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What did 2008 mean for the people at Princeton Plainsboro and House, MD? And what's in store for 2009?

House, MD: 2008 in Review

Over the last year, my articles about House, MD have been generally pretty positive. Having watched the series from year one (if not exactly day one), I still adore House and its star Hugh Laurie, and his alter ego, Dr. Gregory House.

But this is not to say that I think the show is flawless — or even brilliant — every week. There are things wrong with the series and things very right with it. Things that have gotten better and better over the years, and things that (in my most humble opinion) have gone the other way.

So, in the spirit of end of the year review, I would like to offer you my insights on House — what is wonderful and keeps me coming back week after week (not to mention writing this column) and what I think needs fixin’ in this old House. So, all you “powers that be” — if you’re out there, have a listen.

The Best of House, 2008

The stunning conclusion to the Wilson/Amber/House arc. Arguably two of the best episodes in the series. Ever. Kudos to Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend for writing them from Doris Egan’s original story idea, and to Hugh Laurie (especially in “House’s Head” for a raw, grueling, fearless performance), Robert Sean Leonard (in “Wilson’s Heart”) and Ann Dudek (as Amber Volakis).

The intricacy of the writing. The writing staff on House is remarkably stable. Most of the series’ scribes have been writing for the show since the first or second season. They know the characters well and each writer has slightly differing takes on them, without violating series canon. The characters do not always act consistently, but then again, when do I act consistently? Each character has his or her flaws, which often pop only in the most subtle ways. This gives them a multi-dimensionality I’ve rarely experienced in watching television.

One of the things I like best about House is that it is written in many layers, like phyllo dough. I can go back to a season one episode, watch it for the umpteenth time and still find something new in it — some nuance, some “aha!” The same can be said of episodes from each season, as the writing has remained complex (if not become even more so.) On one level, the casual viewer can enjoy the week’s medical mystery, House’s snark, the banter between House and everyone else. At the same time, the main series narrative unfolds at an often tantalizingly slow pace, with steps forward and back, hesitation and growth. The series continues to be at its absolute best when the several strands of each episode weave together to tell not only a compelling human drama but make intelligent and pointed social commentary. And House still does that. My New Year’s wish for the writers is that they keep writing strong and nuanced stories, and continue to learn how to better utilize the larger cast without sacrificing the mesmerizing presence of Hugh Laurie as House. And don’t be so enamored of “Fourteen.” (Sorry, had to say that.)

The nuanced and indelible performance of Hugh Laurie. There are few superlatives that haven’t been used to describe Laurie’s performance as the complicated Dr. House. And five years into the series, he still seems to put everything he has and then some into the character. In two 2008 episodes, Laurie appeared in virtually every frame (“House’s Head” and “Last Resort”). He has yet to phone in a performance in more than four seasons, and as much as he still has the ability to make us laugh with House’s snappy rejoinders and witty retorts, he also makes us feel sympathy for the sometimes very difficult, miserable, and occasionally cruel man he can be. This season in particular (and the last two episodes of season four), Laurie has kept us right with House’s emotional roller coaster as he has grappled with loss after loss and much turmoil in his life.

And as much as you might want to throttle him, you are just as likely to feel (maybe even weep) for him. It is little wonder that Laurie has earned a fourth Golden Globe nomination and a third Screen Actors Guild nod. My New Year's wish for Hugh: That he finally get his due by taking home the Emmy Award for his consistently brilliant portrayal of one of television’s most complex characters in what is arguably television’s most difficult performance.

The subtle changes in House’s character and the week by week exploration of his complex character. While early season four changed the series in obvious ways, season five has changed it more subtly. Way back in the early days of the series, it was clear that House seemed resigned to his misery. And even after the ketamine treatment (and its subsequent failure), House went on a downward spiral, reverting back to his life absent of happiness. But as season five has unfolded, we’ve begun to see House reaching out more, risking himself more — with Wilson, Cuddy, even his team. House spends much energy pretending not to care about things that deeply affect him, and this season, out of necessity, House has shown that he is affected; that his humanity is not absent, but only well guarded. I’ve enjoyed this season’s exploration and hope it continues. My New Year’s wish for Dr. Gregory House: A moment of peace and a little bit of love; no happy-ever-afters, but a night of hot sex with Cuddy shouldn’t be out of the question.

The greatly improved, rehabilitated, and fun Dr. James Wilson (yeah, and the guy who plays him, Robert Sean Leonard). In season four, I liked Wilson (played with great energy by Robert Sean Leonard) for the first time since season one. In the series’ second and third seasons, I found him to be a self-righteous nag, trying to change House “for his own good.” And even remarkably cruel to the man supposedly his best friend. (Yes, I know that House has been cruel to Wilson). He was manipulative and annoying. I’ve really liked Wilson this season, and I do think the creators, writers, and Leonard have found a really perfect place for him. It is clear that in their scenes together, Leonard and Laurie have deep admiration for each other — and great fun in their less serious scenes. I look forward to a continuing exploration of their strange and beautiful (I refuse to use the now clichéd “bromance”) relationship. My New Year’s wish for Wilson: A new girlfriend. Maybe even another marriage. And, oh yeah, finding his long lost brother, who, although he hasn’t been mentioned since season one, is still on many fans’ minds. (And, I hear, on the writers’ as well.)

Kutner and Taub. Kutner has an innocence and a sense of the goofy that none of the other characters possess. He is also the most medically creative on House’s new team, seeing beyond the conventional wisdom and into the world of possibilities. He shares House’s sense of scientific wonder and I love his geekiness.

Taub I see as a potentially excellent adversary to House (and one who doesn’t need importing into the ongoing story as a guest star). He has the intelligence and experience to pose a larger risk to his boss than Foreman ever did. And together Taub and Kutner have bonded and formed the unlikeliest of teams under House. And I like where the series is taking them. My New Year’s wish for Kutner: A puppy (or maybe a girlfriend); for Taub: Some happiness with his wife.

Chase (and the Chase/Cameron relationship). I’ve generally liked where the writers and David Shore have taken Chase since the first season. He’s grown from a spoiled brat with a large chip on his shoulder to a mature, if guarded, surgeon (never mind how he got to be a surgeon so quickly!). I like this Chase. He’s learned the best of House — his tenacity and his independence; his out-of-the-box thinking. I like that he doesn’t care what other people think, and that he respects House, yet can tell him “no.” Cameron and Chase can now look from the outside into the dysfunctional family that is the diagnostics team. They can be amused, helpful or completely uninvolved. I really like where this has gone. My New Year’s wish for Chase and Cameron: they become engaged and live happily ever after. And get a bit more screen time in 2009.

Cuddy and House. House’s longest-standing non-familial relationship on the show is with Cuddy. As he said earlier this season, he’s been negotiating with her for half his life. They stand at the brink of a new understanding, with House showing his acceptance of Cuddy’s motherhood and expressing his love for her in his own unique fashion. I love the fact that the writers have made this relationship difficult and reticent. It’s very real for this middle-aged couple to not fall easily into bed with each other. They have a lot of baggage and issues to deal with. My New Year’s wish for House and Cuddy: a night of passion followed by buyers’ remorse, and much struggle. No long-term happiness for either of them (with each other, at least). Not for now, anyway.

Music. In an old interview, Hugh Laurie told Elvis Mitchell that he believes that music provides an emotional language for House. I believe that it’s as true for the series as it is for the series’ central character. Katie Jacobs, who selects many of the musical backdrops for the series’ signature montages, does a great job of underscoring the emotional inner core of the characters in ways they cannot themselves articulate. Of course, this is especially true of House himself, who is especially inarticulate at expressing his most deeply felt emotions. Nevertheless, House listens to an eclectic mix of music: jazz, blues, rock, even opera. And he’s a musician — it’s always interesting to learn what he’s up to musically. My musical New Year’s wish for House: to hear more of House’s playing (especially piano). For a character who is so connected to music, we’ve had a bit too little of his musical side this year.

The Worst of House, 2008

Impact of the WGA Strike. We lost a big chunk of the 2007-2008 television season due to the intransigence of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) in their negotiations with the Writers Guild of America (WGA). Like most other series, House suffered, losing a full third of the season’s episodes. As a result, the “survivor” arc, during which House selected his new team of fellows, dominated House’s fourth season, accounting for half the season’s slate and making it lopsided and uneven and leaving too much of the regular cast in absentia. Season four’s 2008 episodes number only seven: one in January, two in early February and then nothing until the end of April. And despite four stellar episodes among those seven (including the unusual “Frozen,” the Emmy Award winning “House’s Head” and the Writers Guild-nominated “Don’t Ever Change,” the lopsidedness of the season took its toll. New Year’s wish: no Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Strike in 2009.

The new “six-act” formula. Not in control of “the powers that be,” this new annoyance ruins the narrative flow of nearly every episode. Rather than four acts, each House episode relies on a six-segment structure to allow for more commercial breaks. The interruptions are both too frequent and too long. This, more than any other thing, has me turning to my DVR, passing up the commercials entirely, to avoid chronic “Housus-interuptus.” This is probably my biggest “jeer” for 2008. My New Year’s wish: As House moves to Monday night, and away from leading into a series with “limited” interruptions, the annoyingly frequent and long commercial breaks will somewhat abate. Bring back the four-act format!

13 (and 14). I actually don’t mind 13 or her very compelling and heartbreaking story. Huntington’s is a terrible disease (it took folk poet Woody Guthrie from us far too soon) and exploring it in a medical series with a main character gives the disease the attention it deserves. I also like Olivia Wilde. She plays 13 as closed and sardonic, and I like watching her journey.

However. (Yeah, you knew that was coming). However, 13 isn’t compelling enough a character for her to so dominate the series narrative. Especially when the story only tangentially involves our central character. Because the show is about House, MD, any non-House exploration should exist largely within his orbit. And up till now, they always have. This season, her screen time has nearly rivaled House’s. This new story arc involving Foreman, a character who grates more than interests (me, anyway) takes the narrative even further away from House. New Year’s wish: Have their story become part of the series “fabric” much like all of the other non-House stories have over time. Remove it from the foreground and away from its nearly equal place with House’s story. It doesn’t belong there.

Less screen time with House. House has been to Hell and back since the final two episodes of season four. He was nearly killed in a bus crash, and then nearly died trying to save Amber’s life. He lost Wilson’s friendship, followed in quick succession by his father’s death. Just when things seemed to be growing stable again for the change-averse House, his world was once again rocked as Cuddy decided to adopt a baby. The events surrounding this revelation affected House in ways, I think, even he would not have expected. Yet, I feel that in many ways, House has taken a back seat to other story lines and other characters. He’s on screen less (although not consistently, because he was obviously very much in every scene in “Last Resort” and certainly in season four’s “House’s Head”), and seems less of a presence in the medical aspects of the show.

I know that part of it is that the cast is far more crowded than it had been, and the writers are trying to find ways for three new characters to fit into a 43-minute episode format. But less of House, the character, means less interaction with the patient (always something special), less time in the clinic, less time of House simply by himself. It doesn’t bother me a lot (at least not yet), but a part of me misses House’s powerful and almost constant presence in each episode. New Year’s wish: David Shore and the writers remember that this is neither a procedural nor an ensemble show, but is, at its core, a brilliant and detailed character study.

Foreman is House but nicer argument. Well, this is an argument I’ve had with the show since the first season. Foreman is not House. Repeat and rinse: Foreman is NOT House. He is not “nicer” than House; he lacks House’s (much denied) humanity and his objectivity. Foreman has an arrogance that House lacks, and does not possess his creative thinking, nor his willingness to abandon his own ideas when they are wrong. New Year’s wish: Stop trying to make us believe that Foreman is a nicer version of House, because he’s not. New Year’s wish: Give Foreman his own department. On another floor. Weave his story into the complex fabric of the series.

I’m sure you all have your huzzahs and hisses for 2008’s House, MD. Feel free to share in the handy comments space below.

I am gratified that this column has acquired such a loyal readership over the last year. I appreciate and read every comment posted and am constantly bowled over by the level of thoughtfulness and intelligence that graces the comments section of this blog. I thank you, my dear readers for a wonderful 2008 and wish you all a healthy, happy, hopeful and peaceful 2009 and the best of the holiday season: a Chanukah filled with light and joy; a meaningful and merry Christmas, and a year of hope and peace for us all.

House returns with new episodes on Monday, January 19 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time, as the show moves to its new timeslot. So be sure to set your DVD recorders and DVRs to this new time!

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)."

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