Tuned In

House's Riskiest Operation Yet

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After the jump, TIME writer and House aficionado John Cloud shares his (spoilery! you’ve been warned!) thoughts on last night’s House: 

No one watches House for the traditional medical-drama bits—the operating-room theatrics; the intra-doctor sexual assignations; the sweet little child patients that cause some character to bellow wetly, “We have to save her!”

The show isn’t above such ER tropes, but at heart, just like its Vicodin-addicted, jaundiced and spiteful title character, the show has no heart. Rather, and I say this as someone who has seen every episode, House is mainly a showcase for the comedic talents of Hugh Laurie, who plays Gregory House as an unflinchingly odious know-it-all who will never, ever be revealed to have a soft spot of love for humanity underneath. Each episode is a collection of harsh jokes punctuated by medical-ethics dilemmas of the sort that keep college students talking all night (would you let an abusive, alcoholic mother die so that you can harvest her kidney for her blameless daughter?). I can’t say I’m a fan of House because it would be like calling oneself a fan of cheap bourbon: rather, the show merely—and reliably—does what it should.

So it’s rather shocking to see the outpouring today for one of House’s colleagues, Dr. Kutner (Kal Penn), who has committed suicide for reasons that aren’t clear (and reasons that the show may never make perfectly clear, since that’s how House rolls). One of the strangest aspects of the grief for the Kutner character—which Fox invites you to express here—is that the actual writers of the show would find a wonderfully ruthless way for House to mock it all. If you’re so sad about Kutner’s suicide that you want to blog it, why are you watching House? That Grey’s Anatomy might work better for you.

Still, you have to hand it to Fox: it took a show that was struggling under the weight of a fifth season and got it more attention than in years. Until last night, the show had become the single most formulaic television product since Jeopardy. Each episode opens with characters we don’t know, one of whom will turn out to have a rare illness that only one man in the world—our (anti-)hero—could possibly diagnose. Very often, those openings try to trick you by showing an old or sick character being attended to by someone who appears healthy—and (surprise!) it’s the healthy one who will turn out to be sick. (In fact last night’s episode began that way.)

Earlier this season, the writers seemed to acknowledge that the formula was wearing thin. They wrote a scene in Episode 518 in which House is goofing off with matchbox cars in his office—one of which he literally causes to jump over a toy shark.

The most brilliant aspect of the Kutner death was not that Fox successfully kept it secret before last night (in fact there had been spoilers swirling in the fan community about a major character who would die). Rather, the episode—true to House form—didn’t end with Kutner’s suicide but rather opened with it, presenting it as one of those mysteries that House has to figure out. Of course, the twist is, he can’t figure it out: “You worked with him every day for two years, and you never saw this coming,” Wilson tells House.

“No one saw it coming,” House shoots back.

“But you see everything coming … You’re terrified that you’re losing your gift, who you are. And I’m terrified of what you’d do then.”

The show has also been plainly terrified by this prospect, and it will be interesting to see how the writers come back from this shaky, maudlin territory.

A funny side note: the episode featured a guest appearance by Meat Loaf (who was credited as “Meat Loaf Aday”). His character offers to die in order to give his dying wife his liver. House says, “If he’s gonna do this, he’s gonna do this for love”—which is funny because, of course, Meat Loaf would famously “do anything for love.”