Saturday , January 23 2021
A look back at season one's "Poison." Pretty standard procedural fare featuring a classic clinic patient.

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

"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, ( 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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