Rocking the House
By Erica Thompson
June 23, 2005
NORMALLY, Bryan Singer has only to look at the box-office takings to see if audiences like his work.
But when it came to his first television show, offbeat medical drama House M.D., the X-Men director gauged audience approval the old-fashioned way - by eavesdropping.
"When I was flying back (to America) for the holidays, there was this kid who was coming home from college and his parents were picking him up at the airport," explains Singer, who is currently in Australia directing Superman Returns with Kate Bosworth.
"He hadn't seen his parents since the semester began and the first thing he's telling them about is this new medical show with this abrasive doctor!
"This is all happening five feet away from me as I'm getting my luggage. I almost said something, but then I was like, 'Oh, they'll think I'm crazy'.
"But I actually got to hear the word of mouth about (my) show right before my eyes."
Fortunately, the word at the baggage carousel translated into much bigger ratings figures in the US and House, a show originally only given 13 episodes, finished its 22-episode season as one of 2005's biggest hits.
The series stars British actor Hugh Laurie as Dr Gregory House, an extremely talented, but incredibly bitter infectious disease specialist, who leads a team of young doctors responsible for solving the kind of illnesses other medics cannot.Advertisement:
The team comprises Dead Poets Society's Robert Sean Leonard, ER's Omar Epps, Neighbours' Jesse Spencer and Dawson's Creek's Jennifer Morrison.
While Singer may be a big player in Hollywood's film industry (he also launched Kevin Spacey's career in The Usual Suspects), he was keen to try his hand at television and directed several House episodes, as well as serving as executive producer.
"I'm a bit of a hypochondriac and quite fascinated with the medical world and very much adore the character of House," he says. "I don't want to say I'm like him, but I can see moments of myself in him."
Depending on how you look at it, this could be a worrying self-revelation. House is about as far removed from the good family doctor as one could get.
He hates interacting with patients, has an addiction to pain killers (and soap operas) and according to creator David Shore "would probably kill people right, left and centre" if he were given free rein.
"He's a bit acerbic and breaks a lot of the rules that have been established in decades prior in terms of your sympathetic, humanistic medical examiners or ER doctors," Singer says.
"He's in it for some other reason, some deep, dark personal reason, but he also happens to be quite brilliant at it. It makes him quite fascinating and an endless resource for character development."
Laurie was not the obvious choice to play House, having made a name for himself in British comedy. But the actor's audition tape (made in a hotel bathroom in Africa where he was shooting a movie) was so convincing, Singer had no idea he was a Pom.
"I saw the tape and he did a flawless American (accent) and he was all shaggy and unshaven and he kind of just jumped out of the screen," Singer says.
But would viewers take to a caustic, limping lead character who informs his eager interns in the pilot episode "treating patients is what makes most doctors miserable"?
"That was always a concern," Singer says. "But to me, I felt as long as he's good at what he does and he's saving lives and he's got those Hugh Laurie eyes, then he could get away with anything."
Rather than take its cue from other medical dramas, House is inspired by the puzzle formula of Sherlock Holmes. Instead of bad guys, the team hunts down germs and diseases, carefully unravelling each medical mystery using scientific deduction. But references to Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective series are also more obvious.
"Holmes was a drug addict, like House, and House's best friend's name is Wilson," Singer says.
"So, it's like Holmes and Watson, House and Wilson. Robert Sean Leonard plays Wilson and he's one of the only 'friends' that House has."
House, in fact, has about 20 million more friends after his first season on air, a figure that Singer still cannot quite believe.
"When I left the country (early in the series) the (ratings) were up to 14 million," he says.
"We finished the season with about 20 million. We got a boost because we came on right after American Idol, but we kept climbing from there, which was really, really terrific."
* House M.D., premieres Ten, Sunday 9pm, then screens Wednesdays 8.30pm