September 16, 2008

House Moves Squarely into the Limelight

By Robert Bianco

Now more than ever, House is about House.

The show's title character has always been the most important one as well, but he has usually served as the pivot point for what is basically a medical procedural. There was that unfortunate diversion when this usually reliable Fox hit made House the object of a mad cop's revenge, but generally his antics -- entertaining though they may be -- play out around the central medical mystery.

Tonight, in a carry-over from last season's brilliant finale, House is firmly in the forefront. And when you have an actor of Hugh Laurie's range, depth and charisma, putting him center-stage makes perfect sense, particularly when you've written a story that explores the character and his primary relationships in a way that seems integral to the series, rather than being parachuted into it.

The dramatic catalyst in the two episodes provided for preview is the death of Amber, which has driven a wedge between House and his only real friend, Wilson (a superb Robert Sean Leonard). Two months have passed since the two men have spoken to each other, and House is trying to decide what he feels and what he's willing to share.

Don't worry: TV's most acerbic medic has not gone soft on us.

We first see him playing a video game he stole from pediatrics and using a comatose man's hand as a drink holder. As for his general approach to Wilson's grieving process, House is as insightfully bitter as always: "Grief is Newark. It's there. Can't avoid it. The idea is to hold your nose, hope the traffic's not too bad and get on to Manhattan as quickly as possible, not to buy property."

Some of House's callousness is an act, and sometimes the show lets the act go too far. But one of the series' primary strengths is the way the writers and the star keep us guessing as to where that act ends and reality begins.

What's startling in these opening episodes is the way House persuades you to empathize with the pain of a character who inflicts so much pain himself. Each time you think you know how House will react, Laurie and the writers take you to a deeper level -- just as each time House thinks he's prepared for the worst, the even worse arrives.

Some structural quirks do remain. With its blend of old and new casts, the show still seems a bit crowded, and the crowd may be growing, as next week House tries to buy another friend. I'm not sure House really has the room, but the new character (amusingly played by guest star Michael Weston) is certainly an interesting one, so I'm willing to see how it plays out.

And these days, really, who wouldn't want to play with House?


Fox, tonight, 8 ET/PT

**** out of four (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>