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After cleaning ‘House’

Times Staff Writer

The Emmy statue would have gone so nicely with the surfboard.

But, really, who needs a stuffy old Emmy when the people who know what’s hot have named you the Teen Choice TV Actor? Hugh Laurie has two Golden Globes at home and has earned two Emmy nominations, but America’s adolescents last month picked him over Matthew Fox, Wentworth Miller, Milo Ventimiglia and Jared Padalecki as their favorite male TV star on the awards show presented by Fox and Global TV.

Not bad for a 48-year-old, huh?

Or as Laurie, star of Fox’s Emmy-nominated “House,” put it, “Given that the ages of all the other nominees probably don’t add up to mine, I felt that was a real triumph. It’s a huge thrill for me and I can’t deny it.”

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Winning the Teen Choice surfboard, which Laurie says he will use “to iron my shirts or something,” is actually not as much of an anomaly as it might seem, because “House” ranked as the top-rated scripted show among 12- to 17-year-olds last season. More important, the medical mystery drama also pushed past surgical soap “Grey’s Anatomy” to garner the season’s highest number of advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-old viewers for all scripted shows.

Now, in an attempt to keep that momentum for its fourth season, “House” producers have concocted a story line that takes advantage of House’s irreverence and acerbic humor and, interestingly, forces art to imitate life. Just as 40 fellowship candidates are competing for not-so-dreamy jobs with Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House, guest actors are vying for regular roles on the Fox drama. The writers are still mulling over which two or three will stay.

“What can happen often in TV is that if something is successful, everyone is nervous about changing anything in case they risk upsetting the boat,” Laurie said. “But, of course, by the time you actually get a sign that you should change something, it’s too late. I think it’s very clever on the part of the writers that they have used the impetus we have at the moment to very slightly change directions. It’s perfectly in keeping with House’s way of going about things. You make House do something at your peril.”

Cross-generational appeal

LAURIE, whose characters on Britain’s “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” “Black Adder” and “Jeeves and Wooster” were not as high-minded as the infectious-disease specialist he plays now, says it makes him nervous to think about the show’s triple-threat success -- high ratings, critical acclaim and awards -- out of fear “that almost immediately it will evaporate like the morning dew.” But he has come up with a credible theory on why the cranky, charismatic doctor has cross-generational appeal.

“Not that anybody cynically designed it this way, but I do think that House in some ways appeals to an older audience because he expresses all the impatience that old people have with the way the modern world is going and the touchy-feely, anti-scientific way the world is going,” Laurie said. “But he also, I think, connects to teenagers who are similarly impatient with all the rules and restrictions on life. And that rebellious side of House really does appeal to teenagers.”

If that is the magic formula, then this season, which begins at 9 p.m. Tuesday, should follow suit because the scheme that House hatches when he is forced to hire doctors to replace Foreman, Cameron and Chase makes his pretending to have cancer last season seem almost sane. The third-season finale packed a wallop -- the genius doctor who claims he prefers the company of his guitar was left alone, literally. After Foreman (Omar Epps) tendered his two-week notice, House hastily fired Chase (Jesse Spencer), which, in turn, prompted Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) to quit too.

The shake-up was not something creator David Shore had planned from the beginning of the season, but one the writers happened upon as they explored the effect of Foreman’s departure on the team. Then, as the writers played with the idea of how House would handle losing everyone, Shore realized he was in the enviable position of reinvigorating his winning blueprint without forcing it, a challenge all hit shows face as they age and are sized up against new programs.

“Rather than, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, we’ve run out of stuff, it’s starting to get boring, it’s starting to get dull, we’ve got to change something, what are we going to change?,’ we changed it based on our own agenda,” Shore said. “Let’s try it now while the show is still working very well. We’re just expanding the world. The show is not different. It’s just growing a little bit.”

To be sure, the May finale caught fans by surprise. All summer, Internet message boards have been filled with the musings of frustrated and excited fans alike -- some charging the producers with “ruining the show” for the sake of a “gimmick,” others speculating that House’s three fellows at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital will all be back because the producers would never fire three series leads of a hit show at the same time.

Certainly, no one has been fired -- and fans who don’t want to know more should think twice about reading the next few paragraphs.

When the season begins, House -- and the viewers -- have no idea where the three doctors went.

By the second episode, we learn that Cameron has been reassigned to the emergency room at Princeton-Plainsboro, Chase works in surgery and Foreman is at New York Mercy Hospital. But eventually, as Epps disclosed on the Emmys red carpet on Sunday, “he’ll be back begrudgingly.”

And their former Vicodin-addicted boss is as brutally honest and self-indulgent as ever.

Deciding that he does not need a staff, House takes to doing things, such as bouncing his ideas off the janitor until Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), the dean of medicine and hospital administrator, and oncologist Dr. James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) step in and force him to hire help in a story line that takes full advantage of the threesome’s comedic rapport.

“It seems monumental, but it’s really organic, House being House,” executive producer Katie Jacobs said. “How many years can you really survive working with this kind of boss? And when the season starts, he’s by himself. He likes himself.”

Given no choice but to replace his three fellows, House decides to hire 40 temporary candidates, a move Cuddy must tolerate because she does not have to pay them more than she paid Foreman, Cameron and Chase. The rest plays out like a game of “Survivor,” with doctors eliminated on a weekly basis until six are left in the fourth episode. House even makes them wear numbers so he doesn’t have to bother learning their names.

“For Cuddy, this is like if you’re water-skiing and all of a sudden the speed boat takes off and starts whipping around and you’re trying to hold on,” Edelstein said. “He’s just gone out of control. Imagine if he has three people to hurl insults at and now he has 40 people. It’s like the show is magnified at this point because there’s just more people to abuse on it.”

If the “reality” game seems vicious, consider this: The new actors playing doctor are jumping the same hurdles, except that they don’t have to put up with a grouch’s mean streak off-camera. At recent table reads, Laurie has noticed that the actors vying to become regulars have been reading their scripts back to front. Edelstein said she finds the new season’s scripts so exciting that she has been waiting for the table reads to find out who gets fired at the end of each episode.

“It really is rather a cruel environment, in many ways,” Laurie said. “But what’s really delightful is that the actors involved, instead of eyeing each other jealously and competing and trying to stab each other in the back, they are a sort of happy band of brothers. They almost, almost sing songs around the campfire.”

The group includes Olivia Wilde (“The O.C.” and “The Black Donnellys”) as an intriguing physician whom House can’t figure out; Edi Gathegi (“Lincoln Heights”) as a black Mormon; Peter Jacobson (“The Starter Wife”) portraying a plastic surgeon; Anne Dudek (“Mad Men”) as an ambitious know-it-all; and Kal Penn (“24") as the doctor most invigorated by the genius he wants to work for.

Shore and his writers are now in the process of choosing House’s two or three new fellows, which takes place in the eighth episode.

“On any other show I’ve worked with, I don’t know how this would feel,” Shore said. “But this just feels like something House would do. Interviewing and hiring seems like something he wouldn’t do. Hiring 40 people and then firing 37 of them feels like something he would do.”

Laurie agrees but finds comfort in knowing that the audience knows House better than anyone at Princeton-Plainsboro.

“For all that horrible, random, destructive behavior, there always remains something redeemable about House,” Laurie said.

“Nothing that House does is for public approval. In the same way he doesn’t care about the criticism, he also doesn’t care about the applause either. He’s just doing it for his own reasons, and we the audience know something. We have a hint that underneath all of that, he may not be an angel, but he’s on the side of the angels.”

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maria.elena.fernandez@latimes.com


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