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October 04, 2009

  • House Arrest
  • imageTelevision drama, like so many forms of entertainment, is about maintaining the illusion of change more than actual change itself. Format is king more than story, whether that be a series about police in New York who investigate crimes while the DAs prosecute the offenders, women on a suburban street who cope with the onset of middle age, or crime scene investigators who solve crimes in Las Vegas. You can threaten the status quo any number of ways—through ongoing storylines, cast and character changes and stunts to draw in viewers—but ultimately, the format will win and the show will still do what it does. Police will still investigate while DAs prosecute, housewives will still be desperate, CSI will still solve crimes through the totemic power of forensics.

    Nowhere is that dilemma clearer than on House. In fact what the makers of House do better than any television series on the air is keeping the illusion of change going. They have to. Because, at the end of the day, House is a fundamentally flawed television series.

    House is, for all intents and purposes, a series about a sociopath. Dr. Gregory House does not understand emotion and he’s incapable of growth or indeed learning from a circumstance. If we actually knew someone like House in real life, we would stay away from him—that is if he wasn’t arrested or committed first. He’s a cockroach, who uses people routinely and endangers them even more.

    In terms of the role House fulfils in the series named after him, he is absolutely perfect. He instigates conflict and gives something for the characters to react against in the face of the ethical and emotional vacuum the character provides. But what he provides in terms of the procedural aspect of the series—the medical mystery—is what’s golden. Because the fun in watching House is the lateral leaps in investigation House the character makes because he lacks any scruples or conscience and is generally cynical about humanity.

    Here’s the problem though: While the character of House makes everything work in terms of the drama at hand, House is a character incapable of growth. He really is a throwback to most TV characters before the 1980s who go back to start every week. If House learned, grew or evolved, he would never be the perfect catalyst for the medical procedural.

    So what do you do?

    The makers of House have become masters of illusion. Every season there’s a new threat to destabilize things: a recurring villain (Voger in season one, Tritter in season three). House is able to stop the pain in his leg. House fires his staff. Wilson ends his friendship with House. Amber dies. Cutner commits suicide. House’s vicodin addiction causes delusions.

    It’s an unending parade of challenges and threats to the status quo. They keep things interesting for a few episodes until it all goes back to start: the villains are deposed. The pain in House’s leg infarction proves resistant to treatment. House does what he does with three other people to mock. House, unconvincingly, makes up with Wilson. Amber and Cutner are forgotten.

    As with all masters of illusion, misdirection is key. If House is unchangeable, the supporting characters are not. Thus we have the soap opera of Chase and Cameron, and Foreman and Thirteen, and Cuddy and her desire to have a child, and Thirteen’s Huntington’s disease, and Taub’s marital troubles, and the fallout from Cameron’s gloomy first marriage, and Foreman’s ambition and whatever movie poster is up on the wall of Wilson’s office. These characters are allowed to grow somewhat because they’re afforded not only the luxury of change but the illusion that, however imperfect their lives are, they can be, occasionally, happy.

    House can’t, and won’t, do that.

    Which makes two things about the world of House so fascinating to me. The first are the fans of House’s relationship with Cuddy, the ones who nauseate me on blogs and message boards talking about it under the collective name of “Huddy”. I probably get the idea of shipping—being a fan of relationships on TV dramas—better than most men (Go Ziva and Tony on NCIS!) but with House and Cuddy I find it utterly mystifying. House will never be capable of sustaining an intimate relationship. House is a sociopath. His whole friendship with Wilson is based on using him (what’s more interesting—and unexplored—is that Wilson wants to be used by House. Wilson is television’s worst enabler). The greatest show of honesty and self-awareness on House’s part was when Cuddy, in an emotional moment, asked House why he negated everything she did and House said “I don’t know.” House is about as capable of carrying on a sustained relationship as Ted Bundy. The only reason I can see for the interest in “Huddy” is that House fans love bad boys they think they can change. Only bad boys don’t change in real life. And sociopaths like House change even less.

    Which brings me to this current season of House, which as threats to destabilize the status quo go is probably the largest, boldest gambit they’ve ever tried. House commits himself in a mental institution, seeks treatment to kick his Vicodin addiction and then goes into therapy. The season opener takes no prisoners. House is vulnerable, reflective and self-aware as he tries to address his lack of trust and unhappiness. Hugh Laurie gives an astounding performance—hopefully successful Emmy bait next year—as House finds himself having a series of tiny epiphanies and admits that he is broken and tries to be fixed.

    It’s deeply moving. And yet…I can’t help but call bullshit on the entire proceeding.

    I don’t believe for a minute this will stick. It may take 2, 3, 6, 10 or 15 episodes, but House will flame out of therapy. He probably will even start using Vicodin again. Because House is incapable of forming deep attachments or being happy. He can’t. He needs to be an outsider to humanity or the drama just doesn’t work.

    Maybe I’ll be proved wrong. The second episode of the season tries to give House a new rationale for resuming his work at Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital: that solving the medical puzzles gives him a way of working through his chronic pain. Maybe the trajectory of this season is to address that House is, after all these years, a cipher (I would argue that a large proportion of the success of House’s character is Hugh Laurie’s performance) and to try and make House grow in order to keep the series fresh.

    Maybe. Unfortunately, I’m cynical having seen it go back to start so many times before. House’s credo is “Everybody lies.” Everybody including House’s creators.

    Posted by graeme | (4) Comments | Permalink

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    Arturo  on  10/05  at  10:09 AM

    (Thanks for the heads up, by the way; I’ve bookmarked this now).

    I agree with pretty much everything you write about <i>House</i> the show and the characters. I am puzzled, however, by the line saying that the show is “fundamentally flawed”. In what sense? That the main character cannot change? That the writers are prevented from making the character evolve? Or some other sense?

    (Of course, you probably are all too aware of the parallels to Sherlock Holmes, so I won’t belabor them)

    Rob J  on  10/05  at  10:35 AM

    For me, the central tension in the show is more about how others react to House.  Because, I think you’re right; a central characteristic of the guy is that he is not nice, is not someone you’d like to have in your life.  To take that away would sink the ship of the drama. 

    But, where I think the program succeeds best is how the characters <i>around</i> him are forced to adapt and challenge their own assumptions about <i>everything</i>.  They are faced with the fact that he is both brilliant and a jerk in equal measure, and they are forced to examine the impact of this in every episode.  When I first watched it, it seemed to me that the show is the antithesis of all ensemble cast shows. 

    These people are not drawn together because of the hardships they face in their difficult work lives.  They are pulled apart, and not because of the stress of being in a difficult profession, but because their leader is always playing them to meet an end that often just pops into his mind randomly, to prove some point only to himself.  How they deal with that dynamic is what makes the show compelling for me.  So, you’re right.  House will never change.  But, his colleagues will, I think.

    Cheers for the post!

    Koshka  on  10/05  at  11:41 AM

    You’ve got it bang on Graeme. I must especially praise your view of why ‘shippers are all about “Huddy,” that women want a bad boy they can fix - that’s what it all comes down to.

    Let’s see what happens tonight…

    Scott  on  10/07  at  03:12 PM

    I think these sorts of issues are always laid more bare by the length of American television seasons.

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