Imagine a blend of TV heroes Dr. Kildare, Ironside and Gil Grissom. Now throw in Monty Python and Mick Jagger.
“You can’t always get what you want,” runs the Rolling Stones riff heard in the pilot of “House,” but in this mad mix of a medical mystery series, Fox executives got more than they needed or even dreamed. One hundred episodes later, “House” remains a network mainstay.
“This is one of our crown jewels,” says Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly. “It’s the fall linchpin that I’m building the schedule around” until “American Idol” relaunches each winter.
Not only did “House” finish the 2007-08 season as one of primetime’s most-watched dramas, but its ascendance since its November 2004 debut sped Fox’s evolution from insurgent youth to steady maturity.
“‘House,’ along with ’24,’ really established (Fox Broadcasting Co.) as a place for high-quality dramas,” says Peter Liguori, who rose alongside “House” from his position as programming president 2004-2007 to Fox Entertainment chairman. “It allowed us to become a home for the creative community to come to for episodic character-driven shows.”
And all Fox wanted back in 2004 was a reliable procedural, recalls series creator and executive producer David Shore.
“They were trying to get their ‘Law & Order,’ their ‘CSI,'” says Shore, who was coming off CBS’ “Family Law” and futuristic legal drama “Century City” to craft the hospital-based whatdunit.
“The more I worked on it, the less able I was to make it work as a procedural,” Shore says, “but the more the character started to come alive for me.”
The title diagnostician of the show would be as smart a physician as Dr. Kildare and as sharp a sleuth as Gil Grissom of “CSI,” but, as Shore says, “it was important to us that he be damaged, both emotionally and physically.”
Like ’60s cop Ironside, Gregory House was designed to solve crimes from a wheelchair. “But I thank (then Fox program chief) Gail Berman to this day for bristling at the fact that we had him in a wheelchair,” says fellow executive producer Katie Jacobs. Having star Hugh Laurie instead use a cane to cope with House’s dead leg muscles imparted the character a larger physical presence.
Pilot director and executive producer Bryan Singer actually introduced House by focusing on his legs and cane before panning up to his face — defining him by the disability, for which House continually gobbles painkillers.
“I came at it as a person who’s had chronic back problems, and I know that kind of pain and how it can inform all your behavior,” says the “X-Men” feature director. “His Vicodin addiction can also be a catalyst for changes in his character.”
Yet disabled drug-taker House emerged as a dynamic, sardonic, scruffy rule breaker who appeals tremendously to young viewers.
“There’s something about his brutal honesty, his flirtations with women, his drug abuse and its permissibility,” Singer says. “And his energy — Hugh in his wardrobe and in his eyes carries a youthful energy.”
Well-educated British wit Laurie, coming from TV comedies “Jeeves and Wooster” and “Blackadder,” sketch comedy “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” and character roles in movies like “Flight of the Phoenix,” emerged late in the game as the show’s go-to star.
“The genius of Hugh is we can write anything for him,” Shore says.
And House can be nasty indeed. An unabashed misanthrope, he loves diagnosing rare diseases but loathes their human hosts.
“The title of the pilot was ‘Everybody Lies,’ and that’s the premise of the show,” director Singer says, pointing out the episode had House declare he became a doctor to treat illnesses, not patients.
“He enjoys pursuing the truth,” Shore adds, “and he knows we all see the world through our own lenses. He’s constantly trying to strip himself of those biases, to get a clean, objective view of things.”
Taking House full-strength was made easier by the robust foils Shore created to challenge his antihero at the character’s fictional teaching hospital. TV veteran Lisa Edelstein, as House’s exasperated yet enabling boss Dr. Lisa Cuddy, and stage actor Robert Sean Leonard as his accommodating oncologist pal Dr. James Wilson, have provided consistently rich antagonism/support.
Leonard and Laurie’s rapport fuels yet another of the series’ offbeat pleasures, the prankish byplay of their Holmes-and-Watson friendship. (They aren’t named House and Wilson for nothing. House has a Sherlock Holmes-like drug dependence, and his New Jersey townhouse number is the detective’s own 221B.)
Like the timelessly intriguing Holmes, House now seems an enduring character. Though “House” debuted to weak ratings in 2004 behind Richard Branson’s long-forgotten “Rebel Billionaire,” the ratings started climbing just weeks later when “American Idol” became its lead-in and have remained strong. (The show’s Nielsen season rank in total viewers, first season to last: 24, 10, 8, 8.)
And “House” isn’t only an American hit. “It’s shocking how well ‘House’ does internationally,” says Angela Bromstad, president of primetime entertainment for the series’ production company, NBC Universal Media Studios. “It’s one of our most valuable assets, without question.”
Universal DVDs sell well, and “House” repeats a dozen times a week on NBC-owned USA cable, where “they’re developing a companion piece (“Royal Pains”) for it,” says Bromstad.
Relying on future seasons of “House” seems a solid bet, considering the original production team led by Shore and Jacobs has remained intact.
“This is the kind of relationship networks dream about,” Reilly says, “a show that brands the network, delivers commercially and is a collaborative effort with the original creative team.”
Jacobs, noting Laurie is signed to star through eight seasons, is optimistic viewers will stick around.
“It’s kind of a happy accident that the show did not come on the scene and sort of announce itself as a hit,” she says. “The viewers discovered it. And I think our audience still goes through the process of discovery watching every episode.”