Here's where we stand as one of TV's premiere dramas of the past decade comes to an end Monday night. Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) must return to jail for six months for parole violation, while Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) will likely be dead from cancer in five months.
In jail for six months, while his only friend in the cold, cruel and indifferent universe will be gone forever in five.
A rock on one side. A hard place on the other.
As usual, this conundrum is all House's fault -- following some elaborate scheme gone very bad that was designed to force a reluctant Wilson to undergo chemotherapy so he'd stay alive a couple more years, thereby giving House himself a reason to stay alive. But with House in jail, Wilson probably will forgo chemo and die. Without Wilson by his side, what does House have to live for? Checkmate.
Phew: Grim, dark, scary ... and remarkable.
Remarkable that a series that was always about a battle between the head and heart -- specifically House's hard head and cold heart -- should win countless admirers and viewers while becoming, for a time, one of the most popular shows on the planet.
Especially remarkable that an unrepentant misanthrope with a game leg and taste for Vicodin would become a pop icon for eight seasons.
"House" was a rare bird, indeed -- a commercial TV program about the search for truth by a desperately flawed man embittered by the futility of his pursuit.
"We became doctors to treat illnesses," House sourly explained in the opening moments. "Treating patients is what makes most doctors miserable."
He further advised his colleagues never to ask patients anything because "everybody lies." Monday's finale (9 p.m., Fox/5; a retrospective airs at 8) is titled "Everybody Dies."
Back in 2004, Fox had been in the market for its own "Law & Order"- like procedural, and bought an idea from veteran producer Paul Attanasio ("Homicide") and David Shore, a former lawyer from Canada who'd had modest success as a TV writer ("Hack," "Family Law").
Shore's idea, however, was a new twist on a very old idea, or, in his words at the time, a "whatdone-it" versus a "whodoneit." House was to be an embittered Sherlock Holmes -- a miscreant doctor with the world's worst bedside manner motivated by a near-pathological pursuit of the truth. Wilson -- his Watson -- would help sand those razor-sharp edges.
Like most writers, Shore had lifted the idea from his own life. "We all have to deal with idiots and I was the idiot," he once explained. He had gone to a hospital to have a hip checked long after the pain had gone. "I was examined by five different doctors, who found nothing wrong, and they were so good to me, but I knew they were relentlessly mocking me later." He decided a show about a doctor who mocked the patient to his face might work.
Bowing on Nov. 16, 2004, "House" was very nearly an instant flop (just over 6 million viewers), but Fox propped the show up behind "American Idol" the following year, and a phenom was born. By the end of 2005, "House" was a TV giant, and the giant only grew from there.
"House" succeeded because of a ferociously intelligent performance by Laurie, but he had unusually able support, including Leonard, who left a distinguished stage career for this, as well as Lisa Edelstein, Omar Epps, Jesse Spencer, Olivia Wilde and Peter Jacobson (who joined in '07). All were cast as doctors or administrators who suffered under House's relentless lash or, in the case of Lisa Cuddy (Edelstein), his relentless romantic attentions.
And while a formula, "House" rarely felt like one because Shore's research and writing were models of precision. Words never felt wasted, while every line seemed to service the story or medical case of the moment.
Shore recently explained that the show's "message . . . and what House stands for is really the pursuit of truth, and not just blindly following, while asking 'what is reality and what is the right thing to do.' That search for objective truth is what I found fundamentally the most interesting throughout the run of the show."
Of course, "House" was smart enough to know that the declaration, "everybody lies," applied to Dr. Gregory House as well. Our tragic hero probably will end his eight-year run with the full realization that truth is unattainable, while his own querulous existence has been, on some level, a cosmic joke.
Shore will say only that the end is "bittersweet."