Fox's (second?) best show returned last night in bold form. It was one of those rare instances where network television brushed up against a world of writing possibilities that is usually limited to five-star cable dramas. The formula that has invariably dictated this show's structure for five years had finally been shed. There were no "shocking medical mysteries" (!); there was no melodramatic first act collapse of a complete stranger; and, most importantly, there was no contrived resolution for that character, only 55 minutes after his or her introduction. For once, the show was completely delivering on its title: It was about House. It was about damn time.
If you ask me, season five was the best yet. It may have irritated critics and marked a significant decline in the show's ratings, but I appreciated the writers' many attempts at imbuing the show with some genuine life. Face it: Previous seasons had very little in the way of character development. The pairing of Chase and Cameron brought this to the fore; years later, these people were still mostly strangers to us. Sure, Hugh Laurie has consistently chewed scenery since the show's premiere, but even House's growth had largely been limited to season finale stunts. With season five, and particularly the development of Dr. Hadley, we got our first taste of significant, ongoing, character-driven plotlines. Even the Sick Person of the Week gained a new level of resonance. For example, having to treat one of her one-night stands forced Hadley to confront the recent choices she had been making as a reaction to her Huntington's diagnosis.
Big strides, to be sure, but still frustratingly short of the show's full potential. While the writers were audacious enough to buck the show's strictly episodic structure, the characters still seemed to suffer from an inability to remember what happened to them five episodes ago. It seemed as if the show's slavish insistence on solving one case each week was still muddling it's attempts at doing something more.
Then came the final arc of the fifth season. This is where the show blew wide open. House's mental state was finally being called into serious question and, furthermore, it was being done in the style that has always been the series' strong suit – surrealism. This allowed those tedious weekly cases to persist but, all along, be smothered with a delicious coating of menace and insanity. (Major credit goes to Anne Dudek for her portrayal of Amber, and the writers who where smart enough to capitalize on her talents.) It all led up to a finale that was downright heartbreaking. House, finally stripped of his pride, admitted that he sorely needed help.
It was, arguably, the moment to which the entire show had been leading. To do this landmark justice, the writers would have to ensure that the show would never be the same again. Last night's episode did many things to this end. Rejoining House as he completes his detox treatment in a mental hospital, we find him eager to leave. The warden, however, requires that House undergo psychiatric treatment before he is allowed to return to work. He is admitted to the hospital's long-term wing and, for the first time, forced to face his issues head-on.
The writers of "House" smartly eschew most of the show's habits here (except, of course, for the supporting characters' penchant for psychoanalyzing House). Princeton-Plainsboro, House's medical team, Cuddy and even the whiteboard are nowhere to be seen in this episode – a first for the series. (Even the opening is gone!) Instead, action is largely confined to the ward and plot is entirely confined to House's treatment. While the first hour is spent showing House's attempts at subverting his treatment, the second half of the episode puts House in situations we have never seen him tackle. It is thrilling to see a character we have loved for so many years make such strides, as the show explores how attainable happiness is for him.
There were moments during this episode where I wondered if House needed to ever return to his old job – both a testament to how fascinating the episode is and how convincing its most optimistic moments are. It raises questions of how much a show can change before it stops being itself. More importantly, it raises questions of how much "House" is willing to change. For all of the milestones in this episode, the status quo is largely restored by the end. There is much potential for long-term change, but no guarantee of it. (House's laughably brief abandonment of his cane in the third season comes to mind here.) It reeks of insecurity on the writers' part; they are hedging their bets. Can one new character from this episode not make it into the series' main storyline?
My naive excitement over a potentially seismic shift in the show's structure has since given way to something a bit more reasonable: a hope for continued evolution. I do not expect the writers to turn "House" into an exclusively serialized drama, nor would I want this. What I do want, however, is the writers' recognition of what they have achieved with this episode. They have proven that a new patient does not have to come along every week, that their characters can periodically carry the show on their own and that change can be permanent without robbing the show of its identity. Whether or not they recognize this will be clearer next week. Consequently, next week's episode has more riding on it than the writers probably intended.
Incidentally, would they give Hugh Laurie an Emmy, already?
UPDATE (9/23/09): Now, for a different perspective, "House Away from Home," a brief reaction to the episode from Mr. Keeley. He discusses certain plot details that I did not, so consider this a spoiler warning.
Season five of House ended with the good(ish) doctor entering a psychiatric hospital. I assumed, given the show's history, that season six would open with House walking away from Mayfield Psychiatric's Gothic monstrosity and returning to business as usual. I figured House's rehabilitation would be both inconsequential and offstage. It may yet prove unimportant, but at least we got to see it. I don't know if "Broken" was the show's best episode, but it was certainly a very good one. It may not have entirely broken the tried-and-tested House formula, but it came damn close.
If you watch the earliest episodes of House, you'll notice an almost noirish production design: Though set in a state-of-the-art hospital, House's world seems to have a hell of a lot of atmospheric shadows. As the show has progressed (and occasionally regressed), a lot of the show's old mood vanished. One can't blame the cinematographers if shooting the same few rooms and hallways episode after episode became a tad routine. Seriously - how many times have we seen House and Co. walk down the hallway discussing symptoms? Or House entering Cuddy's office to harass her? House had found a groove that threatened to become a rut. The change in setting and tone seems to have inspired House's cinematographers and production designers: There were a number of very "cinematic" and evocative shots. Especially nice was the opening detox scene, all the colors were washed-out, though the camera lingered on the yellow of House's precious Vicodin pills. "Broken" looked more like a pilot episode than it did a show entering its sixth season. I for one count this as a good thing.
As much as I liked the look of this last episode, I was initially wary about the show's plot, as House clearly planned to recreate One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Mayfield. House's many attempts at breaking the system fail; it soon proves that House's "opponent" Dr. Nolan is Our Hero's equal, not a sadistic medical tyrant. I applaud the writers for their skill in messing with our expectations. Despite all this episode's innovation, old habits die hard – there were two "patients of the week." The first patient came in the form of a mute woman. Unsurprisingly, she speaks by the end of the episode. The more important patient by far, however, was House. I've always cared more about the characters than the medicine. I don't expect "character-centric" episodes from medical dramas, but it's very nice when they come.
House is not a perfect show and "Broken" was not a perfect episode. It was disappointing to see House's new romance written off so quickly, and I didn't particularly care to see House still solving medical mysteries while institutionalized. Nonetheless, I think there's a lot to look forward to this season. House is off Vicodin, but on antidepressants. What does this mean? Now that House has had an actual relationship with a woman, how will his courtship of Cuddy change? How will the other doctors react to House's return? Will there be any recurring characters from the psych ward? Will the writers revert the status quo yet again? Time will tell, Mondays at eight o'clock.