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''House''

By RD Heldenfels Published: February 5, 2006

Well, it's Super Bowl morning and they're talking about the game on ESPN's 'Sports Reporters'' (today's lineup: Albom, Wilbon, Lupica). But I'm still thinking about ''House.'' The bride and I wound down last night by watching a disc of two new episodes, including the one airing Tuesday.


In some ways, it's very familiar ''House'' -- complicated medical mysteries and glimpses of the personal side of the doctors. And, in more than a glimpse, House's complicated relationship with his ex-wife takes a couple of new turns.


But what's also interesting about the show is that the way the characters seem to be talking about the show itself as well as themselves. In one episode, as a doctor tries to explain a medical condition, House objects -- insisting that metaphors are his territory. (You can almost hear the same conversation happening in the writers' room.)


Even more pointed are remarks by Wilson to House about his irascible friend's emotional state: ''You're afraid if you change, you'll lose what makes you special.''


That's said in the context of House's overall unhappiness, and it illuminates the ongoing challenge for ''House'' and for other TV shows. If you establish a character the audience likes, and keep the character exactly the way the audience likes him, then eventually everyone gets bored. But if you change the character, you risk alienating the viewers who liked him exactly the way he was.


We're not just talking about characters, of course. We're talking about physical appearance -- when a cute little kid in the first season of a show has the gall to grow older, bigger and less cute -- and relationships -- when romantic tension between a couple is charming at the beginning but over time either becomes redundant or has to be resolved. ''Grey's Anatomy'' has proved very smart in dealing with the whole Meredith/McDreamy situation, which looked like a huge cliche at the beginning of the series; of course, ''Grey's'' is also is in just its second season, and it seems to have settled in for a long run.


Before Wilson makes that comment to ''House,'' he says something else: ''You don't like yourself. But you do admire yourself. It's all you've got, so you cling to it.'' The show constantly faces the problem of not clinging too much to House's self-loathing and the way it affects his dealings with others. But if it stops clinging, where does it go?


We've already seen times when House was indeed likable; he has been very good with children, for instance. How many moments like that will we see before House becomes a different character? While watching those two episodes, I wondered if ''House'' would have been better off as a British series, making only a handful of episodes every year, and so under less pressure to keep the story going; I also wondered if there were times when the producers, writers and cast wished they could just give a big farewell after a couple of seasons -- sending ''House'' to a logical narrative point and then not having to drag it out long after their (and the audience's) patience had worn out.


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