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TV Review: House, M.D. “Poison” (Season One Revisited)

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"Deflect a personal question with a joke. Who does that sound like?"

                                –Cameron to Foreman in "Poison"

And so begins the beginning of the multi-season effort to establish Foreman (Omar Epps) as House's (Hugh Laurie) twin. It's an obvious effort, as everyone from the patient's mother to Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) comment on their similarity.

"Poison," the seventh episode of House's first season, is a fairly straightforward entry early in the series' history. A high school junior collapses taking his Calculus AP Exam. (If it was the Calculus "BC" exam, I totally understand, as my personal child recently sat through that ordeal, himself!) But it isn't the exam that causes the boy to collapse, it's something unusual enough to require the attention of diagnostic genius Dr. Gregory House and his trusty team of fellows.

Like many first season House episodes, "Poison" is heavy on the medical mystery, while also presenting a few (but significant) character reveals. The mystery (a which-environmental-toxin-dunnit) had me (with many years spent in the field of environmental health) figuring out pretty quickly that the first diagnosis was probably correct: pesticide absorption (in heavy doses) through the skin.

The episode highlights House's arrogance and ego in a way that other first season episodes do not. House is always confident about his test/guess/treat diagnostic path. Using his best educated guess, House treats; if the treatment fails and the patient gets worse or reacts unexpectedly, it's not a total loss. The team will learn something valuable: a new symptom; a new clue, or the elimination of a potential, but wrong, diagnosis.

But we seldom see him flaunting or touting that self-confidence either to patients or their families. He knows he can be wrong; it's part of his process. So to me it seems out of character, more to service the comparison with Foreman than to serve the story. "Who are they?" asks the patient of him mom as they leave the hospital. "Them? They're the arrogant jerks who saved your life," she quips as House and Foreman disappear into an elevator glancing at each others' identical shoes. Just a little bit too much Butch and Sundance for me.

There are only two other times (at least in my opinion) House has acted this way (to this degree, certainly) in the entire five-year run of the series. In "House Training" (season three), and in "Whatever it Takes" (season four). In "House Training," House crowed about how good he (and Foreman) are as doctors. "We are that good," he tells the patient, whose death owes at least a little to the arrogance displayed by both doctors. In season four's "Whatever it Takes," House preened and strutted his diagnostic feathers trying to impress a pretty CIA doctor and show up another diagnostic specialist from the Mayo Clinic. That almost killed the patient, too.

Most of the time, House's smugness  and arrogance is less obvious and less of a show. It's there, but it's not something he puts on display. He hates to talk about himself. As Wilson notes earlier in the season, "You know, most people who think as much of themselves as you do like to talk about themselves" ("Damned if You Do").  In "Poison," had House listened to Mom's insistence that her son had discarded the diazo-photon pesticide and hadn't used it on the tomato plants, he might have saved them all some grief.

In the end, it doesn't matter, because they were off the scent until a second patient came in and they began to look for commonalities, looking for sources of those common products that may have been contaminated with an pesticide.

Like good medical detectives, they trace the source of the poison to the one thing the two patients have in common, blue jeans purchased from the back of a truck. Contaminated jeans, skin absorption, large surface area of contact. Voila! Two dying teenage boys.

What the episode does less successfully is to make the connection between Drs. House and Foreman. I've never seen their similarity, although the series "powers that be" certainly have tried to make the case over five seasons. In "Poison," House and Foreman have the same gym shoes, finish each other's thoughts and, as Cameron points out, Foreman tends to "deflect a personal question with a joke. Who does that sound like?" she asks.

But they aren't the same. Yes, they're both very, very smart. Yes they both went to great medical schools. Yes, they both can be arrogant. And have an air of superiority about them. (And, OK, yes, they have the same sneakers—in this episode at least.) Neither of them "care" about the patients or their families. They want to find "the answer" because the case is interesting. But House's smugness is mitigated by his creative, out-of-the-box thinking, which Foreman lacks.  As well as his objectivity (and its corollary medical blind justice), and even his heart.

Unlike Foreman's, House's medical self-confidence has been hard earned. He possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of not only medicine, but the breadth of human experience. And House rarely just guesses and acts, not when the results could kill (OK, not most of the time.) He thinks and considers, even as he allows the fellows to learn to trust their own instincts. When he thinks they're right, he continues to ponder the question, looking for an answer that's even more right. I don't see that sort of thoughtfulness from Foreman. He's not "House, but nicer," as Foreman would like to think, he's "House-Lite," as Cuddy called him in season four. So I never really got the "Foreman as House" connection in "Poison." As the seasons have gone on, it's become clear that Chase (and even Kutner, before his death) are much more House-like.

On the other hand, one of the things I really liked about this episode was the glimpse of House's interactions with the elderly. There is something innately engaging about House in his infrequent contacts with his oldest and youngest patients (primarily in the clinic). In "Poison," House treats the elderly "Georgia," played perfectly by the veteran television and film actress Shirley Knight.  Georgia is brought into the clinic by her annoying middle-aged son, who is mortified by her inexplicable sexual feelings, so inappropriate in a woman her age.

Flirting with House, the coquettish yet grandmotherly old woman charms him, finding his deeply buried soft spot. House notes that behavioral changes can sometimes be significant and admits her. When he diagnoses syphilis, the son is appalled that his mother would have contracted the unspeakable disease decades earlier during a teenage, premarital liaison.

Smitten with House (who has "bedroom eyes" and –to her—resembles heartthrob Ashton Kutcher), Georgia an ode to her new doctor, which Wilson recites in the crowded Hospital waiting room. This is easily one of the funniest scenes in the entire series run as Wilson dramatically and hysterically relays Georgia's poem at the top of his lungs, unable to resist teasing best friend House.  

Georgia pays House a second visit, wondering if the cure will erase those renewed girlish feelings. She returns the prescription to House, refusing to take the drug, willing to die an early death if it means she'll go out feeling good. "Everyone has to go sometime," she explains wistfully.

But House assures her that he would never prescribe something that would prevent her from flirting with him. "You're brain damaged," House explains about the medicine, which will cure the syphilis but not repair the damage to her brain's pleasure centers.  "Doomed to feel good for the rest of your life."

I love this aspect of House, who suffers no fools and has no time for annoying middle-aged sons, but is compassionate, even kind, to the old ladies and little children, the vulnerable and unloved. It's a character trait explored throughout the next seasons, as House defends kids against parents who would deny them vaccinations, sugary birthday cakes—and who think it's more horrifying for their child to "self-gratify" than to suffer from epilepsy.

More revisiting of season one to come over the next couple of weeks. And (hopefully) a couple of very exciting surprises as we draw closer to the September 21 two-hour season premiere.

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."
  • pawpaw

    Barbara – thank you for explaining the calculus. As always, wonderful review.

  • Val

    Great revist Barbara. It certainly has everyone thinking…yay! I don’t think many shows can do that.

    Anyhow, my feeling is that there is a point to it somewhere…Why would they keep on bringing it back? Chase and Cameron have done an immense amount of growing since they left House’s company, and Chase has proven that he is the one who had nothing left to learn from House (as per House’s reasoning and what meena pointed out). It’s clear Foreman still does (it certainly will be interesting to see where he goes while House is at Mayfield). It was Cuddy who said Foreman was “House-lite”, but she also told Foreman in ‘Resignation’ when she asks Foreman if he’s really afraid of turning into House…”I am telling you there are worse things to turn into”. Another way that shows how well Cuddy knows House. So there are my two quids.

    Looking forward to whatever else you throw at us, Barbara!

  • KC

    Barbara are you going to post anything from when the house cast was at the paley center?

  • wackjob

    I agree that the “Foreman as House” idea is a bad one, and one TPTB should drop altogether. We all know it’s apples and oranges, as the saying goes.

    When Foreman is allowed to be an independent being, as in “Euphoria” and “House Training,” he is a completely different person than House. Witness the layers of rage peeled away in “Euphoria” when he screams at Cuddy. And the high, childish way he says, “She should know,” about his mother (who has Alzheimer’s) when his father tells Foreman he won’t tell his mother about Foreman’s death.

    And his sobbing in the arms of his mother when he realizes she doesn’t recognize him when he needs her most. The character is seriously underwritten…Omar Epps is a fine actor, capable of being very funny and quite touching. Okay, he isn’t the genius HL is, but who is? Give him some meaty writing and let him run with it. I don’t blame Foreman for being dull this season and last, he’s being written without passion, just as a plot device. He had no chemistry with 13 (compare his chemistry with the blonde who briefly played his nurse girlfriend in an earlier season–the one House thought Wilson was going out with). Just my opinion.

  • Barbara S Barnett

    Hi Ann. (It’s Detox, by the way, where he says that)

    That speech in “DNR” is a pivotal moment for the character and the series. Mary represents conventional medicine. The mainstream of bright successful physicians.

    When House talks about the difference the do your best and what will be will be stuff, he is passionate and dead serious. “He sleeps better at night, he shouldn’t,” is very telling. It’s in direct opposition to what Foreman accused him of earlier in the lab (which H overheard).

  • ann uk

    I think the superficial similarities between Foreman and House only serve to underline the fundamental difference. Foreman is clever,ambitious, selfish and ruthless in small ways. House is an obsessive genius, indifferent to money and status.He has thought through the risks he takes and accepts the inevitable failures sadly but philosophically. As he says ( in ” Maternity”, I think), ” I take risks and sometimes people die, but if I dont take risks more people die. Perhaps it’s my curse that I can do the math.”

    I love the scene in ” DNR” where House , irritated by Foremans’s lectures about humility and comparisons with the smart California doctor, turns on Foreman and reveals, as he so rarely does, his real, serious feelings. ” I think what you and I do matters ….”

    I find Foreman’s useless presence irritating and I wish he would find a job elsewhere.Both Chase and Cameron have matured as doctors and characters, but Foreman is a spare wheel.

    Incidentally, dont you enjoy Chase hypnotising House and cooly seeing off Wilson in ” House’s Head ” ?

  • Barbara S Barnett

    Meena–very, very nicely put. thank you. House can connect when there’s no puzzle, and while the puzzle is needed to get him interested in the case, once he’s in, he’s in 150 percent.

  • Meena

    Barbara, thank you for the review. I’ve missed these!

    I didn’t like Poison that much when I first viewed it, but after seeing subsequent episodes and seasons of House, I liked it better after another go (though I haven’t seen it in some time). I agree with all of you that the Foreman-Is-House thing is overplayed, both then and now, but as always, with this show, I don’t trust what they (the writers, actors, etc.) tell me about the characters as much as what each does, especially House (see Pilot).

    In this episode, I actually feel it’s Chase that ends up being a foil for House, by affecting a southern accent (pretending to be delayed from the CDC) to subversively get the mother to comply with their treatment for her son (if I remember it correctly). I don’t ever see Foreman deigning to do such a thing (though he might turn his cheek), and Cameron wouldn’t probably for moral reasons (for her, while the ends may justify tweaking the means, they can’t forgive particularly shady or cruel ones, in my opinion).

    Chase, we will see, though his future behavior and intuition, synthesizes information like House (Airborne), takes leaps like House (Finding Judas), and willingly manipulates patients like House for what he believes is the survival of a patient (Don’t Ever Change). He differs from House in that it doesn’t complete him, it isn’t his raison d’etre.

    As an aside, I also think Chase really understands House in a way that Foreman does not, because of Foreman’s judgmental attitude, sense of entitlement, and over-heightened sense of self. This is best summarized for me when Chase said in Birthmarks that House would send a cookie in the shape of a coffin for the funeral instead of a flower arrangement (that scene and JS’s delivery make me crack up every time); he understood though that House would still be in some sort of pain regardless of how close he was to his father. Instead, Foreman thought House was just being cold-hearted by avoiding his father’s death, and was using the moment as a way to assert his (F’s) emotional superiority in a sense.

    Foreman is intelligent, and he gets the pathways of how House thinks, but I’ve never felt he truly understands House’s reasons for thinking the way that he does…Wearing the same sneakers does not an equal diagnosistician make. Maybe the point being made is that behaviors may have the same outcome, but it’s the particular motivations that helps you deduce the character of a human being. Foreman is my least favorite character, but I am glad that he is on the show as an example of a ‘stagnant’ intelligence, for lack of a better word.

    House’s ego definitely brought its A-game in this episode, I remember the first time how it was one of the initial pieces of the complex puzzle that is House (to put in perspective, at the time in the show’s development, the audience didn’t even know of Stacy yet!).

    It seems to me that his snarkiness and know-it-all-posturing comes out especially when confronted with patients (or their families) who have a strong ego as well, like the obese man in Que Sera. In Whatever It Takes (which might be my least favorite episode of this entire series) House is confronted for the first time with someone assumed to be ‘equal’, another well-regarded diagnostician – maybe that’s why he was such a prick (there is no other word I can think of for his strange behavior).

    The randy, elderly clinic patient was fantastic, and to see House so graciously flirty and generous with her to me showed a warmth that hadn’t really been on display – she wasn’t a puzzle or an ill patient with a schitzophrenic filter making the diagnosis a challenge. House knows how to connect with people, it’s just that it doesn’t seem to interest him too often to do so – but what a joy for the audience when we get to bear witness.

    OK! I guess I had more to say than I thought…

  • Barbara S Barnett

    CJ–you must’ve been typing as I was. I also didn’t like the arrogance. It happened in House Training as well, and I didn’t like it there either. House usually tamps down on his smugness and lets his work speak for itself. It’s one his best character traits–that he doesn’t want to be acknowledged for anything. Good or bad.

  • Barbara S Barnett

    Hi all. Pawpaw–The Calculus BC exam (the patient was taking the calculus Advanced Placement Exam–a test designed for the very brightest of high school kids for college credit–sort of like the International Baccalaureate exams). The Calc BC is the most difficult of the mathematics exams available (my son just took that one!)

    Coconut Ice–the bottle said hydrocodone, which is actually the generic of Vicodin. Actually vicodin is a mix of hydrocodone and acetominophen (tylenol), which in large doses is toxic to the liver.

    Flo–season one had much “procedural” to it, as did the first part of season two. I’m rewatching the season for another project and I’ve really had a hard time finding the “thread” of season one. So much was exposition and made more difficult because of the way in which the season was structured. 10 episodes to start, then 3 more then five more, then four more! Yikes. The breaks were at Histories, Cursed, Babies and Bathwater

  • cj_housegirl

    Hi Barbara,

    Poison isn’t one of my favorite episodes largely because of the arrogance displayed by House & his team in regards to the mother. She was right! The only thing that saves it for me is the relationship between House and Georgia. IMHO it is the best clinic story of the show.

    I think only TPTB think Foreman is a House Jr. I wish they would stop making the comparisons, or if they are going to make them to make them a lot more subtle.


  • Flo

    I agree with you barbara and with everyone here about House/Foreman.

    I nerver understood this stoyline. Actually, if Foreman were more like House he would be a far better doctor.
    I think this is the dumbest thing the the writer ever put in the show.

    Poison is a fun episode but the best. Actually I’m not such a big fan of the first season. It is a good but repetitive.

  • Andree

    Last week I started to watch season 1 again, waiting for the Dutch tv to finally decided to show the rest of season 4 episodes.

    I couldn’t believe which how much pleasure I sat there, watching House. I loved ‘Poison’, mainly due to this old lady having a crush on House. I loved the way House was treating her – and her annoying son. And then Wilson, reading the ode she wrote for House… so funny.

    Nothing against Omar Epps, but he doesn’t do anything for me. I find him wooden, the mimic has not a very large range, I don’t know… I can’t warm for him, not at all … and to compare him to House… well, really! There are worlds between House and Foreman.

    I can only hope that Foreman (and Thirteen) will have reduced screentime during season 5, because I really could do without them, completely.

    Thanks, Barbara, for the nice review. I am looking forward to seeing which episodes you will pick this time. It’s always interesting to see “what you do” with the various episodes. 🙂

    Have a good summer holiday, everyone.

  • I agree so heartily with your summation that House is more like Chase and Kutner, and to that I would like to add that he even has some of Cameron in him too – something that I think has been made more evident by season 5. She tells that camera crew in “Ugly” that she feels she was a doctor turned into a doctor by House, and she has indeed learnt a lot from House. How not to be fooled so easily, how to use his whiteboard process to think things out. Then there is the fact calls her an “incurable romantic” in “Simple Explanation.” We don’t see it a lot, but House is a romantic, it isn’t even hidden that deeply, it just only comes out to play when he’s put in certain conditions.

    Not that I’m a “Hameron” fan in any shape or form, but the friendship between those two is definitely blooming, and there, waiting to grow on the fact that they are similar in so many ways.

    Chase too definitely grew from knowing House, and the fact that in “Birthmarks” there was that lovely moment with the old team discussing House, Chase didn’t believe that House really was that far removed from it all, whilst Foreman was ready to brand him as heartless.

    The similarities between Foreman and House are shallow, where as the similarities between House and Chase/Kutner go deeper. You totally hit the mark in quoting Cuddy’s branding of Foreman. He was the one out of all of the old team that still had the most to learn from House, as the other two were more ready to move on. House describes Foreman in one of the episodes (ahh! I totally forget which one) as the “ultimate Darwinian”, fighting for everything. This is perhaps where House and Foreman really differentiate, in exactly what they’re fighting for. House does have more to support his massive ego than Foreman, who perhaps feels he has the right to be egotistical because of what he’s fought to become a doctor.

    Lovely article! Lots of nice stuff to think about. Very much looking forward to seeing more retrospective looks like this. I have been wanting to ask, a few people pointed out that at the end of “Both Sides Now”, it appears that the pill bottle House drops doesn’t actually say Vicodin, and looks more like Oxycodone. Any ideas on this matter?

  • pawpaw

    Sorry but don’t understand what is meant by “Calculus BC”. Thank you.

  • nc

    Agreed entirely that the comparison between House and Foreman fails when it’s pushed in the viewer’s face rather than left to be a subtle undercurrent. For all Foreman’s attempts at times to assert how much he doesn’t want to wind up like House, I think he’d secretly like nothing better in some ways. When Foreman has sneered at House and tried to get away, I’ve always read it as “If I can’t be a better you than you, I’d rather not be around you.” Foreman realizes House casts a long shadow, diagnostically and otherwise, one he can’t quite escape and maybe doesn’t really want to.

    And without House’s willingness and ability to connect with people who really need him, he’d be cardboard. Very interesting cardboard, but nowhere near the fascinating, rounded, unique character we see today.

    So glad to see your column while the summer hiatus drags on with no new House. Too bad September can’t arrive sooner without having to give up three months’ living to get it here!

  • Orange450

    Sorry, the comment editing sw cut me off, somehow. So to continue –

    It’s the difference between HL’s and OE’s respective skill levels that makes me shudder when I imagine what the show would be without HL in the title role. Just another show on TV that I don’t watch.

    Of course I agree with your take on House’s attitudes towards the most defenseless of society. I think my very favorite example of his behavior in that vein is displayed in The Socratic Method. I wonder if the House of S4/S5 would still be moved to save the mother/son relationship in the same way.

  • Orange450

    Lovely article, Barbara. What a pleasure to wander for a bit in the far-off gardens of S1 🙂 Believe it or not, I hadn’t thought about Poison in quite a while, and it’s so nice to be reminded of it.

    I’ve never seen much in the way of similarity between House and Foreman either, no matter how much TPTB have tried to position it.

    I hate to say this – but I think a good bit of the difficulty can be brought home to the differences between Hugh Laurie and Omar Epps. The former can do “anything” with a character, including turning the “basically unlikeable on paper” House into someone we care about desperately.

    Omar Epps, on the other hand, has many fine qualities, I’m sure – but to date, he just hasn’t blown me away with his acting skills. Occasionally, he does hit a double or even a triple, but his home runs are few are far between. And we all know that HL hits it out of the park each and every time.