Watch a season’s worth of episodes for a serial drama such as 24 or Deadwood, and you witness the gradual transformation of key characters and elaborate plots that pay off over the course of a year. Watch a TV drama such as House: Season 2 on DVD, and you take in 24 episodes, and with the exception of a two-parter, most plots are wrapped up after about 45 minutes (an hour minus the commercials), and the main characters rarely do any changing. Does that make House a lesser show than 24 or Deadwood? Well, structural predictability is reassuring (one of the ancient pleasures of network television), if not exactly subversive or revolutionary.
And week in, week out, subversion and revolution can be overrated, while a trip to the hospital — where Hugh Laurie’s pill-popping, grouchy, gimpy doctor waggles his cane and his eyebrows with equal archness — can be downright bracing. The Brit comic-gone-American heartthrob should’ve been prime Emmy bait: He’s playing variations on a classic type — part Columbo, part (as exec producer David Shore points out in one of the collection’s skimpy two commentaries) Archie Bunker. A medical mystery solver with politically incorrect cantankerousness, Dr. House hit his stride this season, with cases ranging from an ailing celebrity doc played by Ron Livingston (”Crushed under the weight of his own ego?” snorts House) to a faith healer who mysteriously collapses (”Faith. That’s another word for ignorance, isn’t it?”).
While the trio of costarring caregivers who follow House around like little doctor-duckies — Omar Epps, Jennifer Morrison, and Jesse Spencer — are sometimes either too gullible or too sulky, Lisa Edelstein, as House’s boss, Dr. Cuddy, is neither humorless nor besotted with the brilliant but bratty diagnostician. And best of all is Robert Sean Leonard, who really came to the fore with a witty story line about his Dr. Wilson moving in with House after Wilson’s marriage collapsed. Wilson’s function is to force House to confront his coldness and willful inhumanity, but he does so with just the right amount of unfeigned fondness and tart criticism: ”They could build monuments to your self-centeredness,” he tells House in the faith-healing episode — the subtext of which is, of course, House’s own doctorly god complex.
The only false note this season was the use of the luminous Sela Ward as an old House flame. The writers never knew what to do with her character: The couple couldn’t really romance, because she was married and he — well, for Pete’s sake, House doesn’t bill and coo. So her character was there for a few episodes to torture our antihero’s already tortured soul; Ward deserved better. But mostly, we got more than we could have hoped for from this cold but sturdy House.