TV Review: House – "Clueless"

(Warning: spoilers for the episode that aired March 28)

The synopsis for “Clueless” that had been on the home page of FOX’s House website for weeks prior to its broadcast told you everything you needed to know about the medical mystery:

“House fights to find proof of how a woman is trying to kill her husband with gold.”

See, promo people, it was supposed to be a surprise that the affectionate wife is trying to kill her devoted hubby, and that she uses hard-to-detect gold to poison him. Your first clue? It’s not raised as a possibility until the 40-minute mark.

When creator David Shore introduced the episode before the William S. Paley Television Festival screening, he said he’d gone on the site to get an idea for how he might briefly explain the plot, was horrified to find out it revealed the solution, and figured he’d just say (to misquote him from memory): “It’s a new one. Enjoy.”

Fortunately, I regularly avoid the FOX site, which I once slammed by misquoting an early Housism: “This job could be done by a monkey with a copy of Dreamweaver.” It’s significantly improved since then, but still.

Wait … what am I analysing here? Oh yes, the episode, not the website. So anyway, I was happily unspoiled for this week’s medical mystery that hints at crime procedural territory enough to more than hint at (bias alert) how much more engaging this show is than the CSI clones it’s partly modeled on.

In fact, I thought they might have accidentally started playing one of those clones, because the episode opens with a teaser of a masked man grabbing a woman from her bathroom and dragging her screaming to the bedroom, in quick-cut scenes shot in cool grey lighting. When he starts sputtering and turning blue and Potential Rape Victim says “Bob? Bob, what’s wrong?” I knew we were definitely in Houseland.

Maria (Samantha Mathis) is perhaps not the cleverest murderer around, since delaying the 911 phone call might have furthered her evil plot to kill him. But then she would have had to go on one of those forensics shows, and we’d be watching a whole different episode of House, one that probably wouldn’t have slipped in so many examples of clues versus proof.

This time there happens to be a crime, but House always plays detective. Whether he’s probing the past of his coworkers or diagnosing his latest patient, he ponders the evidence, forms a clever (but not always correct) deduction, then relies on his team to test the hypothesis, gather additional clues and red herrings, and, very occasionally, offer their own deductions without being rudely dismissed, until finally all the clues fit together and he has proof, and knows for certain that it was Mrs. Sex Fiend in the Kitchen with the Gold.

In this case, House remains convinced throughout that heavy metal poisoning is the culprit, despite repeated negative tests. His team, as usual, is exasperated at his irrationality. Since he’s always right, I could call them clueless, but that’s their role – to fight against House’s crazy theories and help nudge him down the trail of undiscovered clues. This time, the initial crazy theory happens to be the correct one. Though she may have been a little too quick to dial, Maria was clever enough to use a heavy metal the doctors had no reason to test for.

The two keys to solving the mystery are provided by House’s clinic patient, a man indignant at his herpes diagnosis because he’s been married for 20 years … so House gives him a prescription for himself, his wife, and their daughter’s karate instructor. When the wife storms to the hospital to complain to Cuddy, then tests positive for herpes herself, House decides the philandering husband is seeking proof that his wife is also having an affair by making her believe she passed it on to him and, presumably, force a confession. (It’s all a little complicated. I saw the episode twice and both times, the explanation fell right out of my head. Thank god for PVRs.)

“You’d give your own wife herpes just to shift the blame?” Wilson asks House.
“He’d give his own mother herpes if it got him out of clinic duty,” Cuddy mutters.

House isn’t sure though. “Of course, maybe it was the wife …” he begins. And that’s the point – 40 minutes in, promo people! – where he decides Maria is poisoning her husband.

The negative tests are still negative, though, so he has no proof, and both Cameron and Foreman are demanding it before acting on his hunch. When Mr. and Mrs. Herpes return for some House manipulation, where he (sort of) proves the husband is the only cheater, it’s Mrs. Herpes’ discarded wedding ring – her gold wedding ring – that provides House with his last clue.

He races home to search for a box, which we don’t yet know is a chemistry set he needs to test for gold on Maria’s hands. He looks in his formerly messy hall closet, finds it impressively neat, and accuses new roommate Wilson’s housekeeper of moving it.

He’s unforgivably rude to her, but when he discovers he was (gasp) wrong, and that the box has always been under his bed, at least he’s given a chance to show off his stellar apology skills: “Umm … thanks,” he says. I teared up a little at the heartfelt sentiment.

A brief explanation about the box does give us a tiny glimpse of his childhood, with the mini-revelation of formative years spent in Egypt with his military dad, and little Greggie’s scientific interest honed while searching for mummies. (While Hugh Laurie has joked in interviews that his character’s accent is American with a touch of Hungarian and Pakistani, this is the first solid evidence that the show might be making a well-travelled back story official.) Maybe some day we’ll get an explanation for his freakish knowledge of ants and snakes, too.

Oh, and why on earth does House keep his childhood chemistry set under his bed, with apparently fresh chemical reagents? Best not to ask, I think. Between the chemistry sets, hookers, and married ex-girlfriends, I’m not sure I want to know much more of what goes on in there.

We do get a tiny bit more on his romantic life, with the long-burning, recently back-burner Cameron crush story getting another spark in this episode. Maria lectures her on how people don’t change, which should resonate with Cameron given her attraction to and extreme frustration with House.

“People thinking their partner will change, that’s another reason marriages fail. People don’t change. Not in any way that matters.”

But even though he forces her to be a spectator at the urinal as he tests “the second half of the caffeine delivery system,” calls her childish, and mocks her so-called attraction to the damaged and dying, there is a brief connection between the crusher and the crushee. Cameron was clueless enough to accept a bet from House, having apparently not learned from the boys that House always wins. The bet? That Mr. And Mrs. Sex Fiend were happily married, pitting Cameron the idealistic romantic against House the cynical romantic – though neither claims the overall victory.

“You’re pleased, aren’t you? You think you’ve proven every marriage is a mistake,” Cameron asks. “Do I look pleased?” responds the displeased-looking House. They hold a gaze and their fingers linger just a moment too long as she pays him his winnings — not long enough to start ordering the wedding invitations, but enough to indicate we haven’t seen the last of this warped flirtation.

Though any attempt at actual coupledom would force me to throw kitties and puppies at my television screen, I love that the counterintuitively sexy House has sexual tension with pretty much every female to cross his path. It was even a strangely tension-filled scene when he holds Maria’s hand to press the reagent into her skin (“I’ve never heard of anyone using gold before. It’s almost poetic,” he tells her). I almost expected them to lean in for a kiss, though I knew it was a ridiculous thought. He does like to flirt with danger, but I think that’s more metaphorical than literal.

“I never said you didn’t love him,” House says when he accuses her of murder, and her defense is that she loved him. I liked that we didn’t get a pat answer about why Maria wanted her husband dead. We got clues that she was bored. That maybe she never loved him as much as he loved her, and maybe killing him seemed better than killing the marriage. That sometimes bad people do bad things, and there is no simple answer. Besides, the how is House’s domain, not the why. Once he solves the medical mystery, his interest ends, and so does the episode.

But not before we get the perfectly ironic musical choice of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” playing over scenes of the husband being told about his wife’s murderous intentions, and miserable House careening home on his motorcyle to prove, in his Housian way, his affection for his friend Wilson.

The subplot where House steals Wilson’s carefully labelled food is pure comic relief, with an Odd Couple setup that promises the show might cater a bit more to my craving for more on the House-Wilson friendship. An added bit of comedy came from House’s TiVo listings. While Wilson mocks him for the season pass of New Yankee Workshop, a listing for Blackadder (starring Hugh Laurie) is sandwiched in there, too.

Last episode, we saw House making himself a peanut butter sandwich and anticipating a beer just before a newly separated Wilson arrived on his doorstep, so it’s fitting to find him here getting seduced by Wilson’s gourmet treats of macadamia nut pancakes and stuffed peppers (while predictably complaining, “What are they stuffed with? Vomit?”).

Early on, House nastily orders Wilson to find another place to stay, and nags him throughout to leave.

“Why do you want to sleep on a couch anyway?” House asks him. “You’ve got money. At least until the divorce is finalized.”
“I’ll be out of your hair tomorrow. What’s left of it,” Wilson zings back.

But when the episode ends, we see House erasing a voice mail on his machine that informs the clueless oncologist that he needs to call back immediately to secure the condo he had put an offer on (Wilson’s wife apparently is getting his cell phone in the divorce). House can’t simply invite his friend to stay, of course, because that would be too straightforward and therefore psychologically healthy.

Wilson obviously prefers House’s hostility to a hotel, but why, Wilson, why? I get how stimulating it must be to hang out with the guy, but I’d also think it would be a relief to be able to escape his abuse at the end of the day. But Wilson seems to have learned he can’t just say “I don’t want to be alone” to House – not without a smackdown, anyway. He also seems to have learned that 1950s maxim … how does it go? The way to a man’s lumpy couch is through his stomach?

I had wondered if I enjoyed the episode as much as I did because of the novelty of seeing it at the festival, but I loved it on rewatching, too, with its intriguing medical murder mystery and hilarious Wilson and House exchanges. I don’t want to be too insufferable by dwelling on “Yay, I was there,” but I do want to add a bit about the experience of viewing it in a theatre with 599 other appreciative fans, in the presence of many of the people whose talent and effort brings this show to life (only to have people like me dissecting it and pointing out flaws every week. But … uhh … I mostly point out why I love it, and how its richness and complexity makes me use my brain and stuff, right?)

“Clueless” director Deran Sarafian was in the audience, and I hope episode writer Thomas L. Moran was, too. I imagine there aren’t too many opportunities for TV scribes to watch an episode along with fans who aren’t related to them by blood, friendship, or contractual obligations, to see and hear the real-time response to their words – the many laughs, big and small; the hordes of people averting their gaze from the traumatizing scenes (or was that just me? Hard to tell, since I had my hands in front of my eyes); the unexpected applause during the episode, not just at the end.

That was a priceless moment where House — and therefore the disgustingly multi-talented Hugh Laurie — juggles three disparate objects (That Damn Ball, the Magic 8 Ball, and a stapler) while listening to and impatiently dismissing his lackeys’ theories on the cause of the patient’s lung disease. When House finishes with a flourish after catching the ball behind his back, the audience laughed and clapped. Both the laughter and the ovation escalated when House turns to his minions (and the camera) to say: “What, no applause?”

More than anything, the already-devoted-fans-in-a-theatre setting amplified these many comedic moments. As those evil geniuses who inflicted laugh tracks on sitcom audiences knew, laughter stimulates laughter, and the group dynamic just added to the comedy of this drama that’s always had more witticisms than most sitcoms.

Another new episode of House airs next week, April 4, at 9 p.m. on FOX or Global in Canada, so gather several hundred friends to watch it with you for that full viewing experience.

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