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Formula Won

Have you ever been in the midst of a taut thriller on the big or little screen and thought, Well I know this character won't die because she's played by Angelina Jolie (or Sandra Bullock or Sarah Michelle Gellar or Jennifer Garner)? Despite knowing nothing about the plot, the audience is immediately given clues the characters in the program or film are not. It's similar to realizing that the seemingly underutilized super star will probably show up in the last scene as the villain. That's why foreign and independent film can be so satisfying: Populated with actors you've never heard of or just plain "nobodies" allows you to really not have a clue as to which foreigner or indy malcontent did the crime, gets the girl, or goes stark raving mad.

Alas, back in Hollywood, the plots of some films and shows are obvious before the credits are done rolling (add one Ashley Judd, sprinkle in Morgan Freeman, drop in a dollop of Tony Goldwyn, and stir). And so, we watch our flat-screen TV sets or stretch out in a multiplex fully aware that the black guy is probably going to die first, the geeky best buddy and not the football-hero jerk will get the girl, and the bomb will ultimately be disarmed with exactly one second on the clock. It's all so dreadfully predictable that every Hollywood project on the lot is hyped as chuck full of "twists and turns" and "wait until the last five minutes" in the hope that we will be tricked into watching just one more spin off of a spin off of an old idea (it's "24" meets Tom Clancy meets Harrison Ford!). Of course, we usually do just that, and then we complain that this year sucked for movies or there's never anything to watch on any of my 503 channels. It is exactly why I thought the Fox's hit drama "House" could never work.

Drawing inspiration from The New York Times Magazine's column "Diagnosis," "House," which just concluded its third season, is almost absurdly formulaic. In each episode, a team of very smart doctors are handed a patient presenting a series of odd and possibly unrelated symptoms. Over the course of an hour, we watch a few MRI scans, maybe a spinal tap or two. The doctors go through round upon round of trial and error--mostly error, leaving the patient hovering near death--until, finally, after some debate and banter, the correct diagnosis is reached and the patient is saved. On the rarest occasions, a patient dies so that the doctors can poignantly look inward at their own frailties and remember that they are merely very smart doctors and not gods. But despite minor inter-character subplots here and there, every episode of "House" features a medical mystery and, inevitably, the solution.

And so, just like all those inane sit-coms, righteous courtroom dramas, and so-called who-done-its of televisionland, "House" is stridently predictable--or, at least, the plot is. What is unpredictable about "House" is the eponymous Dr. House himself, the world's leading infectious-disease diagnostician--who is also a motorcycle-riding Vicodin addict and all-around asshole whose ferocity is only surpassed by his acerbity. In fact, every word that passes through House's lips is dripping with sarcasm. The effort the show's writers must expend making sure the tenor of House's dialogue is arch every moment he's on screen is staggering. A few delicious House-isms:

"Loss of free will. I like it. Maybe we can get Thomas Aquinas in for a consult."

"Arrogance has to be earned. Tell me what you've done to earn yours."

"Sorry. I already met this month's quota of useless tests for stubborn idiots."

"OK, fine. I'll father your child. But first you gotta write me a Vicodin prescription. Just so I can get through the foreplay."

"I thought I'd get your theories, mock them, then embrace my own. The usual."

Of course, the dialogue is meaningless without the brilliant Hugh Laurie (any "Blackadder" fans out there?), who has made House the most intricate, troubled, and anarchic character on television. He portrays House as nastily as possible; there is no silver lining to House, no moments of humanity to remind you he really is a nice guy after all. House is captivating because he's incapable of feeling guilt, compassion, or interest for anyone but himself. He is not the wry curmudgeon with a heart of gold; he's a manipulative narcissist who loathes patients, rules, and God. House relies on pills as much as his ubiquitous cane (recently featuring retro flame decals), the physical manifestation of his inner demons and flaws. Where Alec Baldwin's impolitic network executive on "30 Rock" is a great cartoon, House is the real miserable, bitter, ornery thing. And somehow it's all tremendously funny.

Last week, on its season finale, "House" dumped half the cast. Three of the six primary players on the show--House's whole team--either quit or were fired. And so at the end, just like all those insipid programs that follow televisionland rules about the hero always surviving, House finds himself alone but bracing for a new season. No other character is so strong or so dominant; only House is essential. Losing House is as unlikely as losing Buffy. The producers have intriguingly made the show as narcissistic as the main character.

But suddenly this attachment to the rules doesn't bother me. With a predictable plot, mean-spirited protagonist, and incomprehensible medical jargon, "House" shouldn't work. And yet, I find myself loving every minute of it. That's because on "House," while you certainly can't rely on spontaneity from the story line, you can get it from the voice of the show. And, in the case of "House," that is more than enough.

By Sacha Zimmerman