It doesn't take long for "House" to establish itself as a member of TV's Cool Science Club, whose foremost members include three highly rated "CSI" shows and "Medical Investigation." Midway through tonight's premiere of Fox's new medical drama, the camera takes us on a psychedelic journey straight up a young woman's nose and deep into the mushy matter of her brain. And later, it treats us to an intimate tour of her mouth, as proof that even mucus cells can no longer harbor secrets without becoming the subject of close investigation.
But it would be a mistake to pigeonhole "House" as one of TV's genre shows in which science is the Big Hero, aided by an ensemble of diverse doctors who worship their god wearing white robes and goggles. The promising series, which premieres at 9 on Channel 25, is about a big human character -- and a very flawed human character, at that -- as much as it's about the miracles of modern medicine overcoming the mysteries of illness. Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is the main attraction, an almost sociopathic genius who is given to muttering bitter comments such as "Humanity is overrated." He's a mess of a man, filled with open disdain as well as Vicodin, which he takes to stop the pain from "muscle death" in his leg. And yet he is a brilliant diagnostician, a last-ditch doctor who cures people the rest of the medical world has written off.
What a treat it is to find a medical show that doesn't turn its talented MDs into bedside saints in order to calm viewers' fears about mechanical HMO factories. House is a full-on pain in the neck who -- surprise, surprise -- may not even have a heart of gold underneath his gruff surface. He has contempt for all his patients, snapping at the needier ones: "Would you rather have a doctor who holds your hand, or one who cures you?" When a colleague, oncologist James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), asks for his assistance on a difficult case, he responds, "Brain tumor. She's gonna die. Boring." No Marcus Welby, he.
Still, he's an ace healer. The only things that warm House, aside from, ironically, "General Hospital" and People magazine, are unexplainable illnesses that require him to reject all the conventional thinking of those who diagnosed before him. He's a creature of conflict who uses hot dissent and anger to come up with a successful scientific analysis.
While we watch House solve mysteries like a medical Sherlock (including the drug addiction), we also watch the mystery that is House -- as immovable and impossible to see through as his name. And best of all, we also watch Laurie, the British actor known by many as Bertie Wooster in "Jeeves and Wooster" and Mr. Little in "Stuart Little," as he delivers a tour de force performance. He doesn't glamorize House at all; the doctor is gaunt, miserable, and slovenly, and he uses his cane as something to lean on or strike out with -- unlike Kerry Weaver on "ER," whose cane is meant to remind us of her inner strength. Television viewers often reject nasty heroes; the best example is Jay Mohr's slimeball agent on another Fox series, "Action." But Laurie gives House a kind of negative charisma that is fascinating to watch, and likable in its way. And it's hard not to notice that despite his fits and spats, House does save lives.
The rest of the staff at the show's fictional teaching hospital are a lot less interesting, and that may prove to be one of the show's long-term problems. As if to compensate for the curiosity piece that is House, they're predictable and, of course, flirtatious. Lisa Edelstein plays the dean of medicine who's constantly trying to get House to behave; Omar Epps is the neurologist with the criminal past; and Jennifer Morrison is the immunologist House hired simply for her looks. They're not going to offer much scenery for House to chew on.
Another possible long-term problem may be Fox, which is not exactly the network on which you'd expect to find an hourlong medical drama. Fox knows how to pump its mediocre (and worse) reality series, and it has done well by many a sitcom. And it has turned soap operas such as "The O.C." into sensations. But it may not know how to cultivate such a straight drama, and not try to turn it into a cartoon. Leading into it with the tiresome "Rebel Billionaire," for example, is not a good omen.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.