The premiere episode of the 8th season of House M.D. is titled “Twenty Vicodin”. One suggests that if you do not care to be “spoiled,” as the saying goes, stop reading right here and go page through InStyle. Please bear in mind that this review is based on a review copy, so there may be significant changes before the episode airs.
When Dr. House plowed his car into Lisa Cuddy's living room in last season’s finale, “Moving On,” fans and critics were left in various stages of bafflement and rage. Then it was announced that the superb Lisa Edelstein was leaving for greener pastures. What to do?
A quick makeover! From Homicidal Maniac House to:
Sad and Sexy House. This House not only has a smoother, younger complexion, wider eyes and less gray in his beard, he also sports a leonine head of brown hair, glinting with gold and red highlights. In the first close-up we have of House after the open, lying in bed facing upwards toward the camera, Hugh Laurie looks as dewy as a maiden on a Spring morning. Physically at least, prison has been exceptionally good to Gregory House. Maybe it's the L'Oreal VitaLift cream.
Emotionally, House doesn’t seem particularly remorseful, maybe quieter than usual. It is left to the other characters to tell us how much he’s punishing himself. He has refused to take any calls or see any visitors in the months he’s been there. One does hope he sent his mother a postcard.
“Twenty Vicodin” carefully lays the groundwork for audiences to fall in love with House again. This is supposed to be an “out of the box” episode. But it’s the same box in new wrapping paper. As listlessly written by Peter Blake and directed by executive producer Greg Yaitanes, the script follows the House formula. Except that none of the other regulars appear. And it’s set in a penitentiary.
The opening has House before the parole board. House parrots all of the defenses David Shore gave in interviews after the disastrous finale. Nearly word for word. Which must have saved a few days in the writing room. Having served most of his sentence—and a damn light one it is, too—House has five days before he is released. However, if he gets into any kind of trouble, no matter how minor, he’ll be stuck in prison. From there any sentient being knows the ending.
For one thing, he has to appease the leader of a gang of quite well-behaved middle-aged neo-Nazis. (One can imagine them in lawn chairs muttering “Kids today…no values…”) James Cagney would scare the fertilizer out of any of these fellows. House must give the leader, Mendelson, half of House’s daily allotment of Vicodin. Before he leaves, Mendelson orders that House pay an “exit tax” of twenty Vicodin.
House and Mendelson discuss medicine
Yaitanes’s style tends to be over the top: explosions, musical numbers, and of course House smashing into Cuddy's living room. One of the unexpected aspects of this episode is that it is quite tranquil. The prison setting has the feeling of a large dormitory, with worse security than PPTH. That is saying something. As the inmates mill about the two-tiered set, there is one or at most two guards to be seen. If this is a minimum security prison, why are there psychotic killers there? If it is a maximum security prison, why aren’t there more guards? Why are there female guards, nurses and doctors? None of the prisoners harass them sexually? I told you these men were well-behaved. Or the cooks put saltpeter in the chow. There are a few punches thrown, but that’s about it until House reneges on Mendelson.
House’s cellmate is a homicidal killer (Kaleti Williams). This character was my personal favorite. Williams manages a complex performance with only a handful of lines. Guest stars Jaleel White and Michael Pare’ also have a handful of lines each, the latter appearing as the prison warden in the cold open, and the former as a chipper fellow inmate.
There is the PTOW, a memorable one for a change, repeatedly misdiagnosed until the final epiphany (the reveal is the sappiest I’ve ever seen outside of a Lifetime movie). There is a Wilson substitute who provides obligatory lectures and tells House not to be House. There is Cameron 3.0 in the person of Jessica Adams, a wide-eyed pretty young doctor. Odette Annabel, who plays Adams, looks completely out of place, as if she’s wearing her mother’s lab coat. As well as a gold necklace that has magically managed never to get stolen in a prison clinic. She is further burdened with the largest amount of expositional dialogue (when House tells her he wants to study Dark Matter physics so he can avoid any more human contact, she exclaims girlishly, “You can read people! You understand them! You gotta go back to medicine!”).
There’s only so much suspension of belief one can work with. The POTW’s arm is broken in one dramatic scene then not treated or even referenced again. And House as a prison janitor? “We need a janitor—let’s get the crippled guy!” (Small note: how does he get up and down the stairs?) How is he surviving on two Vicodin a day? The show hasn’t bothered much about House’s pain problem since Season Five, so when his cane is stolen he’s able to limp about ably with his hand on his thigh. He rubs it now and again to remind us it is there.
Hugh Laurie turns in a workmanlike performance. His passion has moved on to music, and it shows. The rest of the cast is uniformly good. As for the script, as one fan put it,"All I wanted from this episode was for it to Just.Not.Suck." It doesn't.
If this premiere episode is formulaic, at least it’s a workable formula.
Photographs courtesy Fox/NBC