September 21st, 2009
“You’re not God.”
There was a lot of response to “Broken,” as there is to many House premieres and finales. House, like many other shows which on a week-to-week basis only seem to dabble in serialized storylines, likes to pile on the sudden tension in the late and early parts of each season. It’s the time of year where Amber dies in a tragic accident, or when House begins hallucinating due to his use of Vicodin, or when House gets shot and goes into a dream-like state and regains some use of his leg. In all instances, the show presents us with a simple question: what if Dr. House changed? What if, after losing Amber or having his leg fixed or firing all of his fellows or the suicide of one of his fellows or (in the Season 5 finale) being institutionalized, he grows up in a way that changes his dynamic with the people around him and how he does his job?
Every year, however, the same thing happens: he and Wilson reconcile, he convinces himself his leg isn’t better, he hires new fellows and everything effectively goes back to normal. House is, ultimately, like every other procedural in that there are parts of its identity which cannot change as fundamentally as the finales want us to believe, the premieres always designed as a first step to righting the character’s universe. This is something that I’ve complained about in the past, but I think I’ve finally come to terms with it.
“Broken” is certainly, at the very least, the most impressive effort yet to make House’s re-entry into his world both believable and not without consequence. Taking the form of “House: The Movie,” ditching the entire cast save a cameo from Robert Sean Leonard in favour of a collection of doctors, patients and visitors from Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital, the two-hour episode takes the time to go through every stage of House’s process. It allows us to see his usual behaviour, conniving and manipulative, and then to deconstruct it in a way which never feels preachy, and which in the end reveals a character who remains acerbic and charming but who does seem a lot closer to what one might consider happy.
And while only time will tell how far these changes go, I’m not really concerned: long-term change or no, this was an extremely compelling two hours of television.
Hugh Laurie deserves to win an Emmy for this role, and in some ways this episode is almost cheating: he’s the only regular cast member in the episode and the two-hour running time allows him to demonstrate both the comic jerk side of House (which is entertaining to watch) as well as the vulnerable and weak side which seems to drive the previous behaviour. While the show normally tends to draw its impact (week by week) from people outside of House’s life, as the patients provide the emotional hook while House skirts around the edges entertaining us, this episode draws nearly everything from House. It takes its time to get House into a position where he starts to talk about his own feelings, but eventually he’s sitting in the chair and the episode is deriving its emotional impact from his own sense of love and loss, of happiness and disappointment.
The episode works tremendously well when it connects House directly to those ideas. His courtship with Lydia (Franka Potente) stretches out believability at least somewhat as she lets him steal her car and then doesn’t seem to mind that he was responsible for a young and delusional man to jump off of a parking structure, but it seems like a genuine connection that we haven’t seen House make in a long time. The episode starts with House in his element, diagnosing the patients around him and having a fun old time with it, but eventually we see him experiencing the types of things we haven’t seen in quite some time. I kept expecting the rug to get pulled out from under him, to have Lydia reject him for emotional reasons or to have her prove to be a figment of his imagination (unlikely considering the show will want to get back to normal, but likely considering the show’s desire to screw with us), but in the end the subtlety of the moment was what mattered: he cared about her, she cared about him, but they are eventually separated by circumstance and very little else, leading him to prove his sanity by feeling hurt and lost and going to a professional for help as opposed to self-medicating.
It’s a surprisingly subtle beat, which is why it works so well. For a two-hour premiere event, it never felt like it was going too far into theatrics, that it was shocking the viewer with twists and turns or anything else. Sure, Lin Manuel Miranda as Alvy, House’s roommate, was over the top and boisterous, but it nicely displayed the chaotic nature of the ward and how House’s first instincts are always to work with what he has to deflect from himself (first breaking them down and then rallying them together in protest). For House himself, it was more about trust and understanding, and the episode built that for us. It used its two hours not to cram a whole lot of content down our throats, but rather to slowly indicate House’s growing self-awareness to the point where we buy his “Re-Birthday” ceremony as genuine, if not quite so genuine as to fundamentally change his character.
Along the way, though, there were some hiccups. The moment with the deluded superhero as he jumps off of a parking structure was a bit too much of a tragedy that I don’t think even House would have overlooked (even in his “I’ll show you” mentality), and the eventual solution to Lydia’s sister-in-law (giving her the music box, as the defender had suggested) and her condition was contrived in order to fly Lydia away and to open House’s eyes tot he world around him. When the episode let the great Andre Braugher and House bond over Nolan’s father, or about House’s issues (such as the clever party scene), it felt like they were really getting at something. When they needed to turn a corner, though, the show demonstrated its roots in the procedural and cures seemed magical and flights from parking structures seemed sudden.
But, at the end of the day, “Broken” succeeds because of how great Hugh Laurie is at playing every facet of this character. Gregory House is far more human than he has any right to be, a fact which makes these occasional interludes so powerful. And while sometimes the episodes feel slighted and rushed in only an hour, as they take place in the hospital and have other stories swirling around them, this one was allowed to breathe and flow in a way that others were not. It wasn’t perfect, and it wrapped up a bit too cleanly like every episode of House, but it really did feel like a well-constructed piece of dramatic cinema that just happened to feature one of the best television actors working today. And while I can understand why some would want the show to return to the hospital and remain the procedural show it once was, it is the series’ willingness to go out on these limbs that keeps me interested beyond its basic premise week after week.
- It was a bit of a cliche to have a piano happen to be in the ward considering House’s penchant for the instrument, but it was well handled. I especially liked that House, discovering that the lid was left unlocked as he had requested of Lydia, plays a few notes but doesn’t actually play. He could have played it, but then it would have been considered behaviour and he wanted nothing to do with that.
- One would expect that Andre Braugher will join Laurie as an Emmy nominee with this episode: David Morse proved that you don’t even need to be good on house to grab a guest acting nomination, and Braugher was excellent and a two-time past winner (and multi-time nominee) for his work in Thief and Homicide: Life on the Street.
- Interesting to see them largely skip over (and ultimately ignore) House’s detox/pain period before entering War 6 – other than the montage set to Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” his own personal chaos was skipped over until the point where he felt he was fine and thus would start wreaking havoc.
- How much did Dr. Beasley (Megan Dodds) look like Kristen Bell? It was honestly driving me crazy.