When we last we saw Dr. Gregory House at the end of “House’s Head” (part one the House season finale), he was barely alive, lying on the floor of a bus. The entire episode was a weird and emotionally powerful rollercoaster ride, as we follow House (played to perfection by Hugh Laurie), while he tries to reassemble bits and pieces of his memory after being involved in a bus accident.
Using flashbacks, hallucinatory visions, and dreams to make sense of his foggy and fractured memories, House risks his life to identify a possibly fatally ill fellow passenger, knowing that the clock may be running out. A final and extremely risky attempt to recreate the scene just prior to the crash, which House enhances by using a dangerous Alzheimer’s drug, causes his memories to flood back, but also sends him into cardiac arrest. Cuddy and Wilson revive him and, in a very tense moment, House manages to croak out the words. “It was Amber. Amber was on the bus with me.” Part two which airs this Monday evening on FOX is sure to leave us with more questions than answers — and a whole summer to discuss and analyze what it all means for House and his colleagues.
I had the opportunity to speak with two of the finale’s writers, Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend (who are also series executive producers), to get their thoughts on the season finale, the character of House, and the future for the series, which is heading into its fifth season this September.
The season finale originated with a story idea from the creative mind of Doris Egan. “House wakes up in a coffee shop and doesn’t know how he got there," they explained. "He knows that something bad has happened: he’s seen a fatal symptom in somebody, but can’t access his brain.”
Everyone on the staff, said Lerner, thought it was a great story idea, and plans were made to craft it into a blockbuster two-part story. Part one was intended to get the coveted post-Super Bowl slot, taking advantage of the huge audience (and justify the equally huge cost). “People would then tune in Tuesday (the series regular time slot)” and hopefully continue to tune in weekly.
But Egan was already working on episode 12 (“Don’t Ever Change”) and was too busy to work on the two-parter. So Lerner and Friend along with David Foster and Peter Blake sat in a room and thrashed out the script. But, with the WGA strike looming, it became clear that there would be no time to ready it for the Super Bowl, so “Frozen” was substituted.
Designed to be a big-budget project and very expensive for series television, they were not certain that the network would be willing to pay the incredibly expensive production costs when the episode was moved from the post-Super Bowl slot. “We thought the episode would never see the light of day,” admitted the Lerner and Friend. “But to their credit,” Friend acknowledged, the network approved the expenses and it became a two-part season finale.
The finale's storytelling structure breaks with the series' usually linear, “procedural,” formula, something House has done only on occasion. Season two also concluded with the unconventional “No Reason,” which, like “House’s Head,” explored the reaches of House’s mind. And of course there is the brilliant season one episode “Three Stories,” written by series creator David Shore.
The writing staff unanimously holds up “Three Stories” as the series gold standard. “It was a bit harrowing breaking this [season's finale] story,” explained Lerner, because of potential for comparisons to that House classic. “As soon as you break with the straightforward storyline that can happen. You don’t want it to suffer” (in comparison.)
The writers tried to thread bits of reality into the fantasy/dream sequences. For example, House finds himself in a strip club about to get a lap dance, the details of that encounter weave through the episode as they might in real life. “Dreams are informed by what has happened to you during the day, or things that had an impact on you,” the producers explained. So his experience in the strip club combined with his thoughts of Cuddy, created that bizarre and sensual strip tease-differential diagnosis fantasy scene in "House's Head."
I mentioned to the producers that I had noticed a half-hour discrepancy in the episode’s timeline (House left the hospital at 5:20; and it was 8:50 when he found himself in the strip club). Yet, House says he’s lost "at least" four hours of his memory. What happened to the other half hour? “Is that significant?” I asked. Friend and Lerner laughed, confessing that it was probably a continuity error… or some other sort of error. “One of the 100 in every episode,” they joked. They do appreciate, however, the degree to which the fans analyze every nuance in each episode. “It’s flattering that people are so into the show that they try to figure out the tiny stuff,” they said.
As "House's Head" ends, of course, we only begin to find out what really happened, getting only the "who." “What were House and Amber doing? Why were they together in the first place? What’s wrong with her and how much can House actually remember? These are the questions that the finale will pursue in (part two), 'Wilson’s Heart,'” teased Lerner.
As of last Tuesday, the finale was still being edited, with music and effects still to be inserted. “Due to the writers’ strike, the entire production and post-production process has been shrunk down.” Consequently, they have been racing to put the finishing touches on “Wilson’s Heart.”
Hugh Laurie has compared the writing on House to a “Faberge Egg.” He has often commented that his main hope is to simply “not mess up” the writers’ words; to do them justice. Although Laurie is far too modest, and the performance he brings to each episode of the series makes the words on the page emerge as living things, he is right about the fragile complexity of the series’ writing.
Friend and Lerner attribute the strength of the series’ writing to the consistency of the writing staff. WGA-winning (for season two’s “Autopsy”) Lawrence Kaplow (who, I am told, will be rejoining the House writing staff for season five!), Peter Blake, and Thomas Moran were all there at the beginning (Blake and Moran are still there), they said. Sara Hess, Doris Egan, as well as Lerner and Friend have been on the staff from the second season. Such continuity, they said, allows them to “know the history of the characters.”
“So what about Wilson’s long lost brother? Whatever happened to him?” I asked, aware that he has been missing in series’ narrative since the season one episode “Histories” (much to the consternation of die-hard Wilson fans everywhere).
“Actually, at an earlier point in writing the finale, we discussed bringing him up in part two; but it had to be omitted. He’s somebody we’re very aware of,” they agreed.
“He comes up in conversation a lot,” they explained. “But you have to do it properly.” One of the challenges of picking up old threads is that “when we bring up something from four years ago, everyone gets it. We need to find the right way to do [it] so new audiences can understand, while veteran audiences appreciate it, but aren’t the only ones in on it.”
Friend and Lerner have been writing as a duo for 13 years. When offered a place on the House writing team before for season one they turned down the offer. “We had just come off of the drama Boston Public.” They felt that House “was so good that it didn’t make sense to be on FOX;” it didn’t fit the network’s typical audience. And they were concerned that the network would cancel it without giving it enough of a chance. Instead, they went to work on LAX, which they thought was a “shoe-in” with Heather Locklear in the lead role (it wasn’t, and was soon cancelled). So they watched House’s season one “from afar,” seeing it really take off by mid-season. They were impressed (and astounded) that the series, as it unfolded, was as good as the pilot. Which, they noted, doesn’t often happen. “They didn’t have to change anything.” When lightning struck a second time and Katie Jacobs again offered the partners a spot on House, they jumped at the opportunity.
Lerner and Friend have been involved with writing some of the most affecting House episodes of the past three seasons. “Skin Deep” (as part of the same team that penned “House’s Head”), “Meaning,” “Cane and Able” (with Kaplow), “Fetal Position,” and “97 Seconds" are among Lerner and Friend’s House writing credits.
And, they’ve jumped right into filming season five. “It’s a blessing and curse,” says Friend, “to go right into the next season without a break.” On the upside, there surely is momentum built from the finale, “on the other hand,” he admitted, “there has been no time to sit down and sketch everything out, which is a challenge.” An exciting challenge to be writing planning at the same time, but a challenge nonetheless. The first 10-episode story arc is already set; several scripts are done, and they are back into production.
Season five directly builds off of the "these last two episodes." So will we end up hating House going into next season? (I asked this, wondering aloud if guilt is what's suppressing his memory of "that night.")
“House is impossible to hate,” they responded rather cryptically. But they’re right, of course. We don’t hate him (at least I don't).
One key to us "not hating" House, according to Lerner and Friend, is finding the humanity in such a very thorny character. “It’s something we strive for," they acknowledged. "The tricky thing about the character is that we have this sort of misanthropic, drug addicted guy. We want to preserve his edginess. Not betray that. But,” they added, “we always want to see that humanity. There’s got to be something in him that is human,” they suggested, “otherwise why would he be saving all these lives?”
Lerner and Friend are particularly good at bringing House’s humanity to the surface. In season three’s “Fetal Position,” we even observed House experiencing awe, being affected by the touch of a tiny fetal hand, reflecting on it even hours later. We see House in that episode wanting more, striving for “something.” He plans a holiday, only to cancel it, afraid to move beyond the safety of his own limited world. Other episodes of theirs also allow us access to House’s more fragile and vulnerable side. And at the start of season five, “House is left in a place where can be is more reflective,” suggested Lerner and Friend. In season five, there will be more emphasis on exploring “what makes House tick and getting into more personal stuff.”
As we begin the long wait (well, not that long) for season five, I asked the writing duo to reflect on some of the changes that occurred during season four and what we might expect for next year. With so many cast changes this year, I asked whether they feel anything has been sacrificed by writing for a much larger cast. “We know that people are missing some of the old team members (Chase, Cameron, and Foreman — who have been reduced to more marginal roles in most episodes). Frankly, we are as well. It’s a juggling act. We have only 42 minutes to tell a story.” And telling the story becomes paramount. “We have to service the story — the medical mystery. The people circling House and circling the medical mystery are going to get screen time. We’re bending our brains in knots trying to figure out how to get the other people into each episode. We’re still struggling. And it’s something on our minds.”
Although they understand that fans miss the old team, things could not remain static on the show. “On one hand,” they said, “people react negatively to change. On the other hand we’re not The Simpsons (where, years later, no one has aged a day). We can’t keep the characters fellows forever.” But it is also interesting at this point to see how House’s “tutelage has changed them;” affected their medical point of view. This is something Lerner and Friend tried to explore in “97 Seconds.” Foreman, out on his own, trying his best not to be House, has been affected by him (in a positive way, or not, depending on your point of view); and was willing to risk himself professionally for what he believed when treating a patient. It cost him his job, but he saved a life.
As with many of the series’ fans, Lerner and Friend also have missed those wonderful clinic beats. "Next season,” they promised, “we’re going to try to do more of those. And do more ‘classic’ House episodes. That’s something that got a little bit lost this year.”
One of the challenges with any series starting its fifth season (House will see its 100th episode in the upcoming season) is to keep it fresh. “We want to defy the laws television physics — of shows being over the hill.”
So does that mean a ramping up of the sexy non-relationship between House and Dr. Lisa Cuddy? It’s “under discussion” and “possible” were the only bits of information I could coax out of writers Lerner and Friend. And what of that rumored spin off? “Also possible. And in discussion.”
Whatever season five may hold, the events of season four, especially the dramatic final episodes, will be hot topics for discussion all summer, with plenty of speculation (and fan fiction) sure to light up the Internet. The season finale airs Monday on FOX, 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.