FALL TV SEASON
What will Hugh Laurie's grumpy superdoc do to lift season two?
By Mary McNamara, Times Staff Writer
MAYBE it's the cane.
Nobody involved in the creation of the Fox medical drama "House," which begins its second season tonight at 9, will cop to consciously trying to conjure a character who would make TV Guide's list of television's sexiest men. Not creator David Shore, who says it never occurred to him that a sardonic, physically damaged and often quite unkind doctor would stir the hearts of American women.
Certainly not actor Hugh Laurie, who resorts to a Woosterian stammer of surprise. Known mostly for his comedic abilities, Laurie has used his baby blues more often to express oblivious charm or idiotic bafflement than smoldering intensity. So it could be the eyes. But more likely, it's the archetype. From Edgar Allan Poe's Cesar A. Dupin to "Star Trek's" Spock, the eccentric, emotionally detached genius is a staple of female fantasy a thinking woman's substitute for the bad boy in leathers.
And Shore's surprise at his lead's sex appeal may be a bit disingenuous. He did, after all, consciously resurrect the most famous cerebral hottie of them all. Complete with requisite drug addiction, musical ability, sidekick whose name begins with W and the uncanny ability to draw enormous amounts of information from the smallest detail, House is a postmodern Sherlock Holmes, with the added touch of Watson's famous limp.
Shore, who also has an Emmy nomination for writing for a drama series, admits he owes much to Arthur Conan Doyle, though the limp, he insists, was his own idea.
"I wanted House to be damaged emotionally and to have a physical manifestation of that," Shore says. "I didn't add that to soften him, I didn't want to soften him. I didn't set out to make him sexy. I just wanted him to be interesting."
But interesting in a way that would, when it works, drive a certain type of pain-tolerant, female literary geek "Oh, Mr. Rochester" wild. It is the women who have read and re-read "Jane Eyre," with its gruff and broken hero, who have sat through countless remakes of "Pride and Prejudice" anticipating that one brief moment when granite-faced Mr. Darcy at last gives way.
Dr. Gregory House is a sort of superman, but way more Nietzsche than Clark Kent. Still, in the end, he always comes through; he just uses his wits and eye for detail rather than using the Batmobile or an Uzi. Which makes him a much better fit for the contemporary feminist-ish working gal but tough on the writers if serialized, the man of mystery must reveal something to keep from being static but not too much or he will become banal. The sexiness has been suitably acknowledged by various plot developments (none of which involve so much as a kiss the kiss must be saved for "a very special 'House' " possibly a holiday episode), but it can't become the staple of the show or the seductive power of the non-romantic romantic lead will be lost.
Add to that the larger issue of building a show around any superhero when you know for a fact that he will save the day, where is the dramatic tension? and the question for the second season becomes: Is there life after archetype?
There is a very temporary feel to the production offices of "House," which are in building adjacent to the New York "Mulberry Street" set on the Fox lot. Pieces of blue paper printed with people's names and positions are taped to doors as if the moving men are expected any minute. The carpet is grubby, as are the walls, and an attempt to find a bathroom brings the term "warren-like" to mind. Still, there are the hallmarks of the trade computers, a conference table, a pool table, the smell of microwaved popcorn and lots of empty soda cans. Yes, indeed, a television show is written here.
Shore's office is at the end of a long hallway and it is filled with mismatched furniture. Only the pale table-top desk is his, the rest has been inherited in pieces. "There's just not a sense of permanence in the television industry," he says. "We've been here a year, but, you know, we could go anytime."
Shore has been in the business for more than 15 years, working as a writer/producer on "Law & Order" and "Family Law," among others, but this is his first time as a show-runner. "House" began as much great literature has begun because Shore needed the work. He and executive producer Paul Attanasio heard there was some interest in a medical procedural show, a "CSI" with doctors. So, armed with the New York Times Magazine's Diagnosis column (the writer of which now serves as a script consultant for "House"), they decided to take a shot.
But while white counts and lesions can be compelling reading for hypochondriacs and medical students, they do not provide the drama necessary for a television show. (As the canceled "Medical Investigation" recently discovered.) What was needed, the two men decided, was a detective, a doctor with powers above the ordinary and character flaws just as outstanding, whose personal pathology would keep the show from becoming too medical and too maudlin. A doctor who hated people.
"I used to be an attorney," Shore says. "And I would still be an attorney if I didn't have to deal with people. I think human interaction is the most annoying feature of most jobs. So I started thinking of a doctor who hated patients and when I began embracing that, I came up with Holmes."
Holmes didn't hate people, he just wasn't particularly interested in them. And as a character study, he is far too cool for modern television. So House would need more of an emotional back story to satisfy Oprahfied audiences. Hence the limp here is a doctor whose chronic pain was caused by a missed diagnosis, and there is a reason for both his tenacity and his general grumpiness.
"We need a reason why people would find a nasty, antisocial doctor likable," says Shore. "So we gave him pain."
Also humor. Even Shore did not realize how important the humor was until he saw Laurie's audition tape. Laurie had not been the first name to pop into Shore's head, or even the tenth. But with his flexible voice and even more flexible face, Laurie manages to convey brilliance and damage, arrogance and self-disdain in equal measure, becoming an intellectual-chick magnet.
"Hugh's comic timing absolutely fuels the show," he says. "We can give him the most outrageous things to say and he says them and somehow they're dark but they're also very, very funny."
Pain, humor and an ethos that can be summed up in a sentence. Holmes' was "You see but you do not observe." House's is more post-Watergate: "Everybody lies."
"That is from my own deeply cynical convictions and experience," says Shore. "But I did want to make a point that we have gotten to a stage where we lie about everything; we will even lie to our doctor who is trying to save our life."
Around "House," Shore and his writers created a team a loyal sidekick to provide the show's conscience, the trio of young doctors who actually do things (including ransacking people's homes, which seems to stretch credibility, though not as much as the MRIs that are dispensed as if they were Tylenol), a boss to keep House in line and an assortment of patients to keep him entertained.
Entering season two, certain challenges present themselves. To keep the crush-quotient high, there will have to be cracks in the emotional veneer. Which explains the appearance of Sela Ward who showed up at the end of last season as the former girlfriend/Only Woman House Ever Loved. Who, as luck would have it, will be joining the staff.
Pretty in a smart, sassy way, Ward is the perfect stand-in for smitten audience members. She stands up to House, which is, of course, part of the fantasy while in reality, mean men with limps often believe they are entitled to Cindy Crawford, a man like House would be looking for a girl with her own set of prickly issues. (Including the ability to emotionally betray her husband as he hovers between life and death, but whatever. She's feisty and that's what matters.)
"I think the attraction may have to do with women viewing themselves as healers," Shore says. "They think that they could fix him. Make him forget."
The show is just edgy enough to have actually addressed this very issue. Due to plot complications in last fall's second to the last episode, House found himself across the table from the young and lovely Dr. Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison).
Cameron: "I want to know how you feel. About me. About us.
House: "You live under the delusion that can fix everything that isn't perfect…. I'm not great looking, I'm not charming, I'm not even nice. But what I am is what you need: I'm damaged."
So, emotionally screwed up and keenly self-aware. Co-dependents everywhere, how sexy is that?
Cameron, and the rest of the supporting players, offer a way to advance viewer attachment without wearing down the mystique and Shore says that their characters will be given layers and complexities. But in the end the show is about House. So the trick, he says, lies in creating situations in which his personality illuminates larger truths about culture, medicine or life.
"House is blunt because he literally wants to be shocking, he wants to shock people into action," Shore says. "He stands by his belief that it doesn't matter what your motives are, what matters are the results. House does what he wants," he adds, offering a neat enough description of a post-modern hero, "and doesn't care what other people think. And he's not always right.
"I mean, he is, in the end," he adds, "but he's wrong sometimes, on the way to the end."
And that may be the key to it all. Even Sherlock Holmes muffed a case or two just ask Irene Adler. Failure is what makes success remarkable. For House to remain remarkable, he will have to fail. But while Holmes could blow a case that involved an incriminating photograph, House only deals in life and death. Which is probably exactly why he's so darn sexy.