As Jon Cryer learned on Sunday night, sometimes the secret to earning an Emmy is just patience. You get on the nomination rolls, you wait until Jeremy Piven alienates himself to the entertainment community and then — BAM! — you swoop in and suddenly you’re no longer “Ducky” for life, you’re “Emmy winner Jon Cryer, former portrayer of Ducky.”
Hugh Laurie clearly can’t follow that exact path. He was never Ducky. He has, however, been an Emmy bridesmaid on four occasions, losing at least twice to James Spader, which has to hurt. So Laurie has been biding his time and I feel confident, after watching the “House” two-hour premiere, that this will be the episode that gets him up on the podium next year.
It’s not like Laurie hasn’t had big-time showcase episodes in the past. He’s been shot. He’s had brain injuries. He’s gone on-and-off of drugs. The “House” premiere, titled “Broken,” offers a little bit of everything, a buffet of Emmy moments, if you will.
But how is the episode itself? It’s very good. Even if it feels like a amalgamation of a dozen lunatic asylum dramas — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” being so obvious an influence it hardly bears mentioning — it’s “Broken” is so well performed there’s no reason to complain.
[Review after the break…]
Written by Russel Friend, Garrett Lerner, David Foster and series creator David Shore and directed by executive producer Katie Jacobs, “Broken” follows logically from where we left Laurie’s House in the last season finale.
Some viewers, even semi-attentive ones, missed that House wasn’t checking himself into a rehab facility as the Season Five ended. No, House begins “Broken” in the Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital, a dark and forbidding structure that isn’t a posh country club getaway.
Last season began with the deaths of Amber and House’s father and reached a climax with Kutner’s shocking suicide. Enough things shook House’s confidence and his sanity last year that the producers were wise not to attempt to attribute everything to Vicodin. Similarly, they were wise not to make House’s course of mental wellness into a 44 minute adventure in his own psyche, followed by a swift release and a business-as-usual return to work in Episode Two.
“Broken” isn’t just a single episode. It takes place over an extended period of time and it at least attempts to take House’s condition seriously, while simultaneously never implying that there’s any kind of miraclue cure that will make House a happy and well-adjusted genius in Episode Two.
Other than a fleeting cameo by Robert Sean Leonard, “Broken” is mostly Laurie and an assortment of guest stars.
The dominant figure is Andre Braugher as Dr. Nolan, who initially seems to be the Nurse Ratched figure. Although House checked himself into Mayfield voluntarily and, thus, can check himself out at will, Dr. Nolan is House’s adversary because of the powerful sway he holds over House’s ability to practice medicine again. Part of the acknowledgement of House’s condition is that the writers are savvy enough not to make Braugher’s character into a villain and they’re equally savvy enough not to give him some sort of mysterious medical condition that he needs House to diagnose. Dr. Nolan wants to keep Dr. House around because he prefers that his patients get better. Crazy, right? That doesn’t mean that the two stubborn men don’t butt heads, because Braugher’s ever-commanding presence makes it easy to believe that this is a clash of equals, with House presented as the prat for much of the time.
Following the genre requirements, the Mayfield common room is packed with familiar co-stars playing House’s wacky fellow patients. Audiences will probably recognize Jack Plotnick, Derek Richardson and Angela Bettis, plus Megan Dodds as an attractive nurse whose bears a bit of a resemblance to Jennifer Morrison’s Cameron. Getting even more time is Lin-Manuel Miranda, a Tony winner for “In the Heights,” who will probably polarize viewers as House’s free-styling roommate.
House even gets something of a love interest, with Franka Potente proving very sympathetic as a frequent visitor to the hospital who recognizes something appealing in the Good Doctor.
The episode is full of ultimately plot points and distractions, but the main goal is shaking House of his certitude. House has spent five seasons mostly being right about everything, even if it’s required a few wrong guesses to get him there, but in “Broken,” he’s outside of his comfort zone. He can’t just cure his fellow patients any more than he can simply cure himself, but his efforts to try give Laurie a lot to do, when he isn’t leading almost the same petty rebellions as R.P. McMurphy led in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” In “Broken,” House is frequently doing things that are detrimental, both to his own recovery and to those around him, which opens up new sides to the character.
Laurie plays the character’s doubt masterfully, though he has showier moments as he goes through withdrawal and taps into his inner Jack Nicholson. The scenes with Potente are also sweeter and more touching than anything House has gotten to play with any previous love interests. Whether or not you think this is the best performance of Laurie’s “House” run, it’s absolutely the most colors he’s been able to show in a single episode.
“Broken” goes wrong in its last third when it spends too much time trying to plausibly explain House. Is there a single viewer out there who actually wants to get to some easily recognizable cause for House’s misanthropy? I hope not. Similarly, I hope there aren’t many viewers out there who think that “House” would be a better series with its main character popping SSRIs and attending therapy twice a week. There’s too much standard “House” magic — including a brilliant diagnosis and, alas, a talent show — in what previously had been welcome deviation from the norm.
The question of how healthy the show can afford to make its hero is one that the writers were obviously battling and one that will probably continue to be central to the first half of the season. Even getting House back to work is going to take some narrative contortions and I hope it’s not something that gets rushed, simply in the name of getting the band back together.
“House” is a show where the writers have rarely needed to live with any of their decisions for very long and I hope the things that happen in the premiere aren’t swept under the rug.
The two-hour season premiere of “House” airs Monday, Sept. 21 on FOX.