ScreenCritics takes a look back at Season One of House MD – – checking out what made the show tick (and what didn’t!) back in the early days.
When House MD touched down in 2004, many wouldn’t have predicted the sizable waves it would cause in its wake. The show not only elevated Hugh Laurie to television royalty but also managed to become appointment television for millions of viewers every week. Fox were seemingly caught off guard by the shows popularity in the initial days, trying to force their vision onto the show and awkwardly almost killing it dead in the process. But true quality prevailed and in time – the show would become the most watched programmes on television. That being said, Season One certainly isn’t the finished product. Sit back, relax and let’s take a glorious look back across the highs and lows of Season One.
The show revolves around Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) who is the head of diagnostics medicine at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. His sharp wit is only matched by his darker tendencies; an addiction to vicodin and a sense of coldness to the wider world that isolates him emotionally from colleagues and patients. It’s through his keen ability to see what others miss and connect dots in ways that others wouldn’t that make him such an accomplished doctor. Accompanying House are his trusty team of equally damaged doctors. The emotionally stunted Dr. Foreman (Omar Epps), the widowed Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) and the ever shifting Dr. Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer) make up the cast of side-characters whom House projects these feelings onto. Add into the mix House’s boss Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) and close friend James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and you’ve got our core cast in a nutshell.
It goes without saying but your enjoyment of House MD as a show boils down to how much you enjoy the central character Gregory House. It’s established fairly quickly in proceedings that every other major character is on board mostly to service the House character – challenging him at crucial moments while being utilized in ways that allows the shows writers to grasp at new emotional strings. Other characters get development but there’s a sense that when House isn’t on-screen – the show is waiting for the next opportunity to bring its star player back into the fold.
It’s lucky then that House, as a character, is so well crafted. His direct approach to interactions. mixed with an emotional instability, allows Hugh Laurie to really shine in the role. It’s a mixture of outlandish behavior peppered with the kind of serious moments that makes the character so endearing to audiences. He plays the piano, he loves monster trucks and he downs vicodin like tictacs. Yet opposed to this is the true darkness of the character. His determination to push away others shows us a character who is brutally alone, caring and ultimately invested in the people around him; even if he doesn’t like to show it. These brief glimpses of humanity make the characters more outlandish features all the more tolerable (something later series would lose touch of in my opinion). In Season One of the show, House is still very much a redeeming character and one whose ability to emotionally shift on a pinhead makes the show all the more enjoyable. From playing with a Gameboy, to throwing his ball – the character is filled with enough nuance and intrigue to keep audiences on board.
Outside of Hugh Laurie are the rest of the core cast members. Lisa Edelstein shines as House’s boss – the women with the almost impossible task of holding the Doctor’s leash. Unfortunately in Season One her character isn’t given much in the way of core development. This results in her character feeling two-dimensional for long periods of the show, inconsistent at times as the show demands she tugs the leash and adds tension to proceedings. Nevertheless,Edelstein shines in almost all of her interactions with House; providing enough substance to keep fans invested and giving the writers food for thought on development of her character. Likewise Wilson’s character suffers at times from “we need him to be on-screen” syndrome – the show struggling to find solid reasons to develop his character beyond House’s immediate gaze. We glimpse brief development – but more so than with Cuddy, Wilson is mostly there to deliver House’s emotional turmoil in a viewer-friendly fashion. The interactions between Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard are pitch perfect and add gravitas to some of the season’s more emotional pits.
In terms of House’s team there’s a mixed bag across the board. Omar Epps is the MVP of the team providing – House with consistent challenges and butting heads more often than not over diagnosis. It’s the weight of the performance that Epps brings to the table that makes their interactions so strong. Meanwhile the Cameron character is loaded with awkward inconsistencies that bloat the characters emotional range and stifle attempts to form a romantic tie between her and House. This isn’t helped by the fact that the production order of the episodes is wildly different to the order they aired – effectively crushing her character development and ripping any subtlety from the performance. The Hameron was a beautiful ship, but doomed from the outset. As for Chase – in Season One he comes across more as a jackass than I suspect the show wants him to be. His arrogance runs unchecked at times and the show paints him as an awkward villain at times; something I suspect the writers regretted as they moved forward with the show.
If Season One of House MD has issues, it’s in the way it tries to deliver stories. Early on it becomes apparent that the writers didn’t know if the show would take off in any notable fashion. This leads to a good chunk of the early episodes feeling too self-contained; lacking strings and development that was much-needed. As alluded too above – the shifting of these episodes erodes any character development in this early block and really harms the tone of the first half of the season. Sadly this inconsistency continued into the second half of the season; as the show experimented almost too much with the soap-formula. Instead of episodes being self-contained, we ended up with multi-episode arcs that either go nowhere fast or feel too obvious in their attempts to shake things up.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the introduction of the Edward Vogler (Chi McBride) character. I’ve seen it mentioned around that Fox wanted the show to have a villain of some description – a foe to which House’s character would struggle to overcome. In reality the show over-egged the pudding in this case; landing itself with a comically over the top villain who takes offence at House for no real reason. Their interactions feel bizarrely loaded; with Vogler attempting to bring House down to size. It could have worked had the show approached it in a more interesting manner. Instead it goes all-in pretty much from the word go, with House immediately in the firing line and Vogler relegated to mustache twirling villain. He brought out the worst in the Chase character – almost sinking him without trace as the writers tried to build up menace that wasn’t there. It also pushed the writers to launch the Hameron story arc – something they’d been toying with up to that point but never really paying attention too. Put simply, it’s a five-episode story arc that almost derailed the show and caused more damage than it prevented.
But even these awful storylines at least served up new aspects of the House character. As said earlier, everything the show did was tailored to peeling back the layers of the central character and to this end – the show succeeds. The quality of the writing is enough to allow Hugh Laurie scope to express the emotions at play well; while Lisa Edelstein enjoys some much-needed development throughout. Her loyalty to the House character is admirable and hugely poignant to the show – something that would become much more notable as the seasons ticked by. Even at its worst – the show maintained an excellent standard of writing that allows it to elevate above typical television drama.
It’s these interactions between characters that truly makes the show work. There’s very little wasted airtime – from the way Cameron and Chase cast daggers at each other, to the way that Foreman is constantly seeking to butt heads with House. It’s the quality of the dialogue and the way the show conveys the fluid nature of the relationships that helps to really stick the landing. It’s the way Chase cowardly double crosses House that makes audiences want to see him get his comeuppance. It’s the disapproving glances Cuddy throws House during one of their back and forths; combined with the realization she’ll end up giving in to his crazy demands anyway that really make the show feel like a layered experience.
It’s this quality that leads to the season’s best episode – “Three Stories”. An emotional tour-de-force that delivers the kind of emotional wind-up and delivery that the show would become noted for much later on. The best episodes in the season are the ones which home in on the House MD character and explore the reasons why he’s like he is. The excellent “Detox” and “Damned If You Do” really take the time to dive into the history of the character and show the show at its absolute best. There’s no “bad” episode among the season I’d argue (There are some fairly average outings though) so re-watching the entire season is still a huge blast.
Plus we can’t escape a retrospective of the early Seasons of House MD without talking about the clinic sessions. The show lost touch with these as the years went by but in the early days, they played a huge part in helping to deliver relief to audiences. From funny to tragic, the clinic sessions where always a highlight of the episode for me and one of the big reasons that some of the shows more darker moments didn’t push away audiences. Who didn’t swoon slightly as crazy syphilis lady tried to win over House?
In the end – Season One of House MD isn’t the strongest outing for the show. It would be in Season Two where it really began to morph into a true titan of television. Yet there’s a huge amount of enjoyment to be had here. There are lots of little nods and interesting ideas delivered throughout, and while not all of them stick the landing – you can’t truly say that its anything short of fun. The season’s biggest issue is its pacing – not helped by Fox’s initial fence-sitting on how many episodes the season would get. Certainly if you’re in the market to watching House MD – you could do a lot worse than lost a few days to this season.