Last night’s two-hour House was one the strangest premieres we’ve ever seen. We’ve been bored by the show for a few seasons: Hugh Laurie had become so locked into his character, he was beginning to seem like a tired superhero (Dr. X, only with a cane instead of a wheelchair), trapped by both his amazing talents (that super-brain!) and defined by his colorful flaws (that misanthropy!). Season four introduced a load of new cast members, but House barely changed. And since season three, ratings have plummeted from an average of 19.4 million viewers to just 12 million. So what do you do with a predictable superhero? Reboot!
This episode was the Batman Begins of hour-long dramas. (Spoiler alert.) We first see House suffering from withdrawal in a jittery montage. Then he’s clean. It’s a voluntary commission, but his doctors say he cannot get the letter of good health he needs to practice medicine until he deals with the underlying causes for his addiction. Cue the pathetically derivative homage to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Not only does House play the merry prankster, but there is there an incredibly heavy object to be lifted, misogynist resentment of a female authority figure, a gaggle of cute neurotics (each with one and only one easily solved problem), and (per the movie) a sweet-faced young blond guy who is prompted by House to nearly kill himself (in the film, he actually dies). It’s alternately maudlin and exploitative — especially when House strikes up an improbable romance with a patient’s piano-playing sister (Franka Potente).
That said, Laurie’s scenes with his therapist, Dr. Nolan (Andre Braugher), are fantastic. When the two go toe-to-toe, they’re so strong together you hope Braugher won’t disappear in episode two. (One can imagine House going to see him for therapy, Sopranos-style.) And we’re very excited to think that House might actually become a less predictable, more recognizably human character. Laurie started out a brilliant comedian, but lately he’s been reduced to a barbed insult machine. Already, reactions are ranging from the exhausted (“a tedious, obvious drag,” says Ken Tucker) to the thrilled (“a brilliant stand-alone feature film,” writes The Wall Street Journal’s Melinda Beck) We think it was mostly terrible — but utterly fascinating. We’re going to watch season six, if only to see if whether this was a lame tease, or if Fox really has the courage to fundamentally change one of its biggest franchises.