I had the opportunity earlier this week to catch up with new House, M.D. scribe Katherine Lingenfelter. Katherine wrote the episode “You Must Remember This” which aired February 14. Before coming to House, Lingenfelter worked on such critically noted series as Pushing Daisies and the Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica.
Lingenfelter began her TV career as an assistant to Jason Katims (Roswell). Her first mentors included Katims and Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica). She had also worked with House, M.D executive producer/writers Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner. So it seems only natural that Lingenfelter would wind up on a show where Lerner and Friend are executive producers.
There was a touch of irony in the setting for our phone interview. I was sitting in the lobby of a Chicago hospital waiting for my husband to come out of surgery (nothing serious) and here we were talking about a medical series. Somehow it fit. We managed to get in more than 45 minutes of conversation amid the wheelchairs and screaming babies just outside the ER, and Lingenfelter offered her take on the series, its relationships—and what it’s like to be the new kid on a series in its seventh season.
How did you come to write for the series?
When I first started in television, it was as an assistant to Jason Katims, who at the time was running a show called Roswell on the now defunct WB. The [show’s] staff at that time included Katims, Ronald D. Moore (who went on to adapt Battlestar Galactica for SyFy); Gretchen Berg and Aaron Harberts—and Russel Friend and Garrett Lerner (House writer/executive producers). Friend and Lerner were like the Grateful Dead. Wherever they were, that’s where I wanted to show up. And I just learned a tremendous amount from them, really, really respected them as writers and individuals. When they got on House, I was so envious and just loved the show and loved their work. And so it’s great to be able to work with them again. Being a huge fan of the show (House) and of the writers, I jumped at the opportunity to learn from them and to join the show. So that was last April.
That’s great. Well, I think Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend are just an amazing writing team.
Well, just they’re so good with story. But one thing that they do really well, I think may come from [their experience with] Jason Katims, whose mantra is, “Best foot forward.” So any character that you’re writing about, you just have to agree that their intent is always a good one. You know, we make mistakes and we’re always at odds with each other, but it’s always best foot forward. And I think Friend and Lerner very good at humanizing characters and having respect and affection for any of the characters that they write for. I could go on and on about the awesomeness of Friend and Lerner.
I’ve interviewed them a few times. And one thing that I always make note of in their episodes, is that they really understand how to find House’s (Hugh Laurie) humanity.
It is, it is. It takes some very delicate storytelling to find it. And especially now, I think, because the show has been on just so long, and people are so familiar with the characters that I think fans are so able to say to themselves, “Well, that doesn’t seem like House at all. That doesn’t ring true at all.” So it’s a very tricky thing to pull off.
Speaking of Garrett and Russel. Where have they been this season? We haven’t seen anything episodes written by them. Or do they just have a hand in just everything these days as executive producers?
They do have a hand in everything. They’re incredibly busy. As a fan, too, I’m like, oh, they should write the episode. But they work with the writers in developing all the stories. They give notes; they help break stories. They are part of the notes process for all of the outlines for all of the scripts. They work very closely with David (Shore), helping to bring the episodes to fruition. It’s a big undertaking to keep the machine rolling. So they’ve taken on that position, and as a tradeoff, you don’t see them writing their own episodes. However, they will be writing episode 22 with Seth Hoffman, another new writer this season. He’s very talented.
So, how does it feel coming on board to a show in its seventh season—one with a writing staff many of whom have been around almost since the beginning?
Terrifying. It’s incredibly intimidating on many levels. One reason is just the caliber of the writers and what they’re able to pull off. And two, you don’t want to be the one to take out mom and dad’s car and bring it back with the fender smashed and vomit in the back seat. You want to take care of it; you want to represent the show well. The bar is very, very high.
But luckily, I moved around a lot growing up. I went to six elementary schools, three middle schools, so I’m well versed in being the new kid. And everyone is so generous and great and cares about the show. You know, a lot of things are said about Hollywood—about the industry. And one of the things so wonderful about writers in this industry is the sense of mentorship. And writers—in my experience, as a whole are very generous. I’ve been working closely with Peter Blake (“Massage Therapy,” “Family Practice” in season seven) who was a huge help in my first episode. And, in fact, we’re co-writing [my] next episode.
Tell me about your first day in the writers room.
They took us into a room, the new kids, and said, “Okay, here’s the basic, basic formula for a standard House episode.” We were incredibly overwhelmed by the idea of the medicine and how to construct a mystery from the medicine—trying to understand the basic formula for the show. They just immediately [said], “Here, how can we help?” They’ll help you through a scene or they’ll sit there and brainstorm with you. I was so full of anxiety about doing a good job. And it couldn’t have been better. They couldn’t have been more helpful or welcoming. It’s just—It’s a great group of really, really smart people. So I feel, again, lucky, lucky, lucky.
Well, you’ve really nailed it because “You Must Remember This” was great. I asked my readers what I should ask you, and several wanted to know how—as a new writer on the staff–you managed to hit on every relationship and develop every character. It’s a very classic House episode, yet you did a great job exploring House/Cuddy’s (Lisa Edelstein) relationship, House and Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard)…Everyone’s characters moved forward.
Having been a fan and having seen every episode, the characters are already there. They’re so well drawn.
It’s so easy to slip into their headspace and think about them in their circumstances. But every season, the writers sit down and talk about where the characters are; what’s happening to them; what’s going to happen to them—in broad strokes. And then we will as a group meet again after the first 10 episodes to check in to ask: “Okay, here’s where [the characters have] been. What’s changed? Are they on the same path? What’s going on with them?” So the staff is always very cognizant of where the characters are and what’s happening to them.
And as a viewer, I love TV so much because it rewards the viewer. I love when you can be invested in characters and you’re given back for that investment. So I like watching a progression. Hopefully when you’re constructing a story for an episode, there’s a reason for what everybody is going through in this particular story. And what’s tricky about television is there’s a saying out there that movies are about people changing, and television is about people staying the same.
Yes. I’ve heard both Hugh Laurie and David Shore say that.
And in a lot of ways that’s true; [viewers] return to a show because there’s something about it that resonates. There’s a certain rhythm to it that clicks with you, and if you mess with that too much, it’s no longer the thing that you liked. And it’s not just that you just feel it’s suddenly different. So it’s tricky because you don’t want to radically change things. But at the same time, you do want to move things forward a tiny bit. But there has to be a reason for whatever the characters are going through in the story. And also, sometimes with the episodes you’re given minor marching orders.
Like for [“You Must Remember This”], I was told Foreman (Omar Epps) and Taub (Peter Jacobson) move in together it at the end. But then I needed to figure out: How am I going to construct that? What’s going to happen in order for that to take place?
One of the things for Foreman has always been that nagging sense in the back of his mind that “I don’t belong here. Am I good enough?” But he also has that desire to be a leader—always struggling to be acknowledged as a leader and wanting that role. And so it was interesting to me to find a test of that that’s not necessarily obvious. So House delegates to Foreman this problem of [Taub] struggling [with re-certifying in pathology]. (Taub will be fired if he doesn’t pass his re-certification test; Foreman is assigned to tutor him.)
How does Foreman rise up to that challenge and use that leadership skills, [which include] compassion and working around House on issues on a personal level? This is not just a [typical] straightforward work/administrative problem, but something much more personal and deeper. And certainly, not necessarily something House could have figured out.
Being a fan of the show and having just come on board to write this year, what’s your favorite episode?
That is a tricky, tricky question. When I saw “House’s Head”/”Wilson’s Heart,” I was really bowled over by those episodes. I think “House’s Head,” particularly. Just the idea of [House’s] determination to find the answer that this pressing emotional nagging sense of “somebody’s in danger and I don’t know who,” and the lengths to which he’ll go to figure that out were amazing to me, amazing. And yeah, those stand out right now in my head. Of course, “Three Stories,” you know, that’s the gold standard.
Talking about where the different characters are at this point, I think one of the neat things about “You Must Remember This” is how we see Chase (Jesse Spencer) being redeemed in the aftermath of his season six woes (the Dibala assassination in “The Tyrant” and his divorce). His innate kindness and compassion seem to be making a return, which is wonderful.
Yes, I agree, I agree. Well, we didn’t want to ignore what he’s gone through emotionally. He’s put himself on the line and given his heart. And he keeps getting kind of kicked in the teeth for it. But I think he has resilience in character and kindness. He acted out and he was angry for a while, and now he’s sort of coming back and settling back into who he was and acknowledging that destructive path isn’t really him and he doesn’t wear it well. But that’s not a corner that you just turn automatically and say, “Okay, that’s, you know, that wasn’t me, and now I’m going to go back.” But I think that his redemptive path is something we’re going to see more of. But it’s a slow, it’s a slow journey back.
Which it should be. He’s taken a couple of big blows.
Yeah, it was not easy for him, what he went through. And yeah, and so, again, we love all the characters. We don’t just put [the characters] through the wringer for fun and then neglect them. We want them all to be redeemed at one point or another.
In the InHouse app for “You Must Remember This” you mentioned that the relationship between House and Wilson was your favorite relationship on the show. Why?
I love the tenacity of it and the resilience of it. I love that. In so many ways—on the surface—you look at it and think, “[their relationship] is not healthy.” But at the same time, they rely on each other so much. And they’re perfect for each other. They understand and accept each other.
So I think it’s that acceptance: Wilson knows House and accepts him for all the messed-up ways that he is. And the same goes for House, who also accepts Wilson. And essentially that their friendship has survived Amber’s death and with so many of the other trials and tests that no matter what, in my heart, I just feel that this is a relationship that will sustain and that will survive for the two of them. Those kinds of bonds are amazing, and you can find them in real life. They don’t come from somebody you’re related or someone you’re in love with, but these two people find each other, accept each other and stand by each other. And it’s just—I don’t know; it’s special.
What’s your take on House and Cuddy’s relationship?
That is a very loaded question. I think they are very similar in a lot of ways, Cuddy and House. I think Cuddy is aware of what House is capable—and his little tricks and defense mechanisms—but also his humanity. She has seen flashes of his humanity [along with] his brilliance. And if it’s going to work for House romantically, Cuddy would be the one. She knows him as well as anyone could as a romantic partner. And that’s bringing out his trust [in her], which is, I think, one of his most protected emotions. He does not naturally come by trust. So she is nurturing that and bringing that out in him in a really lovely way.
What I was trying to show in that first scene (in “You Must Remember This) arguing about Wilson and his dating situation is House’s belief that he knows Wilson better than Cuddy. And Cuddy may think, “Oh, the cat’s a good idea, and it’s nothing to worry about; it’s a good way for Wilson to heal. And House’s point of view is, “You don’t know him at all. I know [that the cat] is a warning sign. This is going to lead to trouble.” But Cuddy stays out of it; and, of course, House meddles in Wilson’s life. And then I think, in my mind, House eventually takes Cuddy’s advice. He tempers his natural meddling disposition and accepts that maybe [owning the cat] is what Wilson needs, and steps back. Cuddy gave him the room to figure that out. So I think that’s what’s nice about what the writers have done with this relationship. They’ve cast this as an adult relationship. There are a lot of series [in which] they get people together, but then resort to kind of juvenile antics and problems in the relationship just to create conflict. And that’s not what this relationship is about for either character.
I would agree with that: you guys have created something that is (within House’s universe, anyway) very realistic about House and Cuddy’s relationship. There was one episode this season for example, where they had an argument (“Small Sacrifices”), but they were supposed to attend a wedding together. And even in the midst of the argument, she expects him to accompany her to a pre-nuptial dinner. They’re heatedly arguing while he’s zipping up her dress without missing a beat just like they’re an old married couple. They’re still doing “couple” things while they’re arguing.
I think that they’re in that kind of relationship where it doesn’t all hang on one fight. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re going to fight and then it’s going to be over.” When you are in a relationship with somebody like House, there are going to be a lot of fights. I think it’s great for him to be able to have conflict with her and see that it doesn’t scare her off, that she’s not going anywhere. And it’s a great way to reinforce these lessons that he’s struggling with personally, of testing people, of testing himself—and opening up. Which is difficult, because the character that everybody fell in love with was this cantankerous, suspicious, isolated individual who was always on the outside.
I think that those of us who have watched the series a long time know also that he’s always had that great capacity for love—and even sappy romance. We’ve seen it with especially with Stacy at the end of season one and into season two, and also with Cameron.
So what’s ahead for the series and the characters’ stories?
House and Cuddy’s relationship will go through several more tests. The writers really want to explore more of what the relationship can sustain, what personally they can go through. We have Foreman and Taub living together and [exploring] some of the issues [surrounding that]. We’re going to continue to track the personal lives of the others as well. We have an episode in which we take a look at what it’s like for Masters (Amber Tamblyn). What’s her story? And we’ve got Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) coming back in a phenomenal episode. In a season of what I think are really great scripts, that is a standout: Thirteen’s return—it’s surprising. So I think definitely that is one to look for. And of course, we have the upcoming “dream” episode …
Which is episode 15 I think…
Greg Yaitanes has already sort of hinted about it (on Twitter). And that’s just an incredibly, incredibly fun [episode]. It was so much fun [to do]. This show can do anything. You come to [the production people] and you say, “We want to do blank,” and they don’t even blink an eye. They can pull off anything. It’s incredible.
When I interviewed Lisa Edelstein a while back, she said there were still negotiations going on between Universal and Fox about next season. But are you guys talking about what’s ahead for season eight?
Yes. We’re always looking ahead, and we’re always trying to chart the path for the characters and what they’re going to be coming up against. So the end of this season sets up a whole new dynamic for the next. We definitely have ideas for season eight and what that season would [explore]. I’m hopeful that there is a season eight because we definitely already have a treasure trove of stories ready to go.
Can you tell me even a little bit of how next season’s dynamic is set up?
Unfortunately I can’t speak specifically to what that will be. But it certainly would behoove the studio, the network to have a season eight because there’s a lot there. There’s still a lot left to explore.
I have one more question. I’m always fascinated by the multiple meanings of the episodes’ title. There’s always a deeper meaning than it simply being catchy. So the title “You Must Remember This,” obviously refers to the patient, who has a perfect, but emotionally destructive memory stuff. And it’s a great title, but can you expand on it a bit?
I did a lot of research on memory and the way that our memory actually can betray us—or can benefit us. And, in fact, the original intent of the episode was to underscore the importance of forgetting in our lives—we forget by design.
I think a lot of people focus on loss of memory and the holding onto memories, but in fact, forgetting is a crucial element of being able to have relationships and being able to move forward. But in a lot of ways we stand in the way of that for ourselves.
So when you’re filing memories away, you create connections and associations that allow you to recall a memory. So, for example, if I’m trying to remember the word “lemon,” I think round, yellow, and I get to lemon. Those are the associations [to access]. We create associations that lead us back to the same memory again and again and again. That’s not healthy in a lot of ways. So what we choose to remember, every time we remember something, it becomes stronger. That association becomes stronger and it’s fixed. But also in my research I learned that we can’t trust our memories because each time we retrieve a memory, we change it a little bit before we put it back. So the only memory actually viable is the first time we recall something. And then each time we put it back, it’s changed a little bit.
So “You Must Remember This” is giving a nod to, you know, when we’re afraid to move forward, we sort of have these memories being these cautionary statements that we say to ourselves. For example, Wilson is remembering how many times he’s been in a relationship, how many times it has failed miserably. He’s thinking, “the evidence is there, I guess I shouldn’t even bother.” And obviously the patient (in the episode) has the compulsion to remember all the bad things. So it’s all just a nod to memory. Of course when you hear [the title] “You Must Remember This,” immediately the song is in your head, and then you get this ear worm in your head that’s hard to shake. I’m endlessly fascinated by the brain and by science.
In fact, I was originally planning to go into medicine. As a student, I entered college as pre-med and then took organic chemistry and realized I can’t do this at all.
Organic Chem—the classic pre-med scourge!
But I’m a huge fan of the science and I’m a huge fan of the human mind. [Working on House] is the closest that I can get to it. And it’s strange and incredibly lucky that I’m working on a medical show because I get to indulge all my little nerdy fascinations and make money.
Thank you so much for your time and insights. I’m looking forward to see your next episode!
A new House episode airs Monday February 28 at 7 p.m. on Fox.
For those of you in the Chicago area, I’m participating in a panel on medicine and television at the University of Illinois at Chicago on March 10. Hope to see you there.