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How ''House'' became a surprise hit

How ”House” became a surprise hit: After a sickly start, Fox’s misanthropic doc drama recovered (thanks, ”American Idol”!) and emerged as one of TV’s healthiest shows

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Jennifer Morrison, Jesse Spencer, Omar Epps, Hugh Laurie, Robert Sean Leonard, and Lisa Edelstein Photograph by Ethan Hill

Hugh Laurie isn’t a bastard, but he plays one on TV. He also plays a doctor, a genius in the art of ”differential diagnosis.” On House — the rookie drama that’s Fox’s biggest scripted hit since 24 debuted four years ago, and has made Laurie its most unlikely breakout star (in America, at least; in his native England, he’s a comedy legend for his work on the sitcom Black Adder) — this means curing maladies that would baffle your average ER white coat. Leprosy, anthrax poisoning, allergic reactions to blue jeans: Give Dr. Gregory House some time — and a couple bottles of Vicodin (his leg, crippled by a blood clot, leaves him in constant agony) — and he’ll diagnose the problem, with a misanthropic panache unseen since vintage Andy Sipowicz. Diseases are neat little puzzles, but patients are a royal pain.

Laurie is himself polite where House is politically incorrect, humble where House is arrogant. He’s one of those actors so self-conscious about their acting, they can’t stand to watch themselves on screen. Ask him the secret to House‘s success, and he demurs: ”If I actually watched the episodes, maybe I’d know.”

A scalpel-sharp procedural drama in a year when serialized sensations Lost and Desperate Housewives are getting all the attention, House‘s ratings success isn’t tricky to diagnose: Call it American Idol syndrome. Before the talent show’s January premiere, House‘s vital signs were barely stable — averaging just 6.5 million viewers. But after getting an Idol lead-in on Jan. 18, House (Tuesdays, 9 p.m.) has developed a pounding pulse — the March 22 episode garnered a season-high 17.3 million viewers — and earned an early renewal from Fox. ”My dream was that we’d do good enough to keep going, but not good enough for anyone to notice,” says creator and exec producer David Shore. ”Now I worry we’re going to have one week where we only do the same as last week, and Fox is going to go ‘Uh-oh.”’

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