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Critic's Notebook: Farewell to 'House,' which remained true to itself

May 21, 2012 |  8:30 am

House finale hugh laurie
Time takes a toll on us all, no more so than characters of long-running TV shows. All narrative demands transformation of one sort of another and multiple seasons of revelations, realizations and shifting relationships work like the pounding surf against rock, softening the edges of even the most complicated personalities. By the final season of “MASH,” everyone was a good guy; it took only three seasons of “Glee” to turn Sue Sylvester into an applauding fan of New Directions.

So, as we prepare for the series finale, it is worth pausing for a moment to salute the people behind “House,” namely creator David Shore and actor Hugh Laurie, two maestros who have pulled off a near-miraculous feat: After eight long and occasionally crazy seasons, their title character departs with all his amazing faculties and flaws intact.

Dr. Gregory House is arguably the best and certainly the most influential character to appear on network television in the last decade. As played by Laurie, he answered the question many of us ask ourselves daily: What would life be like if you honest to God didn't care what anyone thought of you? Loosely based on Sherlock Holmes, House was brilliant and clearly broken (both physically and emotionally). He saved lives by solving cases, but his satisfaction came from the solution, not the salvation. “Everybody lies” was his mantra, proving it his life's work — the truth would out, no matter what the cost to him, to his patients, to those around him.

In the wake of the show’s success, that template became standard issue; every other TV detective (including a modern relaunch of Holmes himself on BBC) now comes equipped with a special ability to detect mendacity and a broken heart protectively rimed. But eight years ago, it was quite breathtaking; House was as instantly iconic as Tony Soprano.

Along with the limp, the Vicodin addiction and the refusal to shave, Shore and his writers wisely gave their medical detective a quick, black humor, which made Laurie an inspired casting choice. An accomplished comedian and musician, he not only nailed the punch lines and the pain, he infused them with an ecstatic soulfulness. House may have been an avowed atheist, but there were times when he looked like nothing so much as a hollow-eyed prophet, wandering the halls of Princeton Memorial waiting for the gods to speak.

Not every season of “House” worked as well as others. Chances were taken, with cast and story, and not all of them panned out. And there was a certain level of degeneration built in to both the genre and the character; even Arthur Conan Doyle famously got tired of all the brilliant deductions. More so than most shows, “House” often seemed to rest almost entirely on the strength of its main character, and one wondered just how long Laurie, and those writing for him, could keep things going.

Eight seasons, as it turns out, was just right. It isn't often that a show's final year is as good as its first, but it's true in this case, even with the rather crazy jail time (House in the big house) that opened things.

The final arc, which concludes along with the show on Monday, has been especially affecting — House's best friend, Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) learns he has terminal cancer, and watching the two men figure out how to cope, separately and together, has made for great television. Despite the rather predictable drama of this final twist — in a show about life and death, the killing off a major character is always tempting — Shore and his writers refuse to make House someone he's not.

Alone, perhaps, among television leads, House is neither good nor bad, and it isn't really accurate to say that he's a bit of both. Rather, he exists in a place outside good and bad, or at least their conventional definitions, a moral satellite that allowed the show to explore the big questions in ways that rarely seemed forced or silly. That distance was also the character's greatest strength — without the blinders of sentiment or judgment he does see things more clearly than others — and his greatest flaw; empathy is not always a hindrance and knowledge is not our only power.

Even in the face of loss from which there is no escape, neither the character nor the show surrenders to sentiment. Of course there is much wrapping up to be done and the final episode includes appearances from past characters, including a couple who are dead. House, like most of the current characters on the show, will end up in a different place in his life than where he began. But if, over the years, he has made certain admissions, learned certain truths, he is, essentially, unchanged.

After eight seasons and more than 160 episodes, he is just as unpredictable and unclassifiable, just as seductive and fascinating, as he was when he began.

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— Mary McNamara

Photo: Hugh Laurie as "House." Credit: Isabella Vosmikova / Fox.

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