Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Out of the House: Kal Penn

Warning: This post contains a major spoiler for last night's episode of House. Scroll away if you want to avoid it!

Last night's episode of House M.D. featured the "departure" of Dr. Lawrence Kutner (Kal Penn), a character who had been on the show since late 2007. Penn was one of three actors (including Olivia Wilde and Peter Jacobson) who joined the cast to play members of Dr. House's new diagnostic team.

But last night, Kutner was written off the show in a rather shocking manner. And Kal Penn has given his explanation for leaving in this interview with Entertainment Weekly.[bxA]

I have to admit that Penn's reasons for leaving are definitely interesting and worth mentioning. After getting involved with the Obama campaign last year, Penn will actually be going to work in the White House as the associate director in the White House office of public liaison. While he isn't exactly quitting acting, he's definitely taking a break from it to focus on this new position. This isn't the first time Penn has worked outside show business. Early last year, he was a visiting lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught a course on "Images of Asian Americans in the Media." So you have to give the guy props for his willingness to take a pay cut and try working in other areas that mean something to him.

But that brings us to the issue of last night's House, which I — like many viewers — have extremely mixed feelings about. Penn's Kutner was an extremely likable character, quite possibly the most positive character on the show. And he was probably my favorite person on House's new team. But early in the episode, his character was written off when he is discovered in his apartment after an apparent suicide.

Suicide is no laughing matter, and in that sense, the show dealt with it well. The characters, much like the viewers, expressed their shock and disbelief as they tried to figure out why Kutner would take his own life. A heavy sense of grief pervaded the episode, and we got the sense that Kutner's suicide will have some repercussions on the rest of the season.

But something about the suicide felt a bit off. And maybe we're supposed to feel that way — after all, showrunner David Shore told Entertainment Weekly that he didn't really want anyone to see it coming (which is sadly often the case with real-life suicides).

Since this is fiction, and a TV show where a well thought-out arc can always be appreciated, I guess the thing that troubles me the most is the fact that Kutner was ultimately a tragically underused character. We did get various glimpses of his personality and background at times — as Wilde's character pointed out last night, he was an eternal "man child," with a fondness for Harry Potter books. In recent episodes, we saw he had an amusing superstitious streak. And he was also the most House-like character, clever with wild ideas, but minus the curmudgeonly demeanor. While he did have a darker side due to a tragic childhood where he witnessed his parents' violent deaths, he was also optimistic. As he once said, a person in his situation had nowhere to go but up.

This is ultimately all we really knew about Kutner while he was on the show. He never had any major story arcs like Wilde's "Thirteen" or Jacobson's Taub, and aside from his family background, we didn't know much about his personal life. Case in point, Kutner's character supposedly had a girlfriend (Nicole Brewster), who was really only mentioned in FOX's online memorial for Kutner.

Even though Penn did not receive word about his new White House position until early this year, it seems he gave the writers a fair warning that he was seriously considering a switch to politics. And if the writers knew about this for a while, they really could have spent more time giving the character more extensive story arcs. They didn't necessarily have to write anything hinting at Kutner's suicidal nature, but it's a sad state of affairs when a character that has been around for nearly two years only makes a significant impact on a show once he's been killed off.

1 comment:

  1. I was thinking the same thing, re: timing. He had to have been offered this position at least 2-3 months ago, so why couldn't a better arc have been built if they wanted to keep the suicide plot? It leaves a bad taste in your mouth because it's such a serious action to have happened out of the blue. I just feel bad because they could have used Kal so much more and given him a better exit. Oh well.

    I will miss his childlike face when dropping HP references, though.