Hugh Laurie is Gregory House MD. Or maybe Greg House (House to his very few friends) is Hugh Laurie. Whichever. House certainly retains some of the talents of his creator, notably the ability to play blues piano and guitar with the best of them, but at no point does he give you the impression of being created by a British actor previously best known for playing silly upper-class chumps like Bertie Wooster. Indeed, not only has Laurie become American to play House but inhabits his character so completely you could not imagine him being anything but.
Laurie is now the highest paid actor in a US-made drama series, allegedly earning $700,000 per episode. Whether anyone is worth that money I will leave you to decide, but there is no question that Laurie’s performance as House is utterly convincing, terrifyingly so. You can imagine the poor actor being haunted by his nemesis.
But to go back to the beginning, House is an American medical drama series concerning a brilliant but misanthropic diagnostician at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital (PPTH) in New Jersey, who will stop at no lengths to find the right diagnosis for his patients. He is also by way of being a total arsehole of a human being, who not only doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but treats people who love him with withering contempt. He loves nothing better than to torture and humiliate his friend (Wilson, head of oncology), his boss and sometime lover (Cuddy, dean of medicine), and the assorted team of doctors who put up with his jibes and insults to further their career development . I say assorted, but they typically include one black (Foreman), one short and Jewish (Taub), one Australian (Chase), one beautiful and white but with Huntingdon’s Chorea (known as “13” – long story), plus assorted others who come and go, especially Cameron in the early series. They are there to do his bidding, he is almost always strictly hands-off.
Apart from House’s eloquent stream of nonsense, his team talks in an impenetrable wall of non-stop medical jargon at a rate of knots that would baffle all but the most hyperactively lucid of clinicians – they might just as well be talking in Urdu. Except there is something strangely compelling about all this, even if the casual viewer understands barely a word of it. This is the antidote to House’s game playing and verbal garbage, the evidence of brilliance we need to counteract the bullshit, though his perverse games sometimes disguise an attempt to help other people.
Naturally, House MD is deeply troubled. He has a constant limp caused by pain from a botched diagnosis and operation that took away necrotic muscle from his leg, for which he becomes addicted to vicodin, comes off vicodin by cold turkey, and eventually goes back on the same painkiller. It also gives rise to his permanent prop, a walking cane. He is permanently unshaven, but his clothing varies from t-shirts to suit and tie without obvious rationale.
His personal relationships are ruined by the appalling abuse of those he cares about, because in the final analysis House is a loner with a fragmented past together in bitter jigsaw pieces. He doesn’t care about his patients, but sees them more as a living breathing puzzle to be solved, and resolving the puzzle is ultimately more important than whether the patient lives or dies. Breaking into a patient’s house to fine source of toxins is chicken feed to House – the law is for other people to follow.
Luckily, there is a constant stream of patients with bizarre symptoms that need to be analysed, tested, misdiagnosed, retested and rediagnosed before House eventually has a Eureka moment of inspiration and finds the right answer before going on to screw up his personal life yet further, and to waste work time by watching movies, playing games or some other such activity, for which he is never apparently disciplined.
This is of course heavily stylised and nothing remotely like a real hospital, but, get this, does that matter? In reality, House MD would have long since been struck off for his dubious morality and flagrant and Machiavellian breaches of medical ethics, without which there would not have been 8 series of House. And while I am now gradually catching up with it on DVD, I do wonder what I will do when I reach the end. Start again at series 1?
What makes this such brilliant viewing is the combination of three key ingredients:
- Brilliant characterisation and ensemble acting
- Brilliant scripting
- Brilliant direction.
Of the latter two, there are many examples but I strongly believe the last two episodes of series 4 to be the most coruscatingly astonishing TV ever seen. House is in a bus crash. He wakes up in a strip club and vaguely remembers being in a bar, but despite his amnesia he knows something else happened before and during the bus ride and that someone is badly injured – but who? I won’t reveal the plot in case you ever want to watch (start further back so you get to know the characters first), but this is what great TV is all about, trust me on this.