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Hugh Laurie: Saying goodbye to 'House'

With Fox’s acclaimed drama checking out for good on May 21, ”House” star Hugh Laurie looks back on eight great years of medical mysteries and, yes, madness

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On our last day of shooting Fox’s top brass gave me some top brass. I’m not talking about my salary, which was undeniably mad — the sort of money that should only be paid to people who destroy Earth-bound asteroids, or invent a method for converting journalists into clean energy — no, I mean they gave me a trumpet. And not just any trumpet, but a vintage Selmer, as played by Louis Armstrong. (The certificate of provenance that came with it doesn’t specify whether Pops played this actual instrument or a close relation, but I suppose the lack of clarity is clarity of a sort. Never mind. It is a wondrous gift.) I tried blowing it immediately, almost turning my digestive tract inside out in the process, but I did get a sound. I tooted my own horn and it felt good.

Now I know that I’m not supposed to do this. It is the accepted custom, especially among my countrymen, to play down one’s accomplishments; to blush, and stammer charmingly about luck, and teamwork, and possibly the hand of God (which, when you think about it, is a ferociously arrogant explanation for one’s success, but we’ll leave that for now). But this Dance of Modesty can often be disingenuous. It serves to deflect and disarm, to spike the guns of one’s enemies; I know because I have used it that way myself.

So, for the length of this paragraph alone, I am striking out against the custom. I am going to toot my horn loud and clear and say that, for eight years, I worked as hard as I knew how, to make House as good as it could be. I frothed and fretted over every detail, every line, every moment. Driving home in the small hours, I pounded the steering wheel as I replayed mistakes in my mind. I tossed and turned every night, plotting the next day’s maneuvers, until I reached moments of near-madness — some would say nearer than near — because I loved House with all my heart, and loved the other characters and the world in which they moved just as much.

At its best, the show felt to me like the sweetest kind of chamber music, with perfectly satisfying intervals, cadences, rhythms; but to achieve that consonance, every part of the ensemble had to be just so. The modern style of acting produces a rough, igneous stone from which skilled editors are expected to cut and polish fine diamonds, but that could never have worked for House. The door to Wilson’s office had to close between the words ”malignant” and ”melanoma,” to punctuate the moment, not a half second earlier or later. The cap of the pill bottle had to snap shut just before the patient turns his head from the window, or the moment would fail. A misplaced blink, or swallow, or crack of the voice, and a phrase could be reduced to a mere string of words: serviceable, comprehensible, but not musical. Often we hit a clam, a bum note that would ring on through the following scenes, distracting and weakening the effect. But we hit some very sweet ones, too.

Of course, critics and Internet wags liked to say that the show, in its middle years, became formulaic. They had fun reducing an episode to its basic elements: Patient gets sick, team tries variety of madcap diagnoses eventually settling on the most improbable, hey presto, patient cured.

Well, yes, one can apply that technique to pretty much any human endeavor: All blues songs are the same, all operas are the same, all games of basketball are definitely the same (to an English eye anyway); in fact everything is the same, including critics, if you don’t pay attention to their differences. And if you preface your critique with the word ”just,” you can diminish and undermine the most complex structures. The Mona Lisa is ”just” oil paint on wood, arranged to look like a woman. String Theory is ”just” an effort to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity. King Lear is ”just” the story of an old man going loopy.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that House rose to the level of Shakespeare — that really would be loopy — but it did have nuance. Or tried to.

And that, to me, is the most important thing: House tried to be about something. Most procedural dramas set out merely to comfort the audience with the idea that we live in an ordered, moral universe in which virtue is rewarded and sin is punished; wherever evil takes to the streets, a group of heavily-armed models will be there to chase it, catch it, and expunge it from our nightmares. This is not an entirely accurate representation of the facts.

But House, I believe, grappled with some chewy questions. Is it worth using bad means for good ends? Can an action be good if its motive is bad? Or if its motive is not intentionally good? What is a soul? Is there a God? If there isn’t, what defines a friend, and what will you do for him? We didn’t always express these questions well, by any means, but we tried, and a large number of people around the world seemed to respond to the effort. I am so damn proud of that.

But now, finally, the undertakers are in. In the last week of shooting, we could hear the Pac-Men at our heels, chain-sawing through the sets we’ve trodden for eight years. Even the sets themselves seemed to know that the jig was up: Windows started sticking, door handles fell off, carpets curled up like dried leaves. Now the place is awash with cardboard boxes, and the writers have descended on House’s office like a crowd of post-Saddam looters. I know this because I tried to do the same, but got there too late. I had thought of putting in a bid for the glass door, with House’s name and title painted on it, thinking it would make a good shower door — and then I realized it wouldn’t.

But enough with the looting, and more than enough with my tooting. There were so many great horns in the brass section, far more than I can mention here: Robert Sean Leonard can take anyone, anywhere, in any movie, TV show, play, musical, piece of modern dance, anything; David Shore is a truly great writer; Katie Jacobs may be the best producer in the business; Gale Tattersall may be the best cinematographer, Tony Gaudioz the best operator, Jeremy Cassells the best production designer, and on and on and on. So much hard work, and love, and pride, and companionship — it fair mists the eye to think how far we have come since those first faltering steps in Vancouver in 2004.

No one knows where network TV is headed. Cable is all around us, with its many advantages for viewer and producer alike. (You can’t guess at how much we envied the stretchiness of cable when it comes to running time — if they need another 30 seconds, or a couple of minutes, to tell their story, then so be it — while we skinned our knuckles every week against the network schedule. We often had to choose between the set-up and the punchline, and wept for both.) But wherever it’s going, it might not take a future House with it. It’s possible that we may have experienced the beginning of the End of Days for network drama. Before long, you will be faced only with reality shows, broadcast on your wristwatch, or your loved one’s teeth, or simply inside your head. There will be no great commonality with whom you can discuss and share the pleasure of drama, or its cost. This may very well be it. Après nous le déluge.

Or I could be talking out of my hat.

The Loopy Old Man writer also came up with The Seven Ages of Man (and if we had had our wits about us, perhaps we might have finished House a year ago, allowing our seven seasons to fit his lifespan more snugly), the last of which, according to the sorrowful Jaques, goes like this:

Last scene of all/That ends this strange eventful history/Is second childishness and mere oblivion/Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Toot toot.