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Obnoxious doctor in the ‘House’

Times Staff Writer

The Boston Red Sox gave Fox a good story line for its World Series coverage, but now the network is rolling out its delayed fall season and confusion reigns. The elaborately staged prank show “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” and “The Rebel Billionaire” opened to lower-than-expected ratings. Plan B appears to be continuing to give “Arrested Development” the gifted-child treatment, perhaps calling another telephone news conference to talk about the show’s continuing genius. Now the network has set itself up for a grand bottom-feeding moment: canceling a sitcom given an Emmy for best writing while renewing, say, “The Swan,” in which plain Janes -- those same people who won’t watch “Arrested Development” -- have their faces cut up to look more like other people on Fox.

The trouble with the network’s brand is that a show like “House,” which premieres tonight at 9, appears to have fluttered, rather than landed, onto the schedule. “House” -- it’s an obtusely named hospital drama, not a show in which 10 people are put into a house and tortured mentally with cockroaches and stuff -- stars British actor Hugh Laurie as Dr. Greg House, head of a crack diagnostic medical team that investigates strange and fatal maladies.

With its forensics overtones playing to the “CSI” craze and a supporting cast that touches the usual bases of youth, brains, beauty and ethnic correctness, “House” is formula. But what saves it from just being formula is Laurie, who as Dr. House has already made me laugh out loud several times. He’s smug, antisocial and gruff, and limps around his hospital (an infarction, misdiagnosed, killed his thigh muscle, he explains) popping Vicodin and dispensing bons mots about the vagaries of medical care, including the care he’s charged to administer.

In this way, House is like his own Shakespearean Fool, undercutting his God-like status as a doctor at every turn. In tonight’s pilot episode, he and his lab-coated wunderkinds are trying to save a woman who has something fatal attacking her brain. “I just want to die with dignity,” she tells House.

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“There’s no such thing,” he says. “We can live with dignity, we can’t die with it.” Then he outlines some of the God-awful stuff that happens to the human body as it breaks down, to drive home the point that he isn’t just being poetic.

This kind of straight, no-chaser approach to patient care is what makes House a satisfying riff on any number of doctors I’ve seen on TV and know I will never have taking care of me. The show dispenses with the traditional portrayal of the doctor as either a crusading do-gooder or officious heavy. House is a stylized version of the doctors on “ER,” or the cops on “NYPD Blue”: an authority figure who’s not just fallible, he’s actively nasty, working toward a cure even as he rages against the very idea of a cure. When he achieves resolution in a complicated case, House is still chagrined, because it doesn’t jibe with what is, after all, the long-term prognosis for all of us.

The show manages to comment on some realities of our healthcare system, chief among them the trend toward nervous, hyper-aware self-diagnosis, wherein instead of dealing with your HMO you Google your disease. One patient tells House that he must have chronic fatigue syndrome because he’s been experiencing “mild fever, sometimes I can’t sleep, and I have trouble concentrating.”

“Apparently not while researching this on the Internet,” House says. This is in the hospital clinic, where House works when he’s not solving the deeply mysterious ailment of the week.

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Episode 2 finds him addressing a crowded lobby of patients this way: “If you’re particularly annoying you may see me reach for this.” He shakes his bottle of Vicodin. “This is Vicodin. It’s mine. You can’t have any.” His first patient is a woman who is probably fine but wants a complete checkup before her company fires her and her coverage lapses. House treats her, for the same subversive reasons he terrorizes the patients in the lobby. This dark humor gives the show a certain cachet. House may not be big or fat, but he is obnoxious, giving the network, at least, something to work with.

*

‘House’

Where: Fox

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When: 9-10 tonight

Ratings: TV--14, L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with strong advisory for language)

Hugh Laurie...Dr. Greg House

Lisa Edelstein...Dr. Lisa Cuddy

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Omar Epps...Dr. Eric Foreman

Robert Sean Leonard...Dr. James Wilson

Jennifer Morrison...Dr. Allison Cameron

Jesse Spencer...Dr. Robert Chase

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Executive producers, Paul Attanasio, Katie Jacobs, David Shore, Bryan Singer. Creator, David Shore. Director, Bryan Singer.


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