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October 6, 2015

TV 101: The House dilemma

by Jay Black, posted Mar 23rd 2007 2:02PM
Ah, I wish I had a drug addiction!Like a lot of men who fancy themselves hyper-intelligent social critics (and judging from the comments of this and other boards, that group pretty much includes every single male user of the internet) I not only love the character of House, I want to be him.

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.

You know, I actually know Screech. Does that impress you? Didn't think so.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.

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It'd be cool to see what the author makes of this new season...in a way you could say that they're almost trying to follow the suggestions..

November 23 2007 at 3:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I hope someone replies to this comment. You casually mention that LOST is going to end after season seven. Was this announced officially? I scoured every piece of LOST info on this site since it was announced that there would be an endpoint announced and I didn't see any type of official announcement. So is this seven season thing just a rumor? I am so confused.

March 30 2007 at 1:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

its been noted before but this was probably the best post i've ever read on tv squad. it was also the longest, but it actually was cogent, coheret and interesting - something that can't be said about most posts (insert rip on prison break reviews).

i didn't watch house until the end of second season but i watched all the episodes in a couple days and when i was talking to my roommate about it, these are the same things we noted. House is stuck with his same crutches and while its fun, its getting kind of old.

March 25 2007 at 12:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Anything House picks my interest and for the first time I join the non-apologetic bloggers of this site. House is definitely a dose of bad boy gone terrible wrong and that is right up my Dr's orders. Can I just say after mourning for about a minute the loss of my favorite show then The West Wing and picking up on season two of House that I'm just, how do you say, a little addicted?

Sure, I was always a fan of Hugh (I recently visited my DR and wouldn't you know it, Hugh was on the cover of WebMD....psych!!!) The article made me the hour long wait for a Dr who prescribed Tylenol seem totally bearable and while I answered for the 4th time "no I'm not allergic to anything" I thought and laughed, internally of course, what would House do here? He probably would have raised his brow, looked at me once and without so much as touching me would have diagnosed Kawasaki's Disease!

As a female and having the background medico knowledge of many years of "ER" and now "Grey's Anatomy" I love the quick turnaround of the diagnosis. Sure it could be more believable, but then how much time would we have to really be submersed and battered over and over by House's discrimination and even sexy rudeness. Yes, I'm a sucker for a bad boy, and a Dr. at that!

I too think about the House dilemma, usually every Tuesday after the show. Especially when the network surprises you with "we will show 8 more episodes...but you have to wait 3 weeks for them...GrrrAGGHH!! Is not like we need Spring Break from House?? Give me more of his internal search for perfection and his I do what I want when I want and how I want. There is nothing more liberating than that.

Would I want House to change? Maybe have him give Chase a break or finally hook him up with Cameron who really cant get a clue about House not wanting to go through that path again (although that kiss with a wish of needle-stabbing for House's blood was pretty intense, after all "he did kiss back") How can you not love the quick pro quo (sorry I'm not a writer)

I say leave him be and Cest La Vie! We need some hint of evil every week, maybe just to make sure we don't turn out as sarcastic and rude as House.

But boy do I love it!! And BTW, great post! Definitely worth reading!

March 24 2007 at 4:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Nice article, Jay. Probably the best I've read here.

March 24 2007 at 1:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The problem I have with the House character is that if someone said some of those things ridiculously rude things to me, whether they were my boss, my brilliant subordinate, or my physician, I'd at a minimum give it back to them in spades, and in some circumstances, rearrange his face. The regulars are way too docile; even Foreman just kind of takes it with an aggravated shrug. To be doing what they are doing, they have to be incredibly smart people. It's not credible that they would regularly let House treat them like crap "because he's so brilliant and in so much pain." I think a real person would take him at his word (don't pity me) and dish some of the crap back in his face.

That said, I love the show. I make myself remember that he's supposed to be Sherlock Holmes, with Wilson as Watson, the gang as the Baker Street Irregulars, and Cuddy as Lestrade. No real person would have put up with Holmes, either.

My doctor friends say that the procedures shown are way silly, as far as the team doing all those procedures themselves. House's relationship with his employer and especially his manager is pure fantasy--the hospital would fire him, and Cuddy would sue him for harassment. But the medicine is accurate and the animations are fascinating. And a muscle infarction would apparently produce constant, unbearable pain.

The best thing about the show is Laurie. When you hear him speak in his natural voice, it almost seems like an act. His "American" is dead on, better than any attempt I've ever heard by one of our actors to do an English accent.

I don't think House's character should develop, since that is often the death of a good show, but I think the others characters should stop letting him get away with his vileness.

March 24 2007 at 1:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great article (you are a gifted writer), but I have to disagree with you about the evolution of House.
It was clear that the episode "Half-wit" had 2 story lines: the medical mystery and House's attempts to go a surgery in order to be constantly high (and maybe Vicodin free ?). Try to imagine such an episode in the first season - when every episode was dedicate only to the medical mystery and just a little screen time was given to House vs. his crew/Caddy/Wilson story line.
This is the House (the show) evolution in my opinion.

March 24 2007 at 1:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think this post and the comments are really great.

Anyway, House is just one of those characters that will keep going. I don't think he's repetitive enough that I'll get tired of him. Although most of you are right that he is lacking in development, I think that's a big part of what makes him the Dr. House we all know and love. A lot of his allure is how tragic his character is: we all know that even though he's been given tons of chances to redeem himself, he'll just keep ignoring them and he'll continue to spiral downward.

When Cuddy or Cameron or Wilson lecture him, you can see that deep down he knows what they say is true. But House will spite himself and will never change his ways mainly because he doesn't want to admit that they're right. Because of this, House's development is a very slow process which will take place over a long time.

I don't mean to say that I think he hasn't changed at all. I think there are many minor changes that show us the beginning of a slightly changed House, like getting a motorcycle, or more recently, joining his coworkers after work. But House is the type of person that would take one step forward, two steps back. He'll probably have to hit rock bottom really hard before he's able to get himself together, if he ever does. I'm sure most of us wouldn't be too surprised if the show ended with House, still his same old miserable self, dying of an overdose and no one going to his funeral because he's pushed everyone away who ever cared for him.

March 24 2007 at 3:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've enjoyed Hugh Laurie for years, first in "Black Adder" and "Jeeves & Wooster". When I first saw "House" I didn't recognize him for the first few minutes due to the beard and his convincing non-British accent.

This is a very entertaining show that could simply not exist without him, and I'm amazed that given his prior roles that he plays this one so convincingly. However, as an M.D., this is the worst show I've seen when it comes to actual medicine. Blood culture results in minutes, not days; residents doing procedures that would make subspecialists sweat; House offering cash for people with colds to get out of the E.R. (in real life he would have been canned in 5 seconds; colds are easy money for the E.R.s of America.) Maybe this is nitpicky for the average viewer, but I think the writers could be more realistic without being boring.

Thank God it's a hit and Hugh will be on U.S. television for years, but for the medico fans in the audience, just a little more reality please.

March 24 2007 at 12:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think House which is supposedly loosely based on Sherlock Holmes will always have the addiction and temperament. The mysteries take his mind off his boredom as well as his leg pain. I don't think he will ever change. Even if his more pressing leg issue was resolved (which may come) I think his boredom will require drugs and keep his mood as lovable as ever.

March 23 2007 at 9:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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