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'House': Worst episode ever

April 29, 2008 |  9:13 am

House Absence can, I'm told, make the heart grow fonder. But it can also make you wonder just what exactly you were so fond of in the first place.

In the wake of the writers strike, we've been waiting for months for our favorite shows to return to the air with new episodes.  Now here they are, all our old favorites, crowding up our TiVos with their dear familiar names. And yet something is missing. The first post-strike episodes of shows like "30 Rock" and "The Office" seemed to fall flat; "The Big Bang Theory," which seemed to be gaining some street cred, was just ridiculous; "Grey's" was clever but lacked emotional umph and then, last night, "House" returned with what can only be called the worst episode in its history.

Brevity is mercy in the case of last night's "House" so here's a quick recap: the main case is of a man so happy that Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) decides it is the symptom of something terrible; his new team, through plot twists that I cannot bring myself to explain, "discover" that House has syphilis; House and Amber (Anne Dudek) divide up visiting rights with Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) in such a patronizing manner that I spent the entire episode wondering why Leonard did not threaten to quit if his character were not returned to adulthood, much less manhood. It was all so patently ridiculous, it felt almost like a parody. Except it wasn't funny. And for "House," not funny is a problem. 

Indeed, if this had been the premiere of a new show called "House," I would not be tuning in for the second episode.

At least that is what I was thinking when I crawled sulkily into bed last night. But then I wondered if maybe this wasn't more of a relationship problem than an industry issue. Separation can raise expectations, blur reality, dampen the mysterious chemistry that creates attraction. Watching these early episodes is a bit like seeing your college lover after summer has separated you -- yes, you're happy to be in his/her arms again, but man, did he always laugh that loudly? Was her stutter always that affected? The first embrace after months away is always a bit awkward, no matter what the train station scene in "Reds" has led us to believe.

So maybe television and its audience have just lost their groove. The question becomes, then: Is it permanent?  "It's just been too long," said one viewer with a shrug, explaining that she just didn't feel the same way about "my show" any more. "I guess I'll give it another chance but, I don't know...."

Sad and poignant words. If nothing else, we are learning the emotional value of the season finale. Because we are used to taking a break from our favorite shows, for weeks and months (or in the case of "The Sopranos" and "Battlestar Gallactica," years), but usually we get a good cliffhanger or very special episode to provide both closure and a little something to think about. But this time it was all so sudden, so outside our control -- one minute they were there, trustworthy, reliable -- the next they were not. Instead the curtain was ripped aside and we saw scruffy writers in baseball caps, actors with (gasp) no makeup doing time on picket lines and YouTube. Turns out television is just a business after all, with its creators whining about salaries and Bennie's just like we do at our places of employment.

So we can be forgiven for needing a little extra courtship, a little reassurance before we re-commit. And maybe it's the same with the writers. The alchemy of a writers room is a strange and fragile thing, which is why reporters and other outsiders are rarely allowed in. (That, and all the profanity.) It must be hard to rekindle that, hard for the writers, and the actors, to get back up to speed and recapture the magic.

Though this is no excuse for turning Wilson into a snickering man-child.

And subsequent episodes of "30 Rock" and "The Office" felt better, more like themselves, the shows we've known and loved. So maybe, as with any important relationship, we just need to give it time. As for "House," well, now that House has, basically, two diagnostic teams, maybe the writers should figure out what he, and they, are going to do with them. Or give Wilson and Amber a relationship that is recognizable as human. Or make Dr. Caddy (Lisa Elston) a real person again. Or bring back a romantic foil for House. But they're going to have to do something. And fast. Because the one thing the writers strike taught is that we may miss our shows when they're gone, but life does go on without them.

--Mary McNamara

(Photo courtesy Fox)