Kath Lingenfelter has been writing for House, M.D. since last season. She wrote “You Must Remember This,” and then with long-time House scribe Peter Blake wrote the controversial season seven finale. Active on Twitter, she is known to be accessible to fans. I interviewed her twice last season, and earlier this week, we chatted by phone the other day in advance of her next episode, the mid-season premiere “Better Half,” which premieres Monday night at 8:00 p.m. ET on FOX.
We discussed everything from goings on in the writers’ room on House to what to expect for each of the characters over the next few months—as well as the long hiatus and the fate of the series. She also revealed (in what I believe is a Blogcritics scoop) that an upcoming episode will be directed by actor/director Peter Weller (yes, he of Robocop fame). All of these topics are on for Monday night’s post-episode LiveChat Event, which follows the East Coast airing of House, M.D.
Spoilerphobes beware. There are some mild spoilers ahead for “Better Half” and other upcoming episodes, so consider yourselves warned!
“Better Half” tackles the subject of early onset Alzheimer’s and its effect on a marriage. Lingenfelter explained that she “had had an idea,” for another episode on memory. You might recall that her first House episode “You Must Remember This” also explored the nature of memory, and centered around a woman who remembered everything. Lingenfelter explained that she’s always had a “deep fascination with the human brain,” so it made some sense to go back to that subject, this time dealing with memory loss—Alzheimer’s disease.
To prepare for the episode, Lingenfelter researched what “it’s like for the family when a loved one has Alzheimer’s—specifically, early onset Alzheimer’s.” Noting that the youngest reported case of early onset Alzheimer’s was a 17-year-old patient, she explained that while the disease mainly affects people in their 50s and 60s, it can happen much younger, even those in their 30s.
Although “Better Half’s” patient of the week is a man with early onset Alzheimer’s, “the story more or less is about his wife and what it’s like for her. Is it fair for her to give up her dreams of having a family, of having children? You know,” she added, the wife is “still very young. So, does she deserve to have a ‘normal’ life?” Should she put her husband in a facility and move on?
Lingenfelter noted that, “the wife is the husband’s caregiver, and it made me want to examine partnerships, relationships, and kind of their yin yang. A lot of times, we look at two people who are together and think, ‘that is the most dysfunctional, terrible situation.’” On the other hand, when you take a closer look, she believes, you realize that they actually balance each other. “There’s a force greater than them that keeps them together and it actually works and it’s beautiful.”
For Lingenfelter, that notion immediately brings to mind the relationship between House (Hugh Laurie) and best friend Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard). On the face of it, she suggested, they “don’t seem healthy for each other, but I tried to come up with a B story that suggests that, no, actually, they’re perfect for each other.”
So, “Better Half” explores the House-Wilson dynamic, but, as Lingenfelter noted, “not in any kind of agonizing, gut wrenching, super emotional way.” Although, she teased, “those episodes might be coming. I think House/Wilson shippers will enjoy the episode.”
Lingenfelter mentioned that while writing the script, a bit of real life intersected with the story when someone called into televangelist Pat Robertson’s television show, asking these same questions. Robertson’s response got him into some hot water with the press by suggesting that Alzheimer’s is like a kind of death, and that it would be okay to divorce a loved one under those circumstances. “The press ran away with it,” said Lingenfelter.
“That’s what’s kind of great about this show is that somehow the writers seem to intuit what’s in the collective consciousness right now, what are the things that people are struggling with. And then it’ll seem like we’re ripping from the headlines, when, really, our project was well underway before [that].”
As most regular viewers are aware, House has been on an extended hiatus; no new episodes have aired since mid November and episode eight. So when the writers returned after winter break, they hit the ground running. “We’ve been meeting with all the writers all together,” which is a change from the typical House creative process, which is collaborative, but just not to this degree. “It’s been really great,” she said, “because it’s just different to have access to that much information about what’s going on with the other episodes sort of all at once and where the other writers’ heads are at. And I think, certainly, it’s going to make for a very intense six episodes at the end of the season,” which is what the writers are working on now.
Why the change? “We started later this season than we typically do. And so everybody and every department have been playing catch-up. And when we got back from Christmas, from episode 17 on, the amount of time that we have for conception through execution is truncated. So I think it’s just an efficiency issue.” Lingenfelter also pointed out that “the final five are serialized—or have serialized aspects, and so I think we want to make sure that things are tracking.”
Those of you who’ve read my other interviews with House writers through the years know that there are often real differences of opinion among the creative team—differing ideas about House. And the big question has often arisen as to whether the cranky doctor has any streak of humanity or is, on the other hand, a complete and irredeemable bastard? I wondered how the writers resolve those fundamental conflict when they’re all in the room working a script together. “We all look at David [Shore] and see what his expression says.”
Lingenfelter understands the luxury of having the series creator in the room while hashing out an episode as a team. “We all have our own takes on who House is. And I think a lot of our personal prejudices show through in that way.”
Shore has always been involved in the scripts. “Inevitably, when we get to the part of the process where we are working with David in his office and he is doing rewrites, he is the gatekeeper of the character of House. And anytime we’ve veered off of the template, or beyond what he thinks is right for the character, he pulls us back in.” But it’s never been quite so early on in the process. “That’s been great,” Lingenfelter added. “But you know, it’s a room full of, for the most part, writers who have been writing the show for five, six, seven years, so they’re not huge course corrections, they’re tiny adjustments.” The writers all know the characters very well by this point.
Of course the question on everyone’s mind is whether House will be back next year for a ninth season. Lingenfelter along with the rest of the House team still don’t know any more than we do. “I wish I had an answer,” she admitted.
Earlier this month FOX Entertainment President Kevin Reilly announced at the Television Critics Association meetings that a decision has yet to be made on renewal. “What Reilly said at TCA is pretty much where things are. There are so many variables involved in answering that question, and there’s still a lot that we have to see.” Some of it has to do with how other shows perform. “So we’re just moving forward to make the best finale that we can and just not thinking about that, really.”
In addition to network concerns, there is, of course the fact that Hugh Laurie’s contract is up for renewal. According to Lingenfelter, “the two most important entities are Shore and Laurie and whether they have interest, and I have no idea where their heads are right now. But all I do know is that, you know, they love making the show.”
When I talked to writer/executive producers Garrett Lerner and Russel Friend last May about planning for the series eventual end, they told me that deciding on a ninth season was something that hopefully would be one of the first orders of business at the start of season eight. I wondered what kind of a timeframe the creative team needed to really wrap it up—if indeed this is the final season—and give the series a decent send off.
Lingenfelter believes that the finale they’re working on could make a good series finale. “It would take some adjustments,” she said, “but, you know, I think it’s being very smartly done where it’s not going to be, like, they’re going to catch us at the last minute with our pants down if they say there’s not going to be a season nine. I think no matter what, the finale for this season, whether it’s the series finale or just the season finale, will be satisfying to the fans, one way or another.”
Acknowledging that it’s a bit challenging writing for the end of the season not knowing whether it will be the last, Lingenfelter shared that “it’s also a little scary because we’re taking some chances in this finale.”
Right now the writers are cracking episodes 18 and 19. Episode 19 is being written by John Kelley, along with Marqui Jackson. And, Lingenfelter is writing episode 20 with David Hoselton. She was excited to learn just recently that Peter Weller is going to direct that episode. “Yeah, I’m going to totally geek out in his presence. So that’s fun,” she said.
Lingenfelter shared a few other tidbits about forthcoming episodes as well. As many viewers know, Diane Baker will be reprising her role as House’s mother Blythe. We haven’t seen or heard from her since early in season five when House’s father John passed away, so it should be an interesting reunion; the episode (number 14) is scheduled to air March 19. Also guest starring in that episode is Billy Connolly, “who is such a phenomenal guest actor. How we managed to score him… The casting in this episode is great. We also have Michael Jordan from Friday Night Lights and The Wire.”
When I asked whether we might see any of House’s other family members during the remainder of the season, she cagily replied “I will tell you this: how you define, quote, unquote, “House’s family,” will be explored,” noting that House’s green card wife will also make a return appearance. “I don’t want to go too much into it, but you know that Dominika is returning. In some ways, you can say she is—whether legitimately or not—part of House’s family.” Going forward, she’ll be “presence in House’s life. I won’t say a big presence; she’s a small presence, but she’s around.”
One of the things we haven’t seen much of this season is House’s more introspective, reflective side—that wounded Byronic hero, that even Hugh Laurie recently noted resides at the core of his character. As the season progress, said Lingenfelter, “we are going to see House go through a lot. And I think certainly, you can define him as introspective—but also combative—in 11, and in 12, for that matter.” For the remainder of the season, she noted, we’ll observe “the push-pull House of wanting to isolate himself and his feelings from the rest of the world and struggling to engage with the people around him. But it’s fractional,” she added, “because of Shore’s maxim that people don’t change. At the same time, a lot has happened over the years to this character, and so there are small adjustments that I think, certainly, fans who have been with us will appreciate.
Viewers may also have noticed the bracelet House has been wearing on his wrist since his return from prison, wondering where it came from and why he’s always wearing it. “That’s one of those little tiny details that Hugh Laurie wanted, and he wanted something that he had made in prison—something he continues to wear. It’s up to the viewer to decide why he continues to wear it, but that was certainly a Hugh choice.”
Although the character of House has gone through a lot, he’s not the only member of the team to go through some upheaval. Chase (Jesse Spencer) will have an interesting storyline coming up in episode 11, and especially 12. “He definitely goes on a journey,” Lingenfelter commented. ‘Better Half’ gives you a temperature reading for where he is as a character and compared to where he was in earlier seasons.”
She offered her opinion, adding that it’s only her opinion, that “Chase is a lot harder and a lot more jaded than he was in the beginning. I think there were a lot of things he was running away from, a lot of things that he pushed very far behind him. He ran away to the seminary, and then when that didn’t provide the answers that he needed, he ran away to med school, you know, he ran away from his father, more or less.”
Chase fans should be pleased by what’s coming up for him. “I think we see a much more honest Chase coming up, in that he’s been battered quite a bit in life, and he tried to ignore it for a long time, he tried to hold his chin up through a lot of it and kind of, in a way, pretend his past is there. And so all of that comes to the fore, or at least informs what’s coming next. And in episode 12 especially, he’s just great.”
Of course Foreman, now dean of medicine, seems to be struggling with his new position. The fans wondered all last summer about who might be the new dean, of course as the creative team made a decision. “There was a lot for us to figure out, with Cuddy gone,” she acknowledged. “What does that landscape look like without this character that has been an integral part of it for so long? And who would be the Dean of Medicine? And pretty much unanimously, everyone said Foreman.”
If they’d brought in someone new, she noted. “Do we want somebody new that we don’t care about butting heads with House, and how would that compare when we’re so used to somebody with the weight of Lisa Edelstein? So it just made more sense to use a character that we know.”
And given Foreman’s great ambition, they felt that “as soon as Cuddy left, Foreman would have been first in line to apply for that job. And what we’ve tried to do, without doing it too obnoxiously, is showing how that ambition and that decision bites Foreman in the ass; that this isn’t just some, you know, easy kind of desk job. Foreman may assume that he can control House, but that’s not such an easy job. Cuddy made it look easy, but it was not easy.”
Lingenfelter wanted to address that further in “Better Half.” “House more or less makes a direct challenge—well, because it’s House, it’s an indirect challenge—to Foreman,” questioning whether the new dean is really up to the task. “I think Foreman is up to the task, and so it’s a back and forth between the two of them. It doesn’t resolve itself in an obvious way, I don’t think. I really like where we leave the dynamic between the two men.”
Speaking of deans, I wondered if Lingenfelter had any word about whether Lisa Edelstein might make a guest appearance this year, Lingenfelter didn’t know at this point. “The door isn’t completely closed on that, but there are just so many things that have to fall into place for that to be considered.”
As we ended our conversation, Lingenfelter wanted to acknowledge the series’ fans. “The fans are “great. It’s really nice to know that people are invested in the show and in what’s being done.”
She also wanted the fans to know that even after eight years, everyone associated with the series is “incredibly invested and the show means something to them.” Adding that decisions about the series “aren’t made lightly. There is never a choice that’s made with the thought of, ‘Oh, this will really get them. This will mess with their heads.’ It’s always about what makes a great story, what is interesting about our characters in this story, and how do we make a really great hour of television. It’s easy to assume that in season eight of a show that does well that it’s just running on auto pilot and it’s not. We care very much.”
So tune into House Monday night on FOX 8:00 p.m. ET for “Better Half,” and then be sure to pop back over to Blogcritics for our LiveChat event immediately following.