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Monday, November 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist

It's worth making a "House" call tomorrow

With the debut of "House" at 9 tomorrow night on Fox, the fall-season rollout will be complete.

But before probing the medical mysteries of this offbeat one-hour drama, let's examine the body of network television.

In contrast to the 2003-2004 season, which was dominated by old favorites, four new series have consistently cracked the roster of Top 20 prime-time shows this fall.*

They are "Desperate Housewives," "Lost, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and "CSI: NY."

Three reality shows also are on the list, including the aforementioned "Extreme" spinoff. The others are "Survivor: Vanuatu" and "The Apprentice 2."

Dare we venture a diagnosis on such slim evidence? Here goes: Scripted series finally have gotten a needed jolt of inventiveness with "Lost" and "Housewives." Conversely, reality shows are where scripted shows were last season — running on past triumphs.

The end isn't at hand for reality TV. But water-cooler buzz levels have fallen and require something more imaginative than mercenary singles or triumphal CEOs to rise again.

I'll admit I'm trying to boost a trend here. Network television needs to be weaned from police procedurals, domestic sitcoms and reality anything. Overall viewership has slipped this season from the same period a year ago.

"Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" broke the cycle of dependency partly because ABC had nothing to lose. I'm sorry that CBS' canceled "Clubhouse" couldn't be heard amid the crowded din of Tuesday nights, and I'm happy The WB is sticking with "Jack & Bobby."

It's hard to believe only critics feel the ache for something fresh. Yet Fox's Emmy Award-winning "Arrested Development" hasn't done that well in its new 8:30 p.m. slot on Sundays.

Fox's addiction to cheesy reality shows may have diluted its identity as the network of cleverness and nonconformity. Innovative series such as "Arrested Development" and the canceled "Wonderfalls" were obscured by obnoxious fiancées, bosses and billionaires. ("The O.C." luckily was launched in a quiet August last year.)

That's why I'm afraid viewers may not find "House." It's as antithetical to Fox's prevailing culture as "The Jury" was last spring. And tomorrow, it'll compete for attention against a new installment of "The Amazing Race" — a first-class reality show.

Mind you, I couldn't make up my mind about "House." It's got an intoxicating premise hampered by faulty execution.

The show is built around its eponymous hero and will be familiar to any lover of Sherlock Holmes stories.

Dr. Gregory House is a brilliant doctor who loves diagnosing difficult cases — it's just people he can't stand. He's prone to rudeness and walks with a limp that seems to require lots of Vicodin. (No signs of a violin in the first two episodes.)

Star Hugh Laurie breathes a tremendous amount of believability into Dr. House. A veteran of British comedy, Laurie knows how to balance acidity with acidity.

At the same time, House isn't pure Holmes. The show's creators have given him a bemused self-awareness that at times borders on puckishness.

It's humanizing, yet it reveals the show's deepest flaw: A reliance on shallow cuteness for comic relief.

Just as you're enjoying the unaccustomed thrill of seeing a doctor recognizable from real life — semi-detached and bored — he's plunged into wink-wink banter with the hospital chief (Lisa Edelstein). Predictably, they've had some past fling.

A tendency toward sophomoric dialogue also plagues the group of first-year residents that constitute House's team.

They're supposed to help him crack cases. Mostly, though, their ideas get gunned down while he solves by example.

The passive nature of the situation doesn't give the supporting cast (Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, Jesse Spencer) much else to do. They swap snarky, interchangeable wisecracks with each other between complaints about their boss. As House's best friend Dr. James Wilson, the talented Robert Sean Leonard is little more than a static foil.

To flesh out "House," each episode has a two-story hook. In addition to the high-end drama of case-solving, we get low-end comedy at a clinic where House is doing penance by attending to ordinary people.

For a series billed as a medical mystery, the science in "House" is often unclear. Part of the satisfaction from watching this type of show is when the light dawns; viewers accustomed to "ER" and "CSI" may find the lack of coherent detail unsophisticated.

Still, "House" marks such a satisfying evolution from those noble physicians on "ER" that I'd like to see more of this kind of TV doctor. Perhaps the show can cure what ails it.

* Source: Nielsen Media Research, Nov. 1-7.

Kay McFadden: 206-382-8888 or at kmcfadden@seattletimes.com.

More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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