Sunday, August 12, 2012

Almost Breaking The Cycle Of "Repetitive Medical Theatre," "Season 4" Of House, M.D. Is Worthwhile.

The Good: Character elements are shaken up some, Hugh Laurie, Decent-enough DVD bonus features
The Bad: Still rather formulaic on the plot front, Secondary cast often neglected (especially on character!)
The Basics: Plot events force a return to form for House, M.D. as the show challenges Hugh Laurie when House must replace his diagnostic team!

It's hard not to love what the writer's strike of the 2007-2008 television series is doing for collectors of DVDs now. One might think that this would lower the cost of most DVD boxed sets and there has, to be fair, been some marginal savings on some DVD sets. Take the House, M.D. Season Four set. Unlike the prior seasons which had twenty-four episodes, the Season Four boxed set arrives with a scant sixteen episodes spread over four discs.

But over the four discs, the viewer is treated to the most original incarnation of House, M.D. since the first season and, for my money, it's about time. My pretty constant critique of House, M.D. has been that it is horribly repetitive. We get it: House is a curmudgeon and has an abrasive personality that often offends those he works with. Wow, that would be a problem, save that he is also brilliant and (almost) always comes up with the right diagnosis for a patient right before they die. Convenient, that. But from the first few episodes, the viewer gets it and by the time the show began its third season, I - for one - was ready for something more. After all, if there are any constants in House, M.D., they are that House will insult his staff and declare, "It's not Lupus" once per episode. Fortunately, that formula is shaken up some from the outset of the fourth season.

Picking up where the third season of House, M.D. ended, Dr. Gregory House finds himself without a staff. After discovering that the janitor at the hospital might not be the best diagnostician, Wilson assembles a pool of doctors from which House must choose a new staff of diagnostic specialists. These include Thirteen, whose mother died of a rare hereditary disease that she might have and Dr. Kutner, an ambitious doctor who seems able to put up with House's personal and ethnic insults.

Unlike the prior seasons, the search for the new diagnostic team shakes up the plots and allows for something other than just the medical mystery of the week that is being solved. Instead, the serialized elements of the whittling down and adapting to the new staff dominate much of the season. This is not to say that the show is without its obvious episodic aspects. Like the prior seasons, the show soon becomes a series where virtually every episode begins with a person suddenly suffering from an affliction - usually resulting in them bleeding or falling unconscious - which causes them to be brought to the Princeton-Plainboro Teaching Hospital. When no one else understands what is wrong with said character, Dr. Gregory House takes over the case with his team of diagnostic fellows. Usually, House has a clue, torments his staff until they guess what he suspects, the patient takes a nose-dive and an unrelated conversation sparks House into coming up with the correct diagnosis.

In following that pattern, this season, House's patients include: a fighter pilot, a wheelchair-bound man with his service dog, a woman who talks to the dead, a personality chameleon, and a CIA agent with no medical history. As well, there is a memorable teenager who has heart attacks and a bus crash that House himself is involved in. Almost all of these patients come to House and his team desperate and go through the formulaic plot of getting far worse through the trial-and-error methods of the medical staff before the right diagnosis is reached. Then, they usually have a miraculous and almost instantaneous recovery.

So, what it comes down to is the characters and for the most part, the characters are pretty much who they've been all along, though now they are given some new challenges which admittedly stretch them in new directions. For those unfamiliar with the series, the principle characters are:

Dr. Gregory House - Head of Diagnostic Medicine and a recovering Vicodin addict, he walks with a cane because of a prior medical condition. Having lost his prior team, he works to assemble a new one and discovers most of them want nothing to do with him. Soon, he begins to quietly pine for his old gang, though he does seem quite happy with Thirteen by his side,

Dr. Lisa Cuddy - House's boss and chief administrator of the hospital. She shows up and pushes House toward picking a new team,

Dr. Foreman - Having quit House's team to try to retain his humanity, he soon finds himself at his new hospital diagnosing patients much the same way that House would. Fired from that position, he quietly returns to Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital,

Dr. Cameron - Now working in the ER, she has minor run-ins with House, but otherwise finds herself betting with Chase on which of the interns will be axed next. As she has more and more run-ins with House, their sexual tension begins to resurface,

Dr. Chase - Having been fired by House, he now works elsewhere in the hospital and is largely a nonentity this season,

Drs. Kutner, Taub, and Hadley ("Thirteen") - Originally designated by numbers, they are the doctors who survive House's rigorous tests to join his team,

and Dr. Wilson - The only man who truly knows House, he pals around with his friend and tries to assist him when he can. Wilson establishes the pool of applicants from which House must choose his new team and he even strikes out on his own to date Nurse Amber.

The problem with continuing from the characters to the acting is that there is nothing tremendous with the acting in this season. Jennifer Morrison plays Dr. Cameron essentially as a bored doctor as she wrestles with being a part of the Emergency Room staff. Morrison is able to infuse enough disappointment into Cameron to make her character's desire to return to House's side realistic. Similarly, Omar Epps has always played Foreman with an intensity that makes him seem like the next natural House and he is given the opportunity to play with that some more this season and he makes it work.

Sadly, Lisa Edlestein and Jesse Spencer are almost entirely neglected as Cuddy and Chase. As well, Robert Sean Leonard is only given the chance to shine in the last few episodes as Dr. Wilson. His character's desire to have a personal life plays out well and gives him the chance to be something other than the milquetoast to House's curmudgeon. Of the new recruits, Olivia Wilde takes the natural lead as Thirteen and she plays off actor Hugh Laurie quite well.

As for the perpetually award-nominated Hugh Laurie, he finally returns to a caliber of acting that makes one think he deserves the accolades. Don't get me wrong; Laurie has been wonderful at establishing Dr. House from the first moments of the first season. The problem as far as acting goes is that he's seldom given the opportunity to DO anything with that. Instead, it's more of the same, over and over; House makes quips and never grows. In the fourth season, House grows and Laurie is given the task of making his transformation both gradual and realistic. On his own, Laurie forced House to slowly evolve into someone who is weakened by the changes forced upon him by his own bad behavior. And Laurie makes it work.

As for the DVD presentation itself, the show looks fine, but is quite light on extras. There is a lone commentary track on the penultimate episode of the season. As well, there's a featurette on the writers and the new characters brought on to shake things up. As well, there is an Anatomy Of A Scene featurette on the all-important bus crash and one that looks back at cast favorite episodes. For a four-disc set that only has sixteen episodes, FOX does seem to be trying to give the fans of House, M.D. their money's worth.

"Season Four" becomes the first season I can enthusiastically review since the first, even if it is shorter than the others.

For other works featuring Olivia Wilde, please check out my reviews of:
In Time
The Change-Up
Cowboys And Aliens
Tron: Legacy
The Next Three Days
Year One


For other television reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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