While compiling our weekly views of how the previous seven days of TV had affected us, we noticed that the first half of House's fourth season had often been the highlight. Coming off an appalling third season, with its format badly in need of an overhaul, season four began with an almost clean slate. His usual acolytes scattered to the four winds, House was coerced into finding three new minions, which he did by way of a selection process that took up the first half of the season. It was pure genius, allowing the show to keep its dramatic side confined to disposable subplots (diseases of the week), while allowing the comedic half to flourish with withering putdowns, mischievous gameplaying, and petty squabbling. I think I said at the time that the show had been waiting to find its voice, and finally it had. Forget about the dreary seriousness of season three, with its silly bad cop subplots, and forget the formulaic nature of the show. It had finally found a way to rise above those limitations.
Much criticism is made of the rigid format and how the show cannot escape it, but it can wiggle around within it, which tends to take the attention off House and his machinations. Season four changed a lot, including pushing the medical drama just ever so slightly out of the spotlight, and concentrating more on House and his gameplaying. Plus, he wasn't in danger of being "cured" by his colleagues, and no one had yet another freakout about his drugtaking. It allowed Hugh Laurie to do what he does best; supersnarky misanthropy tempered with flashes of intense humanity. Agonising over how to cure House (which can often waste several episodes of a season) was almost entirely removed, except in an episode in the second half of the season, No More Mr. Nice Guy, in which Kutner suspects House is suffering from neuro-syphilis which could be responsible for his terrible personality. Of course, this is a joke played by House, but much of the episode featured House's colleagues worrying that they would ruin him as a doctor by curing him of his misanthropy, much as the show would be ruined by such a plot development. It was a nice way of acknowledging that they're not going to be messing with House for a while.
At least, they're not going to waste time with the staff of Princeton-Plainsboro trying to figure him out. Instead, in a nice twist, House himself might want to trigger a change in himself, with the two-part finale throwing him into a situation where one of the few things he cares about, Wilson's friendship, is in jeopardy. Due to his irresponsibility, House and Wilson's girlfriend Amber get into a bus crash just after she takes flu pills. With her kidneys damaged in the crash, she cannot process the amantadine in the pills. At the end of the final episode, Amber dies in Wilson's arms after he shuts off her life support, and we sobbed. Seriously. Like, for a long time after the episode ended. Stupid TV show.
Perhaps next season this new antagonism will provide much of the drama, as House tries to win back the friendship of his only friend, perhaps by becoming a better person. The prospect of such an arc is potentially interesting, as change has to come from within, and I'd much rather watch Hugh Laurie battle with his demons instead of putting up with conversations between his colleagues about what to do with him, conversations that are rarely done well and can drastically shift the balance of the show from humour into boring hand-wringing and frustrating contrivance. However, it will almost certainly feature the removal of one of the most appealing features of the show; House and Wilson's mostly good-natured game-playing. As I've said before, their interaction is one of the most entertaining things on TV, and losing that would suck. That change in tone at the start of season four might be temporary, but if Wilson's reaction to the sight of House recovering from the coma he entered while trying to diagnose Amber is anything to go by, we're in for a rough patch. Ingrate!
As I say, the first half of the season was especially good, with House bouncing off a large roomful of well-sketched characters, with his other colleagues stripped of their angst over his personality and becoming entertaining foils for him. They even fixed Foreman, who had previously just been a sulky minion and ended up becoming almost an equal to House. His arc was especially well thought out and depicted, with Omar Epps at first disgusted with himself for becoming the thing he most hated (i.e. an approximation of House), and then becoming reconciled with it.
That the second half of the season, after House had chosen his new team, was not up to the first nine episodes was not that great a surprise, especially with the disease of the week drama becoming more prominent, but there were consolations. Frozen, featuring House diagnosing an snow-bound Mira Sorvino via webcam was particularly entertaining, and Living The Dream, with House kidnapping the star of his favourite daytime soap was funny too. All the while, the tone of the show remained lighter than it has been, and even though the formula of the show reasserted itself in later episodes, I still felt that my support for the show even through its most tedious interludes had more than paid off. As Canyon said prior to watching the finale, even if the show can often feel like it is doing the same thing over and over again, there are very few, if any, shows on TV right now that do this kind of thing so well. The dialogue is better than pretty much anything else on TV. It's funny, it's smart, it's philosophical. If it veers into sentimentality every now and again, that's the price we pay for the rest of the intelligent writing showcased almost every week. The show doesn't get enough credit for that.
Sadly, with the strike shutting the show down for a while, once more we had an arc damaged by not getting enough screentime, as with CSI's Warrick arc. Amber quickly switched from Cutthroat Bitch to Best Girlfriend Ever, and if you had an inkling about what was lying in wait for her in the finale, you would possibly have found the whole thing contrived. Luckily we had no idea what was going to happen, but still, it could have done with more room to breathe. That's not a proper criticism of the show, though, and Canyon's praise still stands. The showrunners did the best they could with little time to properly set up that two-parter.
And boy, did it work out well. Writers Peter Blake, David Foster, Russel Friend, and Garrett Lerner (working from a story by Doris Egan) went all out over the two episodes (called House's Head and Wilson's Heart), treating the viewer to interactive hallucinations, spectacular set-pieces, arc resolutions (poor Thirteen finding out she was positive for Huntington's while we were already upset about Amber was simultaneously cruel and brilliant), and heart-rending goodbyes. It was devastating and amazing and brutal and a million other things. It was easily the best of all the season finales we've seen so far, with Reaper, Ugly Betty, and Lost yet to come (not to mention Battlestar Galactica's mini-season finale and the last episode of Doctor Who).
That said, while I liked the whole finale overall, the first part was, sadly, overdirected to the point of obnoxiousness by Greg Yaitanes (who I have railed against before). If ever there was a TV director who is determined to get noticed enough to win a film career, it's him, filling the episode with annoying Sonnenfeld-esque close-ups, flashy lighting, and Cuddy stripping. Here is a picture of her post-strip. I'm not going to contribute to the uncomfortable memory of poor Lisa Edelstein having to dress like a schoolgirl and rub her butt on a pole.
In contrast, Katie Jacobs, helmer of the second half of the finale, was relatively restrained, which was just what the more emotional episode needed. With more subdued editing and framing, we were treated to an emotional rollercoaster, perfectly judged and beautifully performed (there's a good chance Laurie's usual award nominations will be joined by some for Robert Sean Leonard and Anne Dudek). Okay, I will admit that there was one good sequence by Yaitanes in the first part, namely the dazzling bus crash flashback in the final scene. It's big, scary, and superbly shot, and made me regret grumbling about the rest of the episode. That is, until I realised that the whole sequence was very reminiscent of the plane crash flashback at the end of Peter Weir's underrated drama Fearless, even down to the shots of hands reaching towards each other, a tunnel of light, spinning and debris and carnage, etc. I don't blame Yaitanes from borrowing from that sequence, as it's great. If he didn't borrow, then the guy knows how to create good scenes that just happen to really resemble scenes from a well-known movie. I guess that's a skill too.
Other than the possibility of an organic transition from misanthropic House to a more caring, sharing House (who would still hopefully be enough of a jerk to be entertaining; turning him into Santa would be absurd), I have no idea what to expect of the new season. Will the new team leave? Thirteen now knows her days are short, so there's a possibility she won't be around for long. Will that mean a return for Cameron? That would mean more screentime for Jennifer Morrison, whose only purpose this season seemed to be making sure she stands as far away from ex-fiancee Jesse Spencer as possible while still remaining on the same show (it was as if they were playing hide and seek on set, which was both funny and sad at the same time). All I want to know is, will the show stay funny? Or will this be Tritter-Redux, with House and Wilson at each other's throats? After the awesomeness of season four, that's the last thing we need.