'House' doc is long way from 'Marcus Welby, M.D.'


Dr. Gregory House doesn't wear a white lab coat, and he will do almost anything to avoid actually having to see a patient. He doesn't trust their testimony on ailments, and besides, listening to people who say they're sick keeps him from the only two things in life that he seems to truly enjoy: watching General Hospital and popping painkillers like they are M&Ms.;

We've come a long way from Dr. Marcus Welby, M.D., in the last 30 years of prime-time television. And the surly doctor in this House, premiering tonight on Fox, seems to have been born out of all the frustration felt these days toward a health care system that often seems more geared toward making money than healing the sick.

In the end, Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) is still mainly in the business of saving lives. But the one life he can't seem to brighten even a little is his own. And that existential darkness at the heart of this series created by the gifted Paul Attanasio (Donnie Brasco and Homicide: Life on the Street) is what makes it one of the more intriguing dramas in a fall season distinguished by them.

It is not hard to see what Fox and Attanasio are trying to accomplish commercially in House. The series is structured to be a medical version of CSI, right down to the computer-generated sequences that take viewers inside a strand of hair, drop of blood or skin cell as the investigators look into a microscope or examine a slide.

Instead of investigators trying to solve a murder before the killer strikes again, here a team of doctors tries to diagnose illnesses before they kill patients.

The medical puzzle in tonight's pilot involves a kindergarten teacher (Robin Tunney) at an inner-city school in Trenton, N.J., who suffers what appears to be a seizure or stroke. She winds up as a patient at the teaching hospital in Princeton, N.J., that employs Dr. House only after one of his colleagues intercedes on her behalf. But that doesn't mean Dr. House will actually see her. It's only after she fails to respond to treatments suggested by more obvious diagnoses that he gets involved. And, then, he and his team almost kill her a couple of times before figuring it out.

His team is formulaic - and that's not a good thing. Omar Epps plays neurologist Dr. Eric Foreman. He's African-American, and even though he had great medical school grades, House says he was chosen for his "street smarts." Jennifer Morrison is immunologist Dr. Allison Cameron, and, while she is beautiful and brainy, in the second episode, she acknowledges some sexual issues. Jesse Spencer, as intensive-care specialist Dr. Robert Chase, is from the WASP world of old money, but nothing he says or does in the first two episodes offers any social-class insights.

One hopes more dimensions will be shown as the series unfolds. On the other hand, as the title suggests, the series is more about Dr. House than anything else, and he is a fascinating character by the standards of American television.

To find a true prototype, one has to look to British TV and the deeply troubled police psychologist Dr. Eddie "Fitz" Fitzgerald, played so compellingly by Robbie Coltrane in Cracker (seen here on A&E;). "I drink too much. I gamble too much. I am too much," Dr. Fitzgerald once said of his boorish personality.

Dr. House, played by the Englishman Laurie as if daring viewers to dislike him, is the same kind of brooding, wounded, self-destructive anti-hero. He says he takes the Vicodin pills to numb the chronic pain from a leg left paralyzed in part by a misdiagnosis. (He relies on a cane.) But one of his mantras is, "Everybody lies."

It is going to be interesting to see what viewers make of the unshaven and abrasive Dr. House. There is a lot of anger about the way corporations run health care today, and Dr. House certainly embodies that in battles with his bosses, particularly Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), chief of medicine.

But a doctor who openly abuses drugs and patient sensibilities? One has to wonder. One also has to applaud Fox and Attanasio for bringing a provocative new character to the screen.

'Afghanistan Unveiled'

Local viewers will have to go out of their way to see Afghanistan Unveiled, an inspirational documentary about the lives of Afghan women pre- and-post-Taliban by the first female journalists trained in Afghanistan in more than a decade. While the film is scheduled by PBS to air nationally at 10 tonight, Maryland Public Television is not airing it. WETA (Channel 26) will carry it at 1 a.m. (A spokeswoman said MPT might air the film early next year.)

Journalistically, Afghanistan Unveiled has its problems. The film primarily consists of student filmmakers in their 20s recording the testimony of older women as to what they have endured and, in some cases, continue to suffer today.

While one wants to root for these idealistic young interviewers who weep at the suffering of the women they interview, one has to also admit the possibility of their being used for propaganda to help justify U.S. military actions in Afghanistan.

Still, it is uplifting to see these young journalists exercising their newfound freedom to bear witness and report on the lives of women in their land - instead of being forced to suffer in silence behind a veil.


When: Tonight at 9

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: New Fox drama about medical detection by a deeply troubled doctor.

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