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Anatomy Of A House Episode: “Airborne”

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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.

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About Diane Kristine Wild

Diane travels. She doesn't tan.
  • Heidi G.

    What a great article! I feel like I was watching “Airbone” behind the scene, which I totally love!

    It’s a matter of convenience if not budget or money. It’s interesting to know the implications or reasons for having a plot or not, or having a character or not.

    To me it’s very interesting because I was wondering if the “extra” considerations of having Cole in the new team, like a casting for his son and a whole department set, and those sort of things, rendered the character not viable (lol) because even though we had months or years to glimpse anything else beside the hospital other than House’s place (Cuddy’s house, Cameron and Foreman’s apartment); how many episodes until that part of Cole’s life has to come up. Of course, I suppose there were a lot more reasons for picking Kutner (or Taub) over Cole, and perhaps none of them had to do with that. LOL!

    I’m glad that David Shore, when not writing (or directing), has some say in what happens to his show, he doesn’t wash his hands of it.

    I wish there were an anatomy of every episode of House. 🙂 Read or see the creative process of actually doing House. That was a great article. Any chances we will see more of these? I’ll take any episode. When it’s behind the scene, I like them all. (Even S4 >.<)

  • Thanks Heidi, it was fun to hear about and to write, too. There’s so much more that goes into an episode than we usually think about as fans so it’s fun to get a sneak peek behind the scenes.

    It was such a specific set of circumstances that led to this article – I happened to be attending an event where Hoselton happened to be dissecting an episode as an instructional tool for industry types. Some of the DVD commentary gets into a bit of that kind of thing, too, but I’d love to hear more myself. I’m skeptical I’ll get many more opportunities like it though!

  • RealDeal

    Well, well this article explains why Airborne was one of the worst episodes ever, right behind ODOR. And Lines in the Sand, almost as bad.

    I loved the Wilson side of Airborne, which I’ve rewatched over and over again BUT the House side just reeked of the ridiculous, especially on an airplane, post 9/11.

  • May

    It’s always nice to read your article, such a treat, thank you.

    I love the behind the scene dissecting of the ep and the story permutation. It’s interesting that budget, time, etc. issues could change the outline of the story and even the focus. I also love that David Shore still has firm grasp of what the show is about, since both the examples Hoselton cited are good calls imo.

    Wish we get more of this type of articles, not just about House even, any good show will do. It’s fascinating to have a peek into the creative process in both writing and producing. It does sound like a constant struggling act, and if people being complacent, then the story will be even more improbable. If TV is like this, and it’s a writer’s medium to be able to give input and changes, no wonder movie is a even bigger problem without as much writer input.

    Again, thanks for the fun read.

  • RealDeal, I’m not sure I follow your logic on how the article explains your dislike? You seem to prefer the parts that were changed. It wasn’t my favourite episode but to me, the explanation of how it evolved doesn’t really speak to that.

    Thanks May! I love hearing about this kind of thing too but like I said, don’t know if I’ll get the opportunity again, at least not that in-depth. DVD commentary tracks sometimes get into similar territory, though.

  • Elaine

    While I loved the scene where House improvises a diagnostic team from the passengers, this episode will go down as one of my least favorites. I would have loved to have heard Hoselton’s explanation for writing the unbelievable and absurd scenes with Chase and Cameron having sex in a SICK WOMAN’S BED and giggling about it afterwards in front of Foreman. That was truly one of the low points of this series and turned me off that romantic pairing forever.

  • Pat

    Thanks for this insight. What goes on behind scenes is often as interesting as what goes on in front of the camera.

    I thought Airborne was one of the worst episodes of the season. The medical story was interesting enough but House was a complete jerk (one of the first times I was repelled by him but not the last) and Cuddy brainless as well as spineless. What saved it for me was the story back at PPTH, although I found the Chase/Cameron sex on the patient’s bed illogical and out of character, sex teases over story telling. I’m glad the budget restrictions forced them to put in the B story with Wilson and the team. I wish they had spent more time on that and less on showing House abusing Cuddy.