Gentler Dr. House returns? Yes… maybe

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With its always surprising plot twists and unconventional medics, it’s little wonder that the critically-acclaimed “House” scored with viewers (particularly those in the coveted 18 to 49 demographic) with its cliffhanger second season finale.

Those wondering what TV’s toughest physician did during the summer hiatus will find out during tonight’s third season premiere (airing at 8) and, as usual, the hourlong Fox medical drama won’t disappoint.

When we last saw Dr. Gregory House (the perpetually stubbled Hugh Laurie), he was recovering from gunshot wounds he suffered at the hands of an angry husband seeking revenge for the good doctor’s treatment of his wife. During surgery, dean of medicine Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) authorized an experimental treatment that might cure the leg pain that’s helped make House such a curmudgeon.

However, the bigger change might be in House’s attitude. Does the maverick M.D., known for his brashness and complete lack of bedside manner, now care about his patients?

In tonight’s episode (titled “Meaning,” written by show creator David Shore and Lawrence Kaplow) a seemingly kinder, gentler House returns to work after a long summer of recuperation. But die-hard fans who worry about a new, touchy-feely House have little to fear at the outset. In many ways, he appears to be the same ol’ grouch we all know and love.

He argues with a teenager whose father has apparently tried to kill himself. The paralyzed man, unable to speak and barely able to move, drove his motorized wheelchair into the family pool.

“You obviously know this man who drools in front of your TV 24 hours a day,” House sneers to the son.

But why is the notoriously prickly House making small talk at all? His colleagues are shocked. “I heard you were talking to a patient’s family,” Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) says to his friend with some bemusement.

As Wilson and House converse, the latter practices some skateboard tricks.; his leg seemingly pain-free.

That appears to be good news for the doctor. But as the hour progresses it becomes clear that this “House” is one of the drama’s darkest episodes to date.

Doctors Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) and Foreman (Omar Epps) refuse to follow orders when they suspect House’s hidden motives and beliefs about his patient’s attempted suicide. (Only Dr. Chase — played by Australian actor Jesse Spencer — remains on board.) “My hunches are better than other doctors’ conclusions,” an unduantedHouse declares. But this time, he can’t come up with an explanation for his hunch.

Meanwhile, everything at the Princeton Medical Center seems topsy-turvy. Wilson, normally House’s conscience of sorts, shows a new side of himself here.

But so does almost every character.

“House” will air Tuesdays at 8 p.m. throughout September before moving to its regular 9 p.m. time slot Oct. 31.

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