An insult a day keeps patients away
Hugh Laurie as the acid-tongued Dr House.
April 13, 2005
Photo from the print edition
Get out the anti-venom and take something to bolster the insult-immunity system: a doctor with the most inhospitable bedside manner yet seen in primetime medical drama is hobbling down the wards.
Just when you thought there could be no room left on the box for another soap-and-stethoscope show - serious or spoof - along comes House (TV3, 8.30pm), a comedy-drama which takes medical malpractice (the mal is short for malevolent) to new levels.
Dr Gregory House, despite the crutch and addiction to pain-killers, is no bungler. He is a medical genius fascinated by illness and diseases. It’s just the vehicles for his love - sick people - he despises.
And the irascible doc (played with an impeccable American rasp by British comedian and actor Hugh Laurie) is more than just rude to his colleagues and patients, his take-no-prisoners brand of honesty is smart-bomb brutal.
Under his leadership, the drama is a perfect match for the Friday night mood. After another hard, disgruntled week at the coalface, suppressing one’s feelings and opinions in the interests of getting paid, there’s something truly cathartic about watching the vicious Dr House letting it all hang out.
Real-life doctors must find it even more stress-releasing.
The crippled, haggard doctor is an equal opportunity insults machine in action. He taunts his colleagues mercilessly, is witheringly patronising to his patients and, most gratifying of all, hateful to management - all in laugh-out-loud lines of wit sharper than a scalpel.
As such, Dr House is a figure of pure fantasy. He is not the kind of slow-tongued, ordinary mortal who can only brood for hours after an engagement about the cutting and punchy lines they might have said.
In last week’s episode, he indulged in some typical ad-libbing when passing on a woman’s complaint to his junior colleague: "She used the word slacker - wanna come in to my office and smoke a little weed, watch some MTV?"
The show tackles the flaws of the American medical system head on, such as the convoluted legalities involved. Dr House, never one for niceties, has no problem translating legalese into plain language. He reads a contract for the unco-operative mother of a dying boy to sign: "If my son kicks off," he quotes, then adds, "I’ve punched up the language a little."
It doesn’t pay for the untested to try to best him verbally. "Don’t you mean ‘kicks off’?" the mother says when he later hesitates to tell her son is near death. "I was going to say run out of time, or just let my voice trail off," is the lightning swift reply.
House doesn’t miss a beat. He is saved from being insufferable by turning his scathing wit against himself at regular intervals - "I’ll have the nurse check it out, I’m too handsome to do paperwork" - and allowing his colleagues to occasionally get the best lines.
The show also benefits from a healthy dose of satire on the genre and Hollywood in general. In last week’s episode Robert Sean Leonard (Dr James Wilson) recited a cheesy poem, in what must been a parody of his boyhood starring role in Dead Poets’ Society.
An 82-year-old woman suffering a condition which stimulated long dormant sexual urges, informed the rumpled, grisly looking House that he’s a dead-ringer for Ashton Kutcher, surely a joke on the age gap between Kutcher and real-life partner, Demi Moore.
The show has other quirky factors - the silly Human Body-style cuts to pulsating tubes and interior organs, for example - but they’re just not necessary. Dr House alone carries the house.