Zack is taking a breather from House this week, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who read his review of last week's episode, "Two Stories." I confess that my first reaction to "Two Stories" was that it was, on some level, a bit of a relief. It wasn't good, but at least it was aiming to be funny, with a minimum of emotional torment, and it was nice to get out of the hospital for most of an episode, and I am not above getting a smile out of the exploitation of the romantic tribulations of cute little kids, even when the boy is the one wearing the girl's hairdo. On reflection, though, I have to agree with Zack that there was a last-straw quality to the whole thing. The invocation of one of the most beloved of House's early episodes, "Three Stories" from season one, was probably intended as a shout-out to the fans, but it ended up feeling more like a poke in the eye; in the end, all it did was call attention to the ways the show has gone wrong lately.
"Recession Proof" was a return to the salt mine, where the cast labored to remind us of their better days in the homey confines of their usual settings. Symptoms and personal problems were discussed around the diagnosticians' table; members of the team looking to expound on their personal problems out of House's earshot repaired to the locker room, so they could brief us on what was bugging them while fiddling with their buttons; wacky antics were engaged in around the elevators and in the cafeteria, including a joke about an Alzheimer's patient that Robert Sean Leonard delivered as if if at gunpoint; and a luckless guest patient was loaded into the dread MRI cave of doom. It was a measure of how pro forma it all felt that House didn't even lurch up from the table to write on his blackboard. Is it just me, or does House scarcely ever even use the blackboard any more? When this show was healthy and hopping, the blackboard was practically another character. (Who can forget the time that House appeared to concede defeat by letting it topple to the floor?) The way it's been treated lately, you'd think the producers were punishing it for having asked for more money.
House's apparent lack of interest in organizing the possibilities of the case at hand underlined the laziness at the heart of the writing: The show scarcely tried to conceal the fact that it was just vamping from the end of one commercial break to another, resorting to gimmicks such as a hallucinatory freak-out scene in a bathroom, complete with blood pouring out of the faucet and the walls closing in, to distract you from the aimlessness of the path to settling on a solution to the case. The patient was a victim of the economy who, like the heroes of Time Out and Tokyo Sonata, was going to extremes to keep his wife from finding out that his suit-and-tie career had gone bust; little did she know that he was now doing his best to make ends meet by working as a janitor and was first seen scrubbing up a gory crime scene, like the protagonists of Sunshine Cleaning and Curdled. I salute the writers for finding a way to remind me of movies instead of old House episodes for a change, but there was no getting around how ridiculous it was that, for most of the episode, House and his team couldn't have been less curious about the fact that their patient just happened to take ill while up to his elbows in some stranger's blood and viscera.
House was more interested in booking a mariachi band for the charity dinner where Cuddy was to receive an award. Everyone assumed that he was doing this to ruin his girlfriend's big moment in the spotlight, which was pathetic; then it turned out that he was letting them think that even though he was really doing it because he knew that Cuddy is way the hell into mariachi bands. The sad thing is that, even if House had maliciously, pointlessly pranked the love of his life on her special night, the show would have had everyone shrug and smirk about it and assured us that it was actually a lovable thing to do. That's why reminding the audience of earlier triumphs such as "Three Stories" isn't the smartest way that House could be dealing with its current crisis. If teasing us about why House is auditioning mariachi bands is the best way the creative staff of House can figure out how to hold our attention these days, they really don't want to get us to thinking about the qualities that once made House so a figure of genuine fascination, repellent and attractive in about equal measure, both to the other characters on the show and to the people watching the show.
There was a time when you really couldn't tell for sure about House: How real was his pretense of not caring about his patients' lives, beyond his intellectual interest in the puzzles they presented him with? How much of his misery was self-generated, and did he do it because he suspected that he'd be a lesser doctor without it, and if so, was he right? How true was the assertion, often made by those who'd known him longest, that, contrary to what newcomers always assumed, he'd always been a rude, acerbic son of a bitch and the leg injury hadn't changed him a bit? Laurie was always careful to keep you in doubt about these things; the one thing you used to know for sure about House was that you couldn't take your eyes off him.
So the worst thing you could do with House would probably be to have him start spelling himself out, which is what he did in tonight's climax, pouring out his soul to Wilson about how he felt about all the patients he'd failed to pull back from the brink of death. (Because House's batting average is actually surreally high, they had to cheat a little when he got to listing examples from past episodes and included the dying man played by David Strathairn who House was sealed up with in one of the better episodes from last season, even though that guy wasn't House's patient. Maybe he's supposed to have been beating himself up all this time for not having taken the case when he'd had the chance. Who the hell is this guy supposed to be again?) Not satisfied with this eruption of Real Feelings, House wound up pouring out his heart to an understandably appalled-looking Cuddy, telling her that, if loving her has made him a worse doctor, then by God, it's worth it. It's a set-up, of course; the coming attractions for next week promise a health scare for Cuddy, decked out with fantasy sequences and musical numbers, and the vow that what's to come will be "no ordinary episode of House." Which I feel like taking as a shame-faced acknowledgement that what we got tonight was as ordinary an episode of House as ever rolled off the assembly line. I think that what's making the show feel so frustrating lately is that the people working on it can tell that there's something wrong, but have no idea how to address it.
- My girlfriend, whose inability to stay in the same room as the television when House is on probably has nothing to do with the fact that she's a registered nurse, passed through just long enough to get a look at Amber Tamblyn and say, "She should not be wearing that skirt." I didn't try to explain that Tamblyn has been dressed by a wardrobe department working a little too cartoonishly hard to make sure that everyone gets it that her character is a socially underdeveloped little girl whose brains have catapulted her, prematurely, into the big bad grown-up world. For one thing, if I had, then I'd have had to explain the dried-blood nail polish, and I couldn't.
- In other second-banana news, Foreman and Talb are now comically mismatched roomies. Because calling them "Felix and Oscar" would kind of give the game away, House repeatedly referred to them as "Bert and Ernie." This led to momentary confusion once or twice when someone referred to the patient by name, because it so happened that the writers had decided that he was to be called Bert. See what I mean about lazy?
- After the freaky explosion of the clips from next week's anything-but-ordinary episode, I had to watch the opening credits for The Chicago Code three times to give myself the strength to get off the couch and come write this. I'm not crazy about The Chicago Code. But I do love that opening credit sequence.