Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Razor Decision On Repetitive Medical Theatre, Season Two Of House, M.D.

The Good: Excellent character development and acting
The Bad: Very repetitive plots, DVD bonuses are good, but not stellar
The Basics: In a close call, the second season of House, M.D. fails to impress on the story front, though the characters and dialogue are still fun to experience once.

Some years ago, a friend of mine was obsessed with a comedy show that was supposed to be cutting edge, clever and funnier than anything on television. She had me sit down and watch marathons of the show and as they plodded on, she seemed to get personally annoyed that I was not enjoying them as much as she was. The series was Strangers With Candy (reviewed here!) and my main gripe with the series was that the show was a one-trick pony. The protagonist basically went through her day at school, picked up an issue that might be focused on in an afterschool special and then satirized it. There was no real growth and by the time I sat through the third season of the show, I wasn't even amused; I was calling jokes before they were told. Sitting through the second season of House, M.D. brings that experience vividly to my mind.

Picking up where House, M.D. - The Complete First Season (reviewed here!) ended, "The Complete Second Season" offers mostly just more of the same. With twenty-four new episodes, the series progresses as a strange combination of episodic medical mysteries and serialized character arcs where virtually everyone but the protagonist grows and changes.

In the second season, the sarcastic and angry Dr. Gregory House continues to limp around as chief diagnostic doctor of a New Jersey hospital., doing his best to cure those who arrive in pain, even though he believes all of them are lying for the most part. Accompanied by his team of diagnostic doctors - Foreman, Chase and Cameron - House finds himself wrestling with feelings for his ex-wife, Stacy. While Dr. Wilson's marriage falls apart, hospital administrator Dr. Cuddy begins to explore her own future.

The problem with season two is that all of the weaknesses of season one are present and because they persist, the problems are getting worse. In short, House, M.D. is a very predictable set of medical mysteries that forms a rather solid patterns. Dr. House angrily snipes at everyone he works with and maintains an affect of indifference while becoming engaged in a medical mystery. The medical mysteries force him to engage with patients, a practice he hates, and his colleagues seem shocked every week when he meets with a new patient, despite the fact that he continues to do that.

On the character front, then, one of the primary weaknesses of House, M.D. - The Complete Second Season is that the characters react to the first season characterization of Dr. House as opposed to the reality of who he has become. In season one, there were several episodes early on where House did not interact with patients (other than to confront them, call them liars and move on), but that eroded as the season progressed and his colleagues and subordinates were legitimately shocked. In season two, that's no longer a big stretch, but every episodes, the characters act like it is.

In this season, House and his team take to treating patients who have various medical problems that are either compelling for the medical mystery or interesting for who the person is. So, for example, the season opens with House treating a death row inmate who killed four people. The team treats a cancer patient who is hallucinating, Dr. Cuddy's roof worker who falls and shatters his spine, a doctor who has been working in Africa to eliminate tuberculosis, drug using teen-agers and athletes, an AIDS patient, an aphasic journalist, a mentally ill hypochondriac, a burn victim, a transplant patient, a 15 year-old supermodel, and a corrupt cop who infects Dr. Foreman with something lethal.

As interesting as any of the cases might be, the series is much stronger as any individual episode as opposed to the actual season. Why? The plots are almost all told the same way (there are two notable exceptions). Usually, the episode goes exactly like this: there are two people in the teaser, one begins to appear weak, the other collapses completely, usually bleeding or convulsing (there are only so many times this bait and switch works with us, producers!!!), House and his team get the case, form an initial diagnosis which makes the problem worse. House, juggling between the clinic duties he is trying to avoid and the actual main case, figures out a solution to the main case from an offhanded remark or coincidental circumstance in the clinic case, the patient lives.

The narrative technique is especially repetitive and the whole medical aspect of this becomes rather dull rather quickly. There are two notable exceptions to this formula. In "The Mistake," the episode it told via flashbacks that reconstruct a failure the team had and the legal consequences of it. The season finale, wherein Dr. House is shot by a former patient's husband, is also told in a very different way. House begins to hallucinate while working on the case, even as he diagnosis it from his bed and he soon realizes that he is losing his mind. "No Reason" ends the season on a note that is very curious; many shows would do a reality-bending episode as a season premiere to open the season in a new way, ending the season with the shooting instead. The solely unique plot aspect in the otherwise formulaic House, M.D. up until this point is to defy television conventions and create something that might not be surprising, but is certainly more about creating good art (good television) as opposed to good business (hooking viewers with a last minute shooting to get them to come back the next season).

The problem is, with all of the formulaic plot concepts utilized in House, M.D. - The Complete Second Season, the character aspects begin to suffer in very serious ways. So, for example, in "Euphoria - Parts 1 and 2," Dr. Foreman contracts a condition from a corrupt cop that forces him to share an isolated hospital room with the other party. The resolution to this problem leaves an intriguing mess that deeply affects Dr. Foreman's ability to perform as a diagnostician. The problem here is that by the end of the next episode after that, the complications are all gone and by the finale, his ordeal is almost completely forgotten. That is to say that the end of "Euphoria - Part 2" creates a new, compelling problem for Foreman, but that problem is so quickly resolved by and within the next episode that the viewer feels a bit cheated. In short, there are so few consequences that the series seems rather stagnant.

The character aspects are where there is any potential for growth or change, but here things are largely stagnant as well. As a result of the events in "The Mistake," Foreman takes over the department and he becomes House's boss. While Cuddy delights in the effect this has on such things as getting paperwork in, the dynamic between the team members does not significantly shift. Instead, House is equally annoying and dismissive of Foreman and Cuddy, while still being as right as he usually is. The result is, effectively, no change.

In short, Foreman is given the opportunity to grow and change and he fails utterly, merely taking abuse from House from a slightly different position. In order to fully understand who the characters are and how little they grow in the season, it's important to see how they enter the season. The essential characters of House, M.D. - The Complete Second Season are:

Dr. Gregory House - A brilliant doctor, low on the social skills. Years ago, part of his thigh muscle was removed, so he limps around now with a cane, sarcastic, hating everyone and addicted to Vicodin. He is now agitated and tempted by the presence of his ex-wife, Stacy, who is the hospital's new legal counsel. House leads the diagnostic team and he is smart, but acerbic. His big growth this season is buying a motorcycle (I don't count Wilson moving in with him as growth as he continues to manipulate and torment his one friend in the world from the benefit of his own home),

Dr. Lisa Cuddy - Chief administrator of the hospital, she is responsible for keeping House employed. She is responsible for hiring Stacy, promoting Foreman and basically quips at House most of the season. Her big growth comes late in the season when she decides she might want to be a mother,

Dr. Eric Foreman - One of three fellows working under House, Foreman is a neurologist who is put in charge of the team when Chase and House accidentally kill a patient. He runs the department with efficiency, writes a paper - that Cameron argues he stole from her - and contracts a nearly lethal condition,

Dr. Robert Chase - An Australian fellow working under Dr. House, he finds himself overwhelmed this season and seldom in the right. He escapes to another department for a brief time, finds himself attracted to Dr. Cameron and otherwise continues on as House's whipping boy,

Dr. Allison Cameron - The final fellow under Dr. House, she claims that she is over House, but she still goes out on any number of limbs for the mean, crazy doctor at virtually every opportunity. When it appears she may be infected with HIV, she finds herself throwing herself at Chase. Deeply human, she is still crippled by the inability to tell patient's bad news, a fact that becomes complicated when she becomes Foreman's medical proxy,

Stacy - House's ex-wife and lawyer for the hospital. She finds herself working more and more in proximity with House and thus finds herself more and more tempted by him,

and Dr. James Wilson - House's one true friend in the world and an oncologist. When his affair with his wife is pre-empted by her cheating on him, he moves in with House, but finds that's not ideal for either of them. Wilson becomes deeply concerned with his friend as he exhibits a growing attraction for Stacy, remembering what happened the last time she broke his heart.

As with the first season, the acting is good in that the actors play their character quite well. There is very little in the way of acting in this season that is genuinely different or challenging to the actors. Hugh Laurie continues to play House with a flawless American accent, Lisa Edelstein plays Cuddy with dignity and distinction and recurring guest star Sela Ward presents Stacy as someone very different from her character of Lily from Once And Again (season one is reviewed here!).

The only two to show real acting depth this season, stretching from where they were in season one or from other points in season two are Jennifer Morrison as Dr. Cameron and Omar Epps as Foreman. Morrison is given the chance to play Cameron as out of control in a few scenes in two episodes and she rises to the challenge of playing the character as very different, but with the same feeling that the person on screen is the character we've seen before.

Epps is the real winner on the acting front in this boxed set. Epps plays Foreman as authoritative, dying, recovering with serious problems and as a medical professional who is establishing personal and professional barriers for himself. It is Epps who makes the series anything to shout at on the development of acting front as he radically alters his body language, vocal tones and even the way he looks at characters to express the character in new and different ways.

Perhaps the saddest commentary on the lack of acting challenges is illustrated in the bonus materials. Lisa Edelstein and Jennifer Morrison provide two alternate takes on scenes where they present their lines with Valley Girl accents and affects. Far from funny more than once, this is a sad commentary on the way their characters are treated. More than anything, Cuddy and Cameron are condemned on screen to complaining about other characters, setting a poor standard for women to emulate.

The Museum of Television and Radio footage of "An Evening With House, M.D." is as short and uninsightful as the similar outings on other DVD sets I've seen, with lame, obvious questions asked of cast and production staff that could be answered by checking out the commentary tracks.

Ultimately, that's why I let the razor fall on the side of "not recommend" for this boxed set. Despite the character threads which are interesting, there's not enough value in this boxed set to buy it and make it a part of your collection. If you've seen the episodes on television in first run or in syndication, you'll get the point. Sitting and watching this set on DVD rapidly becomes a tired, predictable experience that is less satisfying than it ought to be. To wit, almost every episode on discs three through six, I would find myself looking up at the counter on my DVD player, realizing that there was still fifteen minutes left in the episode and anticipating the next crash, that would come seconds later. That type of repetitive, formulaic television is - at best - the definition of average.

For other works with Jennifer Morrison, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Once Upon A Time - Season 1
Star Trek
Mr. And Mrs. Smith


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

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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