The teaser writer David Hoselton envisioned for "Airborne," his third-season episode of House, involved a suspected terrorist — obviously sick, possibly part of a sinister biological warfare plan — entering an airplane at the Singapore airport. Then, House (Hugh Laurie) and Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) enter the scene and the airplane. Cut to the heartbeat thump of the theme music and credits.
As House fans know, that episode actually opened with sweet, middle-aged Fran (guest star Jenny O'Hara) opening her home to sexy Robin (Meta Golding), who was about to give her a special package deal when her client collapsed. Cut to the heartbeat thump of the theme music and credits.
"So we got lesbian hookers. What? Either something went horribly wrong or horribly right," Hoselton quipped.
His recent session at the Banff World Television Festival delved into how an idea mutates and evolves during the highly collaborative, and highly time- and budget-sensitive, process of writing an episode of television. (See more on the overall process from Hoselton and Desperate Housewives' Jeff Greenstein in From Idea to Screen: The Craft of TV Writing.)
But first, let's back up from that altered teaser to the very beginning: the one-line idea. Or two or three one-line ideas pitched by the individual writer until the executive producers in charge approve the concept. "House on a plane — that was basically my idea. They said 'Okay, got it, good idea, go for it.' That turned into a paragraph, the paragraph turns into a one-page outline, then it turns into a two-to-three pager, then it turns into a 12-page outline, and finally it goes to script if it's approved all down the process, with changes," said Hoselton.
One of the substantial changes came from time and budget pressures. As originally conceived, the entire "Airborne" episode was going to take place airborne. No Fran, no lesbian hooker, and Wilson and the team were supposed to appear only briefly, perhaps on phone consultations, perhaps to break into the patient's home. Unusually for the series, there was no "B story" subplot, only the main "A story" on the plane.
Money changes everything.
The original teaser opened in the Singapore airport. That elicited a flat-out "no." Instead, the episode opens in a house set, and the only hint of an airport is the jet bridge.
More significantly, production told the producers that shooting on an airplane would take twice as long as usual, a back- and bank-breaking 18 days. That meant decreased time for other episodes, and increased costs with a fuselage housed at another studio and a relatively large number of extras.
So creator David Shore instructed his former law school friend to come up with Plan B — to reduce the A story as much as possible and bring in a B story. The B story became the lesbian hooker subplot, which ended up taking up 40 percent of the episode and meant "I had to write two completely different shows, basically, and then put them together," Hoselton sighed.
However, he saw it as an example of a production challenge becoming a writing opportunity, allowing him to use Wilson and the team in a more productive way, and to isolate House further by keeping his usual support system occupied. "That was the premise of it. He had no medical tools, no Internet, no information, no tests he can run."
Because the differential diagnosis scenes often take 12 pages of a 60 page script, Hoselton also took the opportunity to recreate House's team in mid-flight, in a perfect recurring joke that gave House "a fake team that sort of vaguely resemble his team" to bounce ideas off of.
Budget wasn't the only consideration and at least once, a fun character moment trumped it. Hoselton identified one airplane scene he felt was "completely cuttable" that would save a half day of shooting: the one where House trades seats with relegated-to-coach Cuddy, supposedly to be kind, but really because the first class patient next to him had begun vomiting. Showrunner David Shore approved the cut, new script pages were issued, and Hoselton went to director Elodie Keene to say, "You're very welcome," he recounted. "She said: 'Not that scene. It's my favourite scene.'"
The bit remains in the finished episode and had elicited much laughter when Hoselton played it prior to telling that anecdote.
Some changes arose from the producers' keen vision for what their show is about … and what it's not about. "I had thought it would be a really cool idea to mislead the audience into thinking the airplane patient was a terrorist, infecting himself with a deadly disease, getting on an airplane, spreading it across the world," Hoselton informed the crowd. "House would have an interesting take on terrorism and profiling. He would say 'terrorists don't look Middle Eastern anymore. If you were a terrorist organization, you'd send a middle-aged white woman.'"
That misdirection never made it into the episode. David Shore was firm, according to Hoselton: "Our show is a medical mystery. It's not about terrorists, it's not about action."
They also nixed the idea of having the pilot fall ill for similar reasons. "I wanted an act out (dramatic point before the commercial break) where the pilot comes out and hurls. He's sick. House says, 'uh oh, I'm going to have to land this plane.' Now we're in jeopardy," Hoselton recalled. "Again, they said no, that sounds like a very clichéd action movie thing."
It also meant casting a pilot, which would have added budget and plot complications. "He's really in charge of the airplane, so he should be consulting with House all the way through. It's weird if he comes in halfway through," Hoselton agreed. "So we just said, okay, there's no pilot. I guess it's flying on autopilot."
Though he made light of the accuracy of that particular point, Hoselton stressed that the show looks for the possible, not the probable, in its medical accuracy. "And as we know, just about anything is possible. There's pretty wide latitude there," he smiled.
He shared a story about his wife attending a seminar where the speaker decried the media's inaccurate depiction of mass hysteria: "For example, there was an episode of House …." She had to point out that her husband wrote "Airborne," the episode that ends with passengers, including Cuddy, getting rashes, photophobia, vomiting, and other symptoms as a result of mass hysteria, while the original sick passenger has a bad case of the non-contagious bends.
Hoselton defends his research, saying those symptoms have indeed been seen in cases of mass hysteria. "I'm on Wikipedia about 75 times a day," he joked when asked about how he conducts research, before adding that the writers, who are responsible for coming up with their medical mysteries, draw on three doctors who act as medical advisors, as well as staff writer and doctor David Foster, a digest of medical stories in the media assembled by support staff, and their own files.
Each House story generally must contain three elements, Hoselton explained. One is a disease of the week that's extremely difficult to diagnose or can hide as something else, and that has the potential to be fatal. "If it's something that hurts their foot really, really badly, that's not good enough."
The second is a patient with a fascinating character story – like Midlife Crisis Fran, or, in Hoselton's first-ever episode for House, "Lines in the Sand", an autistic boy.
Third is an interesting way for House to interact with the first two elements. In "Lines in the Sand," for example, Hoselton played with the idea that "House is vaguely autistic himself."
And the episode needs an "outrageous House move, that brilliant, perfect thing he needs to do to diagnose the disease. We're always looking for cool things that are within the realm of reason."
The evolution of "Airborne" included attempts to get back into that realm when the "cool things" threatened to escape. One of House's theories was that his patient was a cocaine smuggler, with the drugs leaking in his bowels. Since knives aren't allowed on planes, Hoselton went to the props department for advice. "The props guy immediately knew what to do, which disturbs me," he joked. "I think he even had a catalogue of ceramic knives that don't set off the metal detector."
But a scene where House deduces which passenger might have smuggled such a knife on board strained credibility too far. A blade from a razor sufficed.
That operation was supposed to culminate in, well, an operation. "The producers said, 'this is really weird.' He's going to open this guy up and not find anything, so this is a wank, and then he's going to sew him up?" Hoselton said. "Wow, he's really murdered this guy, essentially. Whatever the guy's dying of, this is going to be worse." Instead, House noticed another symptom before digging in.
Despite the search for that cool House moment, many of the changes Hoselton identified in the episode traded "cool" for "real" – or at least, "possible."
The in-flight version of breaking into a patient's house – breaking into his luggage in the cargo hold – was considered in order to find his PADI card, the clue that the man was a scuba diver who had resurfaced too quickly. That idea was quashed when someone said "how about putting it in his wallet?"
The outrageous House move was supposed to occur during the operation, when he would taste his patient's blood and say something like, "Mmm, fizzy. Tastes like Plasma Cola," Hoselton said. "The idea was he has nitrogen bubbles in his blood and House can diagnose that. The only problem is, it doesn't work that way. It was a lie. So I never used it."
His good-humoured recollection of the permutations of his episode spoke volumes about the collaborative nature of writing for television, as did his praise of his fellow writers and constant references to David Shore. "I keep referring to Shore because he created the show, he created the character, he's the guy."
Even with the script changes, the "Airborne" shoot lasted 11 or 12 days and was the most expensive episode of the series at that point. Hoselton was on set for the entire time before duty called again, and he was back at his own white board and coming up with another one-line idea: "House on a train."
He was kidding – no spoiler alert required – but it's not an implausible concept.