Television: Scorn Is the Best Medicine

And it makes for good TV, as proved by Fox's House

  • Share
  • Read Later

You've heard of killing with kindness? Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) believes in curing with contempt. He is a gifted diagnostician who is fascinated by disease. But patients he can do without. He insults them, talks down to them and forgets their names--when he speaks to them at all. "How can you treat someone without meeting him?" asks a patient's father. "It's easy," he says, "if you don't give a crap about him."

House is, in other words, the opposite of what a TV doctor is supposed to be--and the most enjoyable new character of the fall. Without him, House (Fox, Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T.) could have been a bland disease-of-the-week exercise like NBC's stultifying Medical Investigation. Every week House and the staff at a New Jersey university hospital treat a different mystery illness. But House is working under protest, forced by his hospital administrator (Lisa Edelstein) to spend a few hours a week seeing actual patients face to face. Hobbled by an excruciating leg condition, he pops Vicodin like Tic Tacs as he suffers hypochondriacs with the sniffles. (He does connect with a bitter office worker trying to milk her insurance before she gets fired; admiring her spite, he orders up an expensive, unnecessary scan.)

Laurie, a British actor known for playing comic twits, transforms flawlessly into an American jerk. (In both accent and attitude he's a little like Survivor's Richard Hatch.) His brilliant, arrogant lead is buffered by a likable confidant (Robert Sean Leonard) and three young doctors (Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison and Jesse Spencer) who hold patients' hands for him. The show also sports CGI effects that, CSI-style, bring us nose-to-cell with platelets and parasites. But unlike CSI, House is more interested in ideas than technology: Is the human touch overrated? Are concepts like "death with dignity" just feel-good lies? Funny, probing and unsentimental, House may shock the systems of viewers used to sweetie M.D.s like ER's Dr. Carter. But as an honest look at techno-medicine and the prerogatives of genius, it's a tonic. --By James Poniewozik