Ending Season Three with a Bang? An Interview with House writer Lawrence Kaplow

Lawrence Kaplow is obstinately tight-lipped about the House season three finale, scheduled to air May 29. He does reveal that he co-wrote it with Thomas Moran; that the teaser was conceived before the rest of the episode, shot before the episode was fully written, and took considerable preparation, special effects, and stunt men; that executive producer Katie Jacobs, who’d directed for the first time on the Kaplow-penned “Half-Wit,” was directing this one, too; and that the rest of the episode started filming on Friday.

But will he give me any hints what it’s about? “I don’t think I should.” Will it end on a cliffhanger? “Hmmm.” Does someone shoot House? “I think fans will be pleased.”

So what did I get out of him? About that intricate teaser: “It’s not insane, like Mars blows up, but for our show, it’s big.”

I ponder the headline “Mars Does Not Blow Up in House Finale” as an a propos line from the last episode runs through my head: “I asked you what two plus two equals, and a day later you tell me ‘not 25.’ ”

Perhaps my tactical error was to beg for details while warning him repeatedly that I hate spoilers. Hard to say, though.

Write What You Know: “There are aspects of all our personalities that we give to House.”

“You have to understand: Shore is House,” Kaplow says, explaining the sense of humour of show creator David Shore, and, therefore, of his indelible character. “It’s not even sarcasm, it’s just truth, it’s painful truth, maybe an exaggeration of reality.”

But not surprisingly, Kaplow seems to have a Housian streak of his own. Stubbornness might be part of it. So might sarcasm.

When our interview is scheduled for 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, he asks if I have TiVo. My way-too-literal, brand-phobic brain answers: “Yes. Well, the Canadian version.” His reply: “Canadian TiVo … what’s that, a VCR?” He toys with me as I flounder in trying to frame a question about his string of addiction-exploring episodes. He mocks me for asking him to recall the early days, “like we were on in 1947.” And, as with House’s wit, it kept me laughing on a Tuesday evening.

Yet he reveals a humility and humanity that House would scorn, and that even causes Kaplow some lighthearted self-flagellation. He worries he’s heightened my expectations after that finale build-up. “I hope you’re not going to say, ‘Oh my God, he could have told us this, because this sucks.’ ”

I ask him about the career-escalating year-and-a-half since our last interview, a period that saw him win a Writers Guild Award for “Autopsy” and sign a development deal with 20th Century Fox.

“I was surprised anyone was aware of me. I keep my head down and I am truly interested in the work I do. I have such a good time doing it. I am so happy doing it.” He pauses. “That sounds so Pollyanna. Kill me.”

Fiction Versus Reality: “This is when real life and our TV show intersect, and you’re floored.”

He even berates himself for digressing after he tells me the most touching and insightful anecdote of the interview.

“We get excited when we find a really bad disease. We’re happy. We’re saying ‘Oooh, someone’s spleen can fall out their eyeball. That’s fantastic. And it strikes children. This is so cool!’ Because for us, it really is great to find something that plays on all those emotions,” he starts. “But there are real people out there with real diseases, the ones that are on the show, and then we get letters saying thank you.”

There was a quick line in “Half-Wit,” the episode where House fakes cancer to score drugs, mentioning a clinical trial at Duke University. The line was a shout-out to Kaplow’s friend, who had been a patient at Duke and who he thought would get a kick out of hearing it mentioned on air. “They got flooded with calls from people who were sick with brain tumours asking if there was hope,” he marvels.

“The writers are just having fun, telling stories. But then because it’s a medical show, people sometimes are watching it not just to see the characters and who’s kissing who, but for answers. And that’s where it sort of makes you ashamed.”

That intersection between fiction and reality hammers home the importance of working with the medical consultants, including staff writer and doctor David Foster.

“It brings responsibility to try to get the medicine right,” Kaplow says, before explaining the constraints of television. “Sometimes we get criticized from doctors who say that would never happen. And the truth is, in your practice that would never happen because this is not the norm, but we have documentation from here backed up to NBC Universal showing that this is possible, this is what can happen. But we can’t tell you the 15 steps it took to get there, because that would be really boring.”

Despite the accolades and the sense of responsibility, Kaplow feels no pressure to top himself. “I don’t set out to do something special, I set out to do something cool,” he says, revealing that “Half-Wit” was born out of the idea that he’d like to see House fake cancer. It then took conversations with Foster to get a medical story to make it work.

As a producer on the show, he has a hand in scripts other than those with his name on them, and he explains how tricky it is to shape the medical stories. “They need to be told simply so the audience can follow them, and at the same time be a mystery. So they are very difficult to pull off and they take a lot of work.”

Shaping the season is part of the job, too. “We try not to give the same thing every single week. Sometimes it’ll be a lighter story. The goal of every episode is not to make somebody cry,” Kaplow points out. “You’re not going to therapy when you watch television.”

He is one of a handful of writers who have been with the show since those early days, way back in 2004, but he hasn’t reached a point where he’s desperately hunting for medical oddities to feed House’s appetite for a mystery. “You stay buried in a story and then you come up for air and look around the world, maybe you read a newspaper for the first time, and all of a sudden all these stories are leaping at you.”

When we spoke, he was coming up for air after putting the final touches on the last script of the season. While he won’t even give a clue as to what it’s about (not that I’m bitter), he will say the show has hit a stride with the final run of episodes. “I think fans are going to have fun,” he promises. I’m going to go out on a short limb and guess that this won’t be one of those lighter episodes, though.

The Heart of House: “I guess I’m happy people see him as a role model. I just don’t want to be friends with those people.”

My floundering question about how we’ve seen House’s drug use progress through the seasons leads him to point out that “we’re no longer just talking about pain in his leg, but we’re talking about where he is mentally. Wilson is arguing that depression is a choice, and that for Wilson he chooses not to be, and that House chooses to be.”

Starting with the season two finale, we’ve looked deeper into the man who maybe sees his medical skills as a pass into a world where he doesn’t fit, who maybe clings to his misery as a sign of his superiority. We saw in “No Reason” — co-written by Shore and Kaplow — that he would give up his brilliance for a shot at normalcy. Then in “Half-Wit” we saw he would make a similar choice for a patient.

So with that knowledge, his sympathy-pushing actions to score drugs by faking cancer take on a more poignant overtone.

“Is it a desperate act to feel good? Is it a desperate act to feel normal?” Kaplow asks. “House would do anything to just be average. And unfortunately he’s cursed with a mind that will not allow him to rest. I think that brings about a lot of his pain, forget about his leg.”

We’ve seen House forced to question his strict adherence to rationality over emotion. We’ve seen him briefly cured of his pain and his limp. We’ve seen him in rehab and in jail. And yet, he remains the same old House.

As he must, Kaplow asserts. “It’s been said before that TV characters never really change. They’re born in the pilot and we uncover other flavours in them, but who they are is somewhat immovable.”

One of House’s immovable traits is his stubbornness (but I bet he would have given me a clue about the finale). You can’t say he’s not true to himself, even if that self is not always admirable. He almost defiantly refuses to change, even having difficulty with small-scale normalcy like getting a pizza with a friend, or going on vacation.

Kaplow brings up the possibility that change might not be the answer anyway. “There was a really cool study a few years ago about how everyone has a default state of being on the spectrum from miserable to happy,” he recounts. “If you’re normally fairly depressed or bitter and people are telling you to be happy, the stress of people telling you that, and your efforts to try to be happy, can make you more depressed than you would be in your normal state.”

Because House can’t be normal, it seems he exuberantly embraces his misery and superiority. Referring to the abrasive doctor’s drug-experimentation revenge on a former classmate in his season two episode “Distractions,” Kaplow stresses the bigger lesson about his character. “I think if House ended up with a stroke and was slurring his words and was in a hospital bed unable to move, he would still breathe into a tube and his last words would be, ‘I was right.’ And he would smile.”

That doesn’t mean House isn’t affected at all by these challenges to his point of view. “I do think he’s self aware. I don’t think he’s in the dark about who he is at all,” Kaplow responds to the critique that he hasn’t learned anything. “I think people like to think that deep down he has a heart of gold. Um, no, he doesn’t. He really doesn’t.”

He even balks at the suggestion that House shows glimmers of humanity, calling it an “odd” sort of humanity. “He gets annoyed at irrational choices, so he will tell the truth rather than a lie to get his way out of a conversation.”

“This was set up in the pilot,” he recalls. “When House comes in to talk to the kindergarten teacher and he convinces her to live, he’s not doing that because he’s a good guy. He’s doing it because he’s annoyed with her decision. It’s a stupid decision. Maybe that’s humanity. I don’t think it is. I think it’s illogical, which annoys him, which is why he says death is always ugly to someone who wants to die.”

Beyond House: “It’s a procedural, so there are various aspects to each character that are necessary to tell the story.”

House is clearly the centrepiece of the series, but he’s well-served by a diversity of secondary characters. Kaplow admits to a special fondness for Wilson, a fondness he shares with the show’s lead actor.

“Hugh [Laurie] has always maintained that one day the show will be Wilson, and they’ll forget all about this wise cracking doctor, what’s his name, he took Vicodin or something. He’s said that Wilson was the real show,” Kaplow laughs. “That’s typical self-deprecating Hugh, but at the same time, it is a lot of fun to mess with Wilson. And it’s fun to watch Wilson try to keep up, and the two of them torment each other.”

But “you fall in love with all of them,” he says of the characters he puts down on paper and sees come to life on-set through the talent of the actors playing them. “These people are in your head while you’re writing the scripts, and then you watch them move around, and they do it in ways you weren’t even thinking.”

And what exactly are they doing on-set at the moment, shooting the finale? “Since you’re a fan of the show I think you’d be pissed if I ruined it for you.”

So he won’t tell me how the season ends, or even how its special-effects laden teaser begins, but he will say this: “We’ve been teeing up a lot of things in the last couple of episodes and those tensions will continue to play out over the next while.”

Yeah, that’s not vague at all. I can promise you this: Mars does not blow up. Earth, now — he didn’t say anything about Earth.

Click here for the Q&A of our talk.

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