House shuttered itself on Monday night. The first hour, titled “Swan Song,” consisted of a retrospective of the series’ eight seasons, 177 episodes, with lots of behind-the-scenes interviews with the crew and co-stars, some of them conducted by star Hugh Laurie, and a paintball fight. The second hour, “Everybody Dies,” featured a typically baffling medical case for Dr. Gregory House, which was only a first-half-hour cover for what really mattered, including numerous guest faces from the past, and which requires in this spot a SPOILER ALERT.
The final struggle for the life and soul of Dr. House involved him sprawled in a burning building, his self-described “smack-addled brain” having visions of previous co-stars, including Jennifer Morrison, Anne Dudek, Sela Ward, and Andre Braugher. Most of them engaged him in philosophical debate about his selfish view of life and career (“the only thing that ever mattered was the puzzle”), love (“I know you believe in love”), and – well, his selfishness again (“you’re arrogant, you’re self-destructive you only care about yourself”).
We were led to believe that House died in the fire, and had to sit through a memorial service featuring an urn that was supposed to have contained House’s ashes, while Robert Sean Leonard’s Wilson delivered the most impassioned eulogy, whose sentiments ranged from “He was a healer” to “House was an ass; he mocked anyone … he was a bitter jerk.”
But he was interrupted by a phone text (all in caps: “SHUT UP YOU IDIOT”), and eventually the dying Wilson learned that House had lived, had in a roundabout way devised the whole thing so that he could disappear to be with his best friend: “I’m dead, Wilson: How do you want to spend your last five months?”
So over a montage scored to Warren Zevon singing “Keep Me In Your Heart,” we saw that House had brought his former colleagues and students together in his (supposed) death. And finally, we watched House and Wilson, in leather astride motorcycles, presumably going through Wilson’s bucket list, this scored to the song “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” – the Louis Prima version, I believe. It was an unabashedly sappy ending, and yet a satisfying one, since House had, in its final seasons, become a rather sentimental show anyway. A fitting ending, in other words.
If the hook that sold House to Fox was the idea of an eccentric anti-hero who solved medical cases the way Sherlock Holmes solved criminal ones, the success of the show was also due in part to timing. Immediately pre-House, the medical genre’s hits were dominated by ensemble shows – ER and Chicago Hope, for example – and so it was canny of creator David Shore to realize that the time might be ripe for a solitary all-knowing doctor – one wise man surrounded by a cast that was very much supporting. It’s not a stretch to say that House was a rude variation on Marcus Welby, M.D., or Dr. Kildaire.
The biggest House problem that became apparent as the seasons went by was that the show never developed a supporting cast that was worthy of Laurie’s performance or the show’s ingenious concept. I exclude from this, of course, Robert Sean Leonard, who, as I have written repeatedly over the years, gave a magnificently sustained performance that could be used in any drama or media studies class in how to be a supporting player. Never showy, Leonard nonetheless took firm hold of every scene that hinged upon his presence, and right from the start, he had a very clear concept of how to have Wilson go toe-to-toe with House while being meticulous about never communicating that he as an actor desired to go toe-to-toe with Laurie. This wasn’t modesty; it was a great craftsman at work, ever vigilant.
That said, the rest of them: Mostly ehhh. Before they became romantically involved, Lisa Edelstein’s Cuddy was a fine foil for House, one of the few women who was permitted by the writers to match wits with him (again, this was early on – after a while she was written mawkish and insultingly flighty; think that’s why Edelstein didn’t return for a final speech?). But Omar Epps’ Foreman remained steadfastly a tedious poker-face; Jennifer Morrison’s Cameron never met a pout she didn’t like; Jesse Spencer’s Chase spent every season looking non-plussed at House’s barbed eccentricity, as though he never learned anything about his boss from one week to the next. The season that brought in a raft of new candidates yielded only one clear winner: Olivia Wilde’s Thirteen was precisely what she was meant to be – mysterious, a bit alluring to her colleagues male and female, and a smart doc. About Peter Jacobson’s Taub and Kal Penn’s Kutner I will maintain a polite silence.
Eventually, it was possible to watch House primarily as a chronicle of how hard Hugh Laurie was working and what a noble effort he was making to imbue each new pained grimace, each new twirl of his cane, each new patient consult with a fresh variation on the hundreds of times he’d done these things before. And that’s no way to keep on enjoying a series, for either star or audience. So it was a good and sensible thing for House to end now. The character can live on forever in reruns, and Laurie can get on with the next phase of his career. I’m hoping that after a decent rest period, he makes an attempt to do a wittily wacky sitcom in the spirit of his early days as a TV performer, in Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Probably on cable TV. Without a cane or a pill in sight.
What did you think of the House finale?