TV 101: The House dilemma
Seriously, if I were watching this show in my more impressionable years, there's a good chance I'd be going to school with a cane/concert t-shirt/sports jacket combination tomorrow. (Interesting side note: I was not popular in high school).
The House character is great. So great, actually, that he's destroying the TV show House.
Here's what I mean. There are a lot of shows that are "made" by a single great character: Barney on How I Met Your Mother, Cartman on South Park, Archie Bunker on All in the Family. The formula for making one of these lovable characters is, apparently, to make them unapologetic racists and/or sexists who deliver some hard truths mixed with a good amount of ignorance.
These characters are so popular for two reasons:
1) The average TV landscape is so choked with meaningless life-affirming platitudes that the watcher starts to yearn for dose of evil. None of these characters are realistic, but they provide a teaspoon of medicine that helps the rest of the TV sugar go down. Further, in a world that's starting to mirror TV (at least as far as political correctness goes), the character who can say and do whatever he or she (but usually he) wants is a lovely bit of wish fulfillment. Take that Human Resources! Take that Diversity workshop!
2) America is filled with sexist/racist people.
(Writer's note: when I refer to "America" in point number 2, I mean "All of America, with the exception of the enlightened souls who visit TV Squad.")
It's telling, I think, that just about all of these types of characters appear in comedy rather than drama. One of the nice things about writing comedy is that you can eschew character development and it actually serves the narrative rather than hurting it. It's funny watching someone not change when they should.
You can go a hundred episodes or more (The Simpsons recently celebrated their nine millionth episode) with our maverick character learning no lessons at all and the audience will keep coming back. We don't expect a comedy to show us a clear beginning and end for the character. Having them come to a revelation on the second half of the series finalé ("Guys, I'm getting married, suit up!" I'm sure Barney will say on the final episode of How I Met Your Mother) is plenty for the average sitcom.
House is innovative, I think, by taking a run of the mill medical procedural and putting one of these dark-hearted sitcom staples in the lead. It was as if Bryan Singer was watching Scrubs one day and said "That Cox guy sure would make a great character to build a show around. I'll do it! Then I'll ruin the Superman franchise by adding a logically improbable super-baby to the mix!"
And for three seasons now, the formula has worked beautifully. Whenever a new strong character comes on the show, I get all giddy (yes, seriously giddy -- do I hate myself? You bet I do!) "Oooh," I'll say to my wife, "I wonder how House is going to get along with _him_!" My wife then puts her head in her hands and sobs softly because she didn't marry any one of her other boyfriends.
Lately though, the whole thing is starting to wear thin.
I think where House turned -- I'm not going to say "Jumped the Shark" because a) House is still entertaining and b) it's not 2003 anymore -- is the Tritter storyline that just concluded. Tritter was another in a long line of strong characters introduced into the mix in order to challenge House and, maybe, to change him.
Tritter added an element of real danger, though, because he brought with him the possibility of jail (and jail for someone with pretty blue eyes and an inability to run away is decidedly a not fun place to be). Not only that, Tritter was hellbent on "fixing" House. He wasn't going to stop at just a half-hearted apology! He was tenacious! He pushed House right up against the wall and, with time running out, seemed to really, actually honestly change the man!
Except he didn't. Rehab was a lie and House was back to popping vicodin like he was my Mommy at Christmastime. Just like every sitcom scamp in history, at the end of the big Tritter arc, the reset button had been hit and House was back to being House.
It's that reset button that's ruining House. I'm okay with a reset on a sitcom because, as I said, we're trained to accept bad character development on a sitcom. The name itself "Situational Comedy" implies that characters are secondary to its purpose (and, in the case of Reba laughter is secondary to its purpose as well).
We expect something a little closer to real life, though, when it comes to a drama. If a story arc is just forgotten or brushed aside with an "Oh that House!" finale, the show loses its gravitas (ah, "gravitas" -- hello Lit Seminar BS, I've missed you). After all that we've invested in the character (and if you've been with the show since season one, it's inching up on 60 hours over the last three years, which is more time than I've spent with any of my living relatives), you can't help but feel cheated every time the producers hint at some real change only to pull their hand back and go "psych!"
If House were one of your friends, you'd be less concerned at this point by his self-destructive behavior than you would be his static character development. "Greg," you'd say, "What the Hell, dude? You've been the same person for the last three years. You would have thought after you had that Vanilla Sky-type self-revelatory dream a few months ago you'd be at least slightly different. But, uh, no..."
It wouldn't even be so bad if the producers didn't tease us so often. Not an episode goes by that Wilson or Cuddy or whoever will have a dramatic row with House, calling him out on something terrible he's done that episode, that he doesn't respond by first rebuffing them, then staring off "meaningfully" when they leave the room. The stare (slightly different from the "I'm just about to figure out this week's mystery illness" stare) is meant to imply to the audience that even though House has just taken a (metaphorical) poop on his friend's good intentions, he's self-aware enough to understand that his friends are right and that he really does need to change.
Like a battered wife taking Drunky-McHitsAlot back into the trailer, we believe that this time, House might actually be mending his ways. And we're interested because we've come to know House so well as a socially-maladjusted super genius, we can't wait to see how he reacts to people as a slightly-less socially-maladjusted super genius. We're ultimately disappointed, though, because even when the episode starts with House jogging and happy, we know that it's only a matter of time before he's back to browbeating every person in his life.
That, in a (long-winded) nutshell, is the House Dilemma. When a drama relies on the ticks of its main character as the main dynamic of the show, that drama will inevitably offend at least a small portion of its audience by constantly trying to trick them that real character development is happening (even when its not). The House Dilemma is especially prevalent on network television, where the goal is to produce eighty katrillion episodes (so as to get a rich syndication deal and make everyone at your high school reunion jealous when you arrive on a stretch-rickshaw pulled by twelve super-models). When longevity is your purpose, you absolutely can NOT have real character development because the second House stops being the House we know and love, the thing that's special about the show is lost and the golden goose has been made into paté.
I propose the only way to save House is for it to take a page out of Lost's book. Before the news that Lost would be ending after seven seasons, everyone feared that it would just amble aimlessly, X-Files style, adding mystery after mystery, until it petered out to an unresolved finalé sometime in 2015. We know now there's a definite ending in site, so we feel (a little) better that the show is moving towards a glorious conclusion.
This is the path that House should take. Tell us that the show will end after the 7th season, then start the process of bringing House (the character) to a logical endpoint. If he's to remain, Lear-like, socially isolated, focus on making the show a tragedy. If he's to eventually hook up in a wonderful Cameron-Cuddy three way (my own personal vision for the perfect House ending), start plotting the seasons to get us to the point. If he's to get his leg cured and become a minor league soccer star in Peru... well, you get the point.
For now, I'll keep watching, because I love the show and love the character. But I fear that we might have another Monk on our hands and we're just a few seasons away from House turning into a caricature of himself.