to be, can House be redeemed? To which one can only respond with another question: Who the hell cares?

Look, there was a point where all of this had some dramatic edge to it. There was a time when the question of House's soul had weight to it, back in those first few seasons. But the producers keep coming back to this well, and they keep teasing us with change before finding ways to undercut it, and while obviously that's the nature of a drama like this, and obviously it fits into House's big theory that nobody changes, it's so rote by now that all we get is the slow soiling humiliation of shame, with none of the catharsis of redemption. Of course House is going to get out of prison, and since this isn't the kind of series that's going to drop its ensemble, of course House is going to find some way to get back in their good graces. Since this will most likely (please) be the last season of the show, there's even a chance that this time his attempts at rapprochement will last. But the thought of watching Hugh Laurie do his sincerity routine as Wilson first rebuffs his advances then ultimately gives in, and everyone else follows suit… this fills me with dread. While it's dramatically necessary for him to do penance for his behavior, we've been down this road so many times before that I almost wish the season premiere had just junked any attempt to make logical sense of last year and gone straight to a "three years later" card. Or hell, given everyone selective amnesia, or simply retconned the whole car-into-house incident out of existence. Anything to avoid the endless lectures from secondary characters explaining House's failings again and again, and again. They've already got started in "Twenty Vicodin," and it will only get worse from here.


But I did agree to keep on this assignment (thus proving the "no one ever changes" theory more efficiently than anyone on this show ever did), so let's get to the business at hand. "Vicodin" starts a year after the events of "Moving On." House, after running away briefly to the tropics, turned himself over to the authorities, serving as his own lawyer during trial and jumping at the first plea bargain he's offered because, as Dr. Jessica Adams (Odette Annable, who will be filling in the "really rather pretty young woman" role on the show now that Olivia Wilde is no longer a regular) astutely points out, he wants to punish himself. The episode starts with him visiting the parole board just five days before early release, and there's trouble from the start. House goes out of his way to answer any questions the audience might have had after his behavior last year, explaining that he knew Cuddy's daughter was visiting a friend and that he'd seen Cuddy and her guests leave the room before he drove his car through it, in case we had any lingering doubts as to his intentions. It's a clumsy piece of exposition, the work of a creative team that too late realizes it may have gone too far, but that's not the worst part of this scene. The worst part is that House is an ass to the parole board. Not in a calm, changed-man kind of way, ala Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. He's the same kind of ass he's always been, and that includes the sudden guilty-little-boy behavior when he realizes he may have gone too far. It makes him look stupid.

Sarcasm or no, House is told that he he'll be released in five days, provided he doesn't get in any trouble until then. The rest of the episode follows those five days, and what's most notable about it is how familiar it is, even in the new setting. House has a confidant who keeps trying to talk him out of being stupid (Michael Massee, who looks like some kind of unholy alliance between Billy Drago and Julian Sands), and he's got an infirmary, with a pretty young doctor who is instantly fascinated by this irrascible mystery of a near senior citizen. Also, because I'm guessing the folks who made this watched OZ at some point, there are a group of evil neo-Nazi prisoners led by Jude Ciccolella, who demands that House deliver him the titular pills before he leaves prison. And of course he's got a patient, a fellow inmate and pal who just happens to come down with a mysterious ailment that requires House to cycle through the usual litany of "I know what it is! Except, wait, it's not that, so it must be this! Except-" and so on. I wasn't a huge fan of the asylum episode, but at least it didn't try and shoehorn in some random sick person just to make sure we don't go into procedural withdrawal. (Unless I'm forgetting something, which is very possible.)

It's all silly, as we've come to expect, but the new environment allows some opportunity for, if not change, then at least throwing different colors of paint on familiar gags. Dr. Adams is another in a long line of attractive, idealistic women who think that being reasonable and vaguely maternal towards House will bring out the best in him (I'd say right now she's about halfway between Cameron and Thirteen), and the threat of neo-Nazi assault made for some decent suspense… oh, who am I kidding. Really, most everything about this was tossed out; Laurie and Annable have decent (non-romantic) chemistry, which helped, and the subplot about House's relationship with his muscle-bound roommate was fun. But, to go back to the asylum episode again, at least there the show was clearly trying to do something. They wanted to tell a narrative about House trying to pick up the pieces after his mind, the one thing he counts on to always be there for him, fell apart, and that, really, is all they did. "Vicodin," on the other hand, can't even be bothered to pretend that it's anything more than a regular episode with a few substitute ingredients.

What's really happened here is that the writers got themselves into a corner last year and didn't have a way out. House's behavior was beyond the pale, and they spent so much of the second half of last season jerking him and the audience around that there's no real way to get back to normal. A few times, this episode bothers to pretend that House has decided to give up medicine and go get his PhD in Physics instead, but the half-heartedness with which this arc plays out belies its fundamentally hollow core. No one's interested in having House change careers at this point; no one's even interested in pretending he's going to change careers. Hugh Laurie even plays the whole thing like he's just screwing around. (Really, the only way Laurie has managed to hold this character together as long as he has is by busting out the "Oh, I'm just messing with you" tone whenever the writers suddenly make House take some new tack.) Which means there's no emotional moment at the end when he gives up his early release and goes into solitary by risking his neck for a patient. It's just business as usual, which is all this show does anymore. I agreed to do this one last year (please may it be the last) because I'll be damned if I let this show break me. But watching an episode like this, passable, fitfully amusing, a few good shots, I realized, House isn't capable of breaking anyone. The only real danger is getting bored to death.


Stray Observations: 

  • Very curious to hear people's thoughts about this one. (Hey, I always care, really.) There were a lot of commenters who thought I was too hard on "Broken," and I'm wondering if I'm underplaying the importance of the new setting here.
  • Remember: No more Cuddy. I'd be happy (I think Lisa Edelstein is great, I just think the show never bothered to come up with a character for her) if I wasn't dreading what they're going to do to replace her. But fingers crossed.
  • Dr. Adams' boss at the infirmary was basically just The Guy Who Explicitly Explained All Of Society's Problems With House, wasn't he?
  • What the heck is up with Hugh Laurie's hair?
  • Oh hey, Jaleel White was in this, for all of three scenes. Very un-Urkel-ish. Kudos!

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