2010-2011 season wrap: House

With the 2010-2011 television season officially over, I’ll be taking some time over the next week or so to look back on how some of television’s best fared this season.

General thoughts: End dates are not normal in television and most series limp towards the finish line. This is often more true for series with procedural leanings. I’m not here to talk about how House wasn’t as good in its seventh season as it was in its second or its third because that’s an obvious point to make. Of the criticism web sites and publications I read, no one was as high on this season of House as I was. I don’t blame those folks and I completely recognize the faults in House that will probably never go away at this point. But as someone who really fell out of love with the series over the fifth and sixth seasons, I found season seven of House to be a nice, albeit oftentimes flawed, improvement.

When you’re reviewing series on a weekly basis, it’s sometimes difficult to see the forest for the trees. When individual episodes or plotlines don’t work, it’s easy to throw your hands in the air and talk about how a series has lost “it,” how you’re no longer invested in the characters, how it should be cancelled or whatever other rage-soaked critiques come out. Even though House has transitioned from a morality play with a procedural core to a more melodramatic character study over the past few years, it still focuses a lot on those cases. And when the cases suck or episodes focus too much on something like Taub’s sex life, House sucks that week. But that doesn’t make House suck as a series.

For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about House and its series-long arc for the lead character over the past few days (probably because I knew I was going to write this post), and it seems as if the series and this season in particular make more sense as a whole than as individual parts. I’m one of those people who believes that television should work on a weekly basis just as much as a season- or series-long basis, but when I look back on season seven of House, I like more of it than I thought I did. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any problems, but I guess I can see the logic in the storytelling when looking at it as a whole instead of in individual parts.

The biggest problem House has always had its tension with change. It’s always been something more than a typical procedural, so the expectations of change are there. The series hasn’t helped matters by always hinting at change, whether in season finales or random special episodes. But at the end of the day, House is a procedural and perhaps more importantly, it’s a series about a guy who, at times, has desperately wanted to change, but can’t really do it. It’s problematic to read a series’ issues with pacing and storytelling onto its thematic interests, but I’m wondering if House‘s inability to really, truly change is completely connected to House’s inability to really, truly change. And when he actually tries to do so, like he did for most of season seven, the series gets bumpy just like Gregory House’s life.

Furthermore, for as odd as this sounds, season seven of House was the one committed most to change. The finales of so many seasons suggested that both House and House would be something different come the following fall, but only this season actually followed through with it. Unfortunately, that change meant that House and Cuddy were finally trying their hand at a romantic relationship and House was actually making an effort to be a different kind of person. The relationship between House and Cuddy was never going to be easy and this season really pushed that, perhaps to its own detriment. I understand why people didn’t like the two of them together: Their years of antagonism created some of the worst will-they-or-won’t-they around and when they finally got together, the series sort of white-washed House’s previous six seasons of actions. I liked, but didn’t overwhelmingly love House and Cuddy together and yet I completely respected the series’ decision to go that route because it had to be explored and because the series actually committed to it. Maybe that’s faint praise for a series that’s completely lost it, but I don’t think so.

As a season-long story about change, recovery, falling off the wagon and trying to find a new equilibrium, House‘s seventh season works pretty darn well. For better or for worse, House thought that the best way to become a better person was to be in a relationship with Cuddy. He fell in love and did all he good to change his ways in hopes of making the relationship work. But in the time where he felt most comfortable and not alone for the first time in a decade (heck, maybe ever), it was all ripped away from him and there was really only one way to go: down. Despite his 18+ months of sobriety (and only as far as drugs go), this is a man who spent years and years addicted to drugs and more importantly, addicted to his job. His mental break and time in the mental institution pulled him away from the job initially and the relationship with Cuddy only furthered that detachment. Cuddy more or less replaced both the drugs and the job, and when she was gone, he turned to the former for help.

Sure, some of the things House did along the way (get married, drive a car through Cuddy’s front room) were completely and totally ridiculous. But this is man who lives in the extremes and he was full of sadness, rage, loneliness, confusion and for the first time in a while, drugs. I completely believe that House would take part in a green-card marriage and smash his car into a dining room.

In that respect, House season seven did a damn good job of showing us the difficulties of change, especially for someone like Gregory House. It’s never, ever easy and oftentimes, you end up in a place somewhat worse than where you started. That was House’s journey this season and amid all the soap opera histrionics and lacking medical relevance, I really did enjoy the character arc. For all the things that House continuously gets wrong these days, it still manages to keep its lead character interesting, sympathetic and damaged. I imagine a lot of that has to do with Hugh Laurie’s performance, but I’ve found it much easier to evaluate what the series has been doing to the character when taking the long view.

Unfortunately, House isn’t a series about just one character. While I did enjoy some of the early season plotlines involving Masters’ place on the team and the chemistry between the male members of the team, none of the underlings had a worthy arc, story or beat this season. Foreman had absolutely nothing to do, Chase had a few moments, but basically nothing and Masters did very little than fill a pretty girl-sized void. The one character the series tried to focus on was Taub, and it kept hammering home the exact same beat for 22 episodes. I used to love Taub and I still like Peter Jacobson’s helplessly hopeless sad-dog performance, but the series has never figured out how to write for the New Coke members. The writers have gotten lucky with the other two since Kal Penn wanted another job and Olivia Wilde became famous, but Taub’s been in the same horrible rut for three seasons and it’s so awful that even my Taub-love cannot rationalize it.

Maybe that’s the overall problem with House. It is lovely to look upon the whole season and analyze how compelling the lead character’s story was, but it’s really, really difficult to build a 23-episode season around just one character. Hugh Laurie is amazing, but he can’t carry all the weight, all the time. The series has always been very House-heavy, but the schism between how good the House stories are and how terrible everything else is has gotten wider in recent seasons and a few good Olivia Wilde moments weren’t enough to change those circumstances in season seven.

But that’s basically how the series works at this point. The cases are no longer compelling or even passable most weeks and the supporting characters have been grounded down to their most basic and stereotypical existences. If this were a 13-episode cable drama, House might still be cooking along with a lot of momentum, but the constraints and pressures of the extended network television season mean that the series has to provide those episodic pleasures on at least a somewhat consistent basis. House did not accomplish those goals too often in season seven. I’m still sticking it out with this series until the very end, and perhaps I’ll still be the one critic loving it more than most. But House needs to use its clean-slate cliffhanger to really mix things up, not just for the lead, but for everyone, if it wants to have a substantial rebound season.

Season grade: B

Best seven episodes: “Office Politics,” “The Dig,” “Bombshells,” “Out of the Chute,” “Selfish,” “Two Stories,” “Changes”

Worst three episodes: “Family Practice,” “After Hours,” “Small Sacrifices”

Best performance: Hugh Laurie, duh.

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