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'House': Over the top?

March 16, 2007 |  5:52 pm

Oh, these wacky medical shows. They all say they have actual doctors as consultants but don't you think it's more like reps from Ripley's Believe It or Not? Because of its set-up — crack diagnostics team succeeds where everyone else fails —"House" has, by necessity, some of the wildest cases of the lot. Nun allergic to the copper of her forgotten IUD? Check. Guy with nails stuck all over his skull? Check. Child of dwarf who is not really a dwarf but a victim of an off-kilter pituitary? Check, check.

Even by those standards, last night's episode was a pip — girl with a condition I don't even know how to spell (OK, I checked the website, it's CIPA, which stands for congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis). Yes, "Grey's Anatomy" already used this conceit but "House" upped it with a tapeworm. As House would say, what are the odds? The tapeworm allowed a brief and disturbing homage to the John Hurt death scene in "Alien," with House extracting said tapeworm as girl, who, of course, did not require anesthesia, looked on. (I just have to ask, is House so magical he doesn't have to scrub before surgery? Last episode, he stuck his hand in some kid's bowels, without gloves, having just manually maneuvered himself into the operating room in a wheelchair. Could all these sneaky diseases be just post-op infections?)

I don't even want to think about the real psychological trauma such a thing would do to an already troubled young woman. But then it's a miracle anyone emerges from House's tender ministrations alive — yes, he always gets his man or, in his case, disease, but not before he has dosed and MRIed his patients almost to death. And yet, there they are, the very next day, smiling and comfortable, not even nauseated from all the various drips they have endured.

Not that it matters. We don't watch these shows to learn about medicine or how a hospital works. Mundane medical situations — Caesarean sections, repetitive stress injuries, insurance nightmares — these we can experience by simply asking a colleague, 'How you doing?' We watch because, like all good fiction, "House" is character driven. We watch because we love House.

And he was in good form last night, diagnosing people and conditions, including that pesky CIPA, with a mere probing glance ("You see but you do not observe, Watson"), wreaking havoc on everyone's personal life, eating Dr. Wilson's food, all the while doing the dance of all police/medical/CIA-terrorist dramas ("I tell you we're running out of time!")

If the medicine is not believable, the more interesting topic — how House's mind works — is. There is often a moment when a seemingly unrelated incident — a girl who calls her stuffed bear a dog, Wilson's comment that House eats other people's food to establish dominance — sparks the connection necessary to perform the medical miracle. These always seem to actually make sense and that cannot be easy to write.

The Avid Viewer was also happy to see the seeds of a romantic relationship between House and Cuddy being sown — that had to be part of the show's original bible because really, who else could survive a romantic relationship with House now that Sela Ward's gone? Certainly, any irritating rule about bosses dating their staff would not matter a whit in an institution where the doctors whack patients with canes to prove a diagnosis.

In fact, the only drag on last night's episode was the tedious insistence of making sure we "got" the irony of a girl who could feel no pain being treated by a doctor whose life is ruled by pain. What is it with this trend toward "larger themes?" Did "Hill Street Blues" need themes? Did "St. Elsewhere?"

Although it was fun to watch House and Unfeeling Tapeworm Girl trade "I've got it worse" barbs, my heart went out to Wilson, played by Robert Sean Leonard. Continually forced to point out the obvious through armchair psychoanalysis — "I get it, you're using the fact that this girl feels no pain to … " I don't even remember the rest of the quote because it was so lame — and still remain even remotely believable as a human being, Leonard is surely the hardest-working actor in television.

Although I do worry about Hugh Laurie and that cane. He could wind up in the hospital with a repetitive stress injury if he isn't careful.

--Mary McNamara