09.16.09

Diagnosing House

The brilliant, drug-addicted main character unraveled in its Emmy-nominated fifth season—the show’s creator says he “had this coming for a long time.”

These days, we like to take our TV doctors and nurses like we take our health care: flawed and profoundly complicated.

On Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, Edie Falco embodies that ethos, routinely putting career and freedom itself on the line to protect her patients from winding up as grist in the mill of a big-city hospital, all the while snorting carefully calibrated lines of pharmaceutical painkillers and joylessly philandering with the doctors.

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Count Fox’s House and its British star, Hugh Laurie, as leading pioneers of this trend toward hospital shows focused on singular, vastly imperfect characters.

In 2004, House and its cane-wielding, Vicodin-addicted, acutely misanthropic title character emerged as something of an enigma, amid a broadcast-television landscape that had yet to embrace nuanced antiheroes like cable already had, with homicidal family men including Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey.

Sure, the ensemble players of ER would occasionally let the job get to them and screw up a little, but they didn’t callously abuse patients or intentionally mess with the minds of staff, simply for personal amusement.

Laurie’s Dr. Gregory House can be mean and horrible… but the prerequisites for a new kind of archetype are all there.

Brilliant? Check.

Cares deeply underneath it all? Check.

Tormented real bad? Double-check.

Structurally, House, like CSI, is just your basic meat-and-potatoes procedural drama, with the afflicted getting sick, passing out, enduring all manner of ghastly boil, tumor, and lesion, then looking great by the end of the show once Dr. House and his team of medical detectives have hashed out the miracle cure.

But it’s Laurie who transcends the show to Emmy contender.

Outside of the writing trophy the show received for its first season, the Emmy voters haven’t necessarily lauded House, but they’ve been mildly intrigued by Laurie, nominating him three out of the last four years.

With last season yielding Laurie’s best performance to date—especially at the end, when the spiraling House becomes a hallucinating shell of himself—it may be time for the TV academy to recognize one of the more compelling and innovative performers on television.

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Daniel Frankel is a Los Angeles-based entertainment writer whose work regularly appears in the entertainment news site The Wrap, as well as the Comcast television portal Fancast. He has also served on the editorial staffs of Variety, Mediaweek and E! Online.