A ‘House’ undivided
For eight years, Laurie brought complexity to his anti-heroic doctor
NEW YORK – It will be painful saying goodbye to “House.”
The Fox medical drama concludes its eight-season run Monday with a series finale at 9 p.m., preceded by a one-hour retrospective. And with that, Hugh Laurie will be done as the show’s abrasive champion, Dr. Gregory House – unless, Laurie adds with a laugh, “someone comes up with an idea for a stage musical.”
“I feel a huge satisfaction that we got to the end with our dignity intact,” he declares. “I never felt that we did anything that wasn’t true to the character of the show – like, ‘House gets a puppy.’ I think that’s quite an achievement.”
No doubt. Sure, the medical mysteries that formed the core of most episodes inevitably grew a bit formulaic as the seasons piled up. (Didn’t each week’s patient always seem to start bleeding from a different orifice, bafflingly and life-threateningly, right on cue before each commercial break?)
But if the rhythm of the investigation began to feel over-familiar, House never did. On the contrary: He is only more complex, obstreperous and fascinating.
Not that he didn’t start with a bang right from the series’ inception in November 2004: Here was a brilliant diagnostician with a snide manner, a limp and a cane, a stash of painkillers and perpetual stubble. He flouted regulations, ducked cases that bored him and kept things stirred up as a not-so-merry prankster.
He was conceived as a contemporary Sherlock Holmes. Like that fictional 19th-century sleuth, House is indifferent to those he is helping, focused instead – with cool deduction and uncanny intuition – on the challenging nature of the mysteries that plague them.
Both men play musical instruments, take drugs (House is hooked on Vicodin, while Holmes has a thing for cocaine), and both have trusty sidekicks: Holmes’ Dr. John Watson and House’s Dr. James Wilson, his best and probably only friend, played with quirky forbearance by Robert Sean Leonard.
But the Holmes connection has never been the most interesting thing about “House.”
More impressive was how “House” put a difficult, largely unpleasant figure front and center as the hero of a TV series.
“Traditionally in an American drama, the damaged, sarcastic cynic would be a peripheral character,” notes Laurie, who signed with the show thinking House would be just that. “To make someone so apparently jagged and unsympathetic into the central character was a very bold step. And so was clinging to that premise, never relenting to suggest that, underneath it all, he has a heart of gold. I’m not sure that House does have a heart of gold. He is on the side of the angels, but that doesn’t mean that he’s an angel.”
And there was even more to the brave House recipe: the pain he endured.
Perhaps no TV protagonist has been imprinted so profoundly by a physical affliction. Walking with a limp, his cane supporting his bum right leg, House is constantly hurting. Pain is part of his persona. And the idea of that ever-present pain ran counter to every rule of routine TV, which, typically conceived as aspirational for viewers, calls for the hero to personify a desirable state. On the contrary, House is all about discomfort, and coping with it.
“The pain explains, to some extent, his personality,” says Laurie. “But we never gave the viewer any definite answers about how much, and I’m rather glad about that. It’s not that simple: There was a possibility that he might have behaved much the same even without his affliction.”
It was Laurie who chose which leg for his character’s crippling blood clot, he divulges with a laugh when asked.
“I tried it various ways, including limping with BOTH legs, but that was just ungainly,” he jokes. “Then I settled on the right leg. But I have always wondered whether, if I switched legs for an episode, anyone would notice.”
In conversation, the Oxford, England-born Laurie is not only charming, but witty, befitting his past comedic series “Black Adder” and “Jeeves and Wooster” (in which he starred with Stephen Fry), as well as, more recently, the “Stuart Little” films.
Of course, “House” had its own mordant comic streak.
“It was EXTREMELY important that the character be funny: He had to be good value for the audience, and also to explain Wilson’s tolerance and friendship. You had to believe that, at the end of the day, Wilson just delighted in the fact that House was an occasionally outrageous but almost always funny character to hang out with.”
Sample House-isms, delivered deadpan and gratingly razor-sharp:
• “Adjectives matter: Hate nurses, love naughty nurses.”
• “Treating for wrong diagnoses can result in side effects, like death.”
• “What’s the opposite of ‘Thank you’? I’m pretty sure it ends in ‘you.’ ”
House has never lost his funny bone, nor his perversity, even in the face of Wilson’s cancer diagnosis in recent episodes.
After helping Wilson administer aggressive treatment on the sly, on his living room couch, House shares his Vicodin for Wilson’s painful side effects while razzing him, poker-faced, with, “Remember, they’re a gift, so it’s rude to keep throwing them up.”
Laurie chuckles at the thought of such rampant candor.
“Yes, one can say House has no manners,” he declares, “and that’s probably true. But good manners are probably not our principal goal in life.”
Not House’s, anyway. However much a jerk, he’s a jerk who believes morality is measured not by attitude, but results. On that score, he’s got no cause to apologize. He saves lives no one else can save. That gives him a pass to act or think however he chooses. Maybe House, the impish truth-teller, could be viewed as the resident court jester of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital.
“Being free of the requirement to be well-mannered, House was able to get to the heart of things in ways that other people might not,” says Laurie. “But the question was always whether he’s using his indispensableness to behave badly, or whether he’s using it to tell the truth. House being House, he exploited this license to an appalling degree.”
Monday’s finale, says Laurie, brings House to the edge of a precipice eight seasons in the making: “Is he gonna step forward or step back? Is it life or is it death? I can say no more than that,” says the actor who made flesh-and-blood one of the most compelling characters in television history.
That achievement will live on, whatever House’s fate.
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