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There was some apprehension mixed with my excitement over the season two premiere of House, M.D. The season one finale saw Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) seemingly as low as he could get – broken heart re-broken, picking at his emotional scabs, testing his physical limitations, drinking, and downing Vicodin mournfully rather than defiantly. It was a suitably melancholy way to end off a season getting to know this beautifully melancholy character, but House the show is at its best when House the man brings on the despair wrapped in humour, and there’s not a lot of humour in wallowing.

The finale also awkwardly inserted House’s ex-love, hospital lawyer Stacy Warner (Sela Ward), into the show as a recurring character, leaving me with the fear of soapy residue eventually clinging to the character study and procedural drama I love, and dashing hope of more focus on the underdeveloped secondary characters by concentrating on a character who is theoretically not a permanent addition.

But Tuesday’s premiere episode “Acceptance” brings back the almost manic wit, shows us hilarious drunk House instead of morbid drunk House, and leaves behind the threat of suds. Yet it doesn’t abandon the revelations of last season, when we learned that not only did Stacy make the decision that cost him full use of his leg and sentenced him to chronic pain, but they still have feelings for each other that are complicated by the fact that she’s married and he’s bitter.

In this opener, House bargains with boss and frequent sparring partner Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) to be assigned the case of Death Row Guy (aka Dead Man Dying aka Clarence – guest star LL Cool J). He then tricks Stacy into arranging his transfer to the hospital so he can diagnose his mystery ailment before shipping him back to prison to be executed (it’s apparently the law – can’t kill someone who’s not healthy). When he tells her he’s fine working with her as long as she keeps her distance, she replies: “I’m a lawyer. You’re a jerk. There’s bound to be some overlap.”

House’s easy banter with Stacy overlays an uneasy attempt to find a way to trust each other, or accept that they can’t trust each other. Their conversations take on a poignant dual meaning without hitting us over the head with melodrama, as discussions of trust concerning the case at hand mirror knowledge of the betrayal that helped doom their relationship. “I had to do what I thought was right,” she says at one point – about exposing a deception to Cuddy, but it’s hard not to think about the decision that crippled him, too. “That’s the only reason anybody does anything,” he replies.

House rarely offers viewers the easy answers we expect, defying our expectations of Clarence without softening him, and shading Dr. Foreman’s (Omar Epps) reactions to the murderer from his initial dismissal of him as a patient and a person to something like acceptance. “Acceptance” throws out ethical questions about the death penalty and whether one patient’s life is worth more than another without answering them for us or making it easy to see things in black and white.

Dr. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) is apparently over last season’s crush on her boss, telling him so childishly when he focuses on Clarence the inmate and refuses to consider a case she brings to him. She is desperate to believe that her young patient, Cindy, might have something other than the cancer that oncologist Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) told her was the obvious diagnosis. She also becomes emotionally attached to the case thanks to her martyr complex: “When a good person dies, there should be an impact on the world. Somebody should notice. Somebody should be upset.” That she thinks that somebody should be her is perhaps not the best trait in a doctor, a fact that Wilson tries and fails to impress on her.

House kindly delineates a theme of the episode on his beloved whiteboard, ostensibly in order to mock Cameron and her refusal to accept Cindy’s diagnosis. But of the five stages of grief he writes – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – by the end it’s not clear that any of them, especially House, have reached the final stage, or have much hope of doing so.

There are some new writers on board this year, new looks for some of the characters, and a diversion from the basic formula of almost killing the patient a few times before coming up with the logical but unexpected diagnosis. But so far it’s the same great House with the same sad problems: not enough Wilson and Cuddy.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


For after all, the best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow