A service industry I recently worked in had a saying. "Cheap. Fast. Reliable. Choose any two." Expect to compromise.
I am so accustomed to compromises in the deadline-and-budget driven medium of television, that I have had to redefine good drama as either good acting and directing, or a good script idea that is muddled through as best as possible. In that sausage factory of television production, survival of a show is determined by (a) consistent production within budget, and (b) achievement of respectable, and preferably growing, ratings. Quality is often an added bonus (and sometimes, it seems, an accidental by-product).
A show that has both a great script and great acting is so rare, even (perhaps especially) in productions with Hollywood-size budgets, that when it does occur I am sufficiently gob-smacked to want to give it some credit. Such is my feeling about Fox's House, MD, a rare example in American television.
The show is a recreation of Arthur Conan Doyle's mythical detective Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a doctor himself, and reputedly based the character of Holmes on a diagnostician. House, the exasperating diagnostician, brings the creation full circle. House brings the trademark detective work, precocious intelligence, and dogmatic logic of his famous predecessor Holmes. Even Holmes' drug habits (House is addicted to Vicodin, although this seems to cause him more trouble than Holmes' mild cocaine habit ever did), his ethics (it is fine to lie to police and housebreak to solve the case) and his coldness towards people, but passion for solving a case, are all inspired by Mr Holmes. There its similarity ends. House, ahem, is not a gentleman.
It would take an exceptional actor to be worthy of such pedigree. Exceptional is one word for James Hugh Calum Laurie. Laurie was born to play Dr House. His audition for the role was so flawless that on seeing Laurie's audition tape, Bryan Singer (one of the producers and directors, more on him later) declared how relieved he was to finally find an American perfect for the role - but Laurie is very English. In fact, it is hard to imagine an American playing this role. I can't imagine anyone but an Englishman bringing that unique blend of overbearing arrogance, superiority and self-loathing required to enable House's rapid-fire insults and antics, to be delivered with both ease and intelligence.
We can speculate why Laurie is such a good fit. Maybe Laurie brings an empathy born of his own medical history - his father was a doctor, and he himself has suffered debilitating mononucleosis and clinical depression. Maybe it is his theatrical pedigree, or his imposing physicality (he was a champion rower at Cambridge), or maybe his other precocious talents, notably music and writing, which in many cases mimic House's own. Speculate all we like, the bottom line is Laurie is brilliant. He is so good that one wonders why he has never hit his stride outside the UK before. His previous roles included various upper-class British fops and a few Hollywood movies, such as an unfortunate casting as an emasculated father to an anthropomorphised mouse. I suspect these roles hardly did Laurie justice.
Even more impressive is the amount of work involved, which for Laurie must be considerable. He carries the hour each week. "Grinding" is an adjective often heard during on-set interviews with more candid actors. That Laurie delivers a physically disabled, drug-addled, cranky, sociopath genius - in (for Laurie) a foreign accent - with near perfect comedic timing - is an achievement.
In an interview before the third season, Laurie expressed his willingness to trust his role to the script, wherever it leads. House is really a one man show. That Laurie would put the largest role of his career in the hands of the show’s writers is, in this case, understandable - the script is excellent, and is the second element of the show's success. The five other regular characters, although often endearing and usually entertaining, are simply foils for House. These characters also serve to create a (sometimes improbable) environment where House gets away with behaving as he does. I suspect a real doctor would be fired, committed, arrested, or possibly all three.
The most interesting of the five supporting characters is his only friend and professional equal, Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard). Wilson loves House dearly, which, luckily for House, assures his tenure, as Wilson is also on the board of the hospital. Wilson is the vehicle to deliver trenchant "truthiness" (thanks Stephen Colbert) to House about his various personality disorders. House's direct boss, Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) is hinted to be House's ex-lover or at least a previous sex partner. This history allows House some easy familiarity, and sometimes blatant disdain, for the hospital hierarchy. The regular cast is rounded off with House's team of three "cottages" (little Houses). These characters act as sounding boards for the medico-babble, the same role Dr Watson serves in the Holmes stories. Only one of the “cottages”, Foreman (impressively played by Omar Epps, previously of ER) has the technical nous and confidence to challenge him. His troubled past, as well as his race, is mercilessly manipulated by House, causing Foreman to hold House in some professional disdain. All supporting characters, to various degrees, are aware of the fame by association with the unconventional House, and the opportunities that working in his team brings to their careers, which makes their tolerance of House's antics (barely) believable. However, the major factor that lets House get away with what he does is that he saves lives where others can't.
All five foils are, with the possible exception of Foreman, obsequious, milquetoast characters, who buckle to the abrasive power of House. To ensure House has a really meaty rival, a nemesis must be brought in from outside the regular cast, in the form of guest stars in multi-episode arcs (or, in some cases, an especially difficult patient). For example, in the first series we see Vogler (the physically imposing Chi McBride), a wealthy pharmaceutical executive who basically buys the hospital and House with it., and season three has Tritter (David Morse), a detective on a mission to get House as a drug addict. Both serve as straight-men authority figures to House's clown. House dispenses with Vogler with political aplomb while Tritter is somewhat more of a pain in the backside for House.
House uses and abuses his cheering crowd of five supporters, often at great risk to them, to dig himself out of these holes. How can a character be so despicable yet so irresistible? The answer, as outlined above: Hugh Laurie's talent.
Such a happy coincidence of acting and script, I suspect, is no accident. Some credit has to go to (creator) David Shore's clarity of (Holmes-inspired) vision. Bryan Singer, a producer and director of the pilot and third episode, has some experience with getting exception performances from fine actors (think Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects and the Ian McKellan/Patrick Stewart rivalry in the first two X-Men movies).