Friday, September 30, 2016

Everybody Lies

(I've changed the title of my blog to be more relevant. Bonus points if you know what TV show it references!)

Take Sherlock Holmes. Make him American, and a doctor. Take his cocaine habit and make it a Vicodin addiction. Turn Dr. John Watson into Dr. James Wilson. Then, take the name Holmes, play around with it a bit, and you get...

You got it: House.

In this Sherlock Holmes-ian world, instead of solving murders and missing person cases, Gregory House solves mysteries at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, of bizarre illnesses that no other doctors can solve. Far from being a caring doctor, though, House's interest in medicine (and people) is purely for the sake of solving puzzles, and he doesn't care who he has to piss off or what rules he has to break to get there. He's destructive to himself and everyone around him, but his unmatched ability to diagnose undiagnosable illnesses means that he can pretty much get away with anything. And he knows it.

During House's run on FOX from 2004-2012, I took a vague passing interest in the show, mostly out of morbid curiosity about the horrific illnesses featured in every episode. I watched reruns on occasion and caught a great many marathons on cable, but I never dedicated myself to it enough to follow any of the underlying plot.

Then I started watching it on Netflix one day in college, just as something to pass the time, as it always had been before for me.

Somehow, I got completely hooked.

Suddenly it wasn't just a vague passing interest anymore. I put aside everything else I had been watching (Sorry, Mad Men. Maybe I'll get back to you eventually) and binged House like it was nobody's business.

The thing about House is that it's only good if you're really invested in all of the subplots, because it was designed to be a character drama in a medical environment, rather than a medical drama that happens to have people in it. I've found as I watch episodes casually again that it gets annoying quickly, though, because the procedural basis of the show is ridiculously repetitive. They have a good sense of humor about it, but that doesn't really stop it from getting old. Here's how it goes:
  1. A seemingly easy illness turns out to be weird enough to interest House, and the team picks a diagnosis to start treatment.
  2. The case is somehow personal to someone on the team. House heckles them until he figures out what it is.
  3. The treatment doesn't work. Patient gets worse.
  4. They break into the patient's house. Someone on the team objects to this.
  5. Somebody suggests porphyria or sarcoidosis.
  6. They start a slightly dangerous treatment. Cuddy is mildly annoyed.
  7. Patient almost dies. They were wrong again.
  8. Cuddy emphatically tells House he can't do a reckless treatment when he has no evidence patient has next-idea-osis.
  9. House makes a comment about Cuddy's boobs and tells the team to do the treatment anyway.
  10. "But your last ideas were wrong and now I'm dying! How do you know you're right this time?"
  11. Foreman is afraid he's becoming House.
  12. House annoys Wilson. Wilson lectures him about something.
  13. House has a sudden epiphany about what's really wrong with the patient.
  14. House stops the reckless treatment at the last second. Patient finally improves.
  15. Everybody takes away some lesson from the experience.
  16. House blows everyone off to be alone.
Oh, and somebody calls House an ass about every 15 seconds.

Where House succeeds is in its ability to change up the surroundings just as things start to get really stale. They introduce new characters, or relationships change, or House gets himself into an especially sticky situation involving his Vicodin addiction, his relationship with Cuddy, or his tendency to push the wrong buttons. Or all of those.

It still could have been a little bit shorter, though, by maybe a season or two. It took a couple of seasons at the beginning to really get footing in the secondary plots and to build the characters enough to branch out from pure procedure. The last season, too, really floundered until three episodes from the end, when (HUGE SPOILER REDACTED). It felt like they didn't know how to bring the show back to the hospital from the crazy places it had gone in seasons 6 and 7, and the new characters they brought in just seemed like placeholders. Without the interplay between House and Cuddy, something felt like it was missing. Foreman just wasn't enough to fill that gap.

That said, for a long-running network medical procedural, it was really solid for a lot longer than it could've been. It had a great combination of emotional moments and comedy that kept me invested in the ways characters interacted with each other.

Hugh Laurie is, in my opinion, the sole reason House worked as well as it did. The other actors were fine, the premise was fine, the production was fine, but the whole thing was ultimately a vehicle for Laurie to, frankly, just be awesome. He was so good that executive producer Bryan Singer thought he was actually American when he auditioned—and so did most Americans, including myself for a long time.

Considering Hugh Laurie got his start in the business in comedy (really, really good comedy, I might add; his sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie with Stephen Fry is one of my favorite things in the world), his dramatic ability is astonishingly good. Under all that amazing sarcasm, you can feel the depth of House's pain and his personal conflict in trying to connect with others. In less adept hands, Gregory House could have been over-the-top, a one-dimensional sarcasm machine, or just plain cruel.

Instead, House is a genuinely interesting character. On the surface, he's brash and misanthropic to the extreme, but beneath the self-destruction and a thick layer of sarcasm, there is a man who's unable, for one reason or another, to allow himself to connect with people. He understands people deeply, but only as puzzles to
figure out and manipulate for his own enjoyment. He is uncomfortable with meaningful relationships, and when he gets close to one, he ultimately destroys it in increasingly harmful ways. His only lasting relationship is with the long-suffering Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), whose need for saving people means that he'll always put up with House's shenanigans.

Add on top of this his injured leg—the result of a dead muscle in his thigh—the constant pain it brings him, and his resulting addiction to narcotics, and you get someone who intentionally cuts himself off and alienates everyone around him because, as is often pointed out, he doesn't feel like he should be happy. He believes his diagnostic skill is directly dependent on his misery.

The semi-changing cast of supporting characters was competent enough, but, to be honest, they mostly weren't especially interesting. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), Chase (Jesse Spencer), and Foreman (Omar Epps), House's original team, spent most of their time worried about whether or not House was turning them into terrible people. And once they weren't the core team anymore, they just kept coming back, which wouldn't have been a problem if they had brought new aspects to the story, but it was always the same. The new team with Taub (Peter Jacobson), Thirteen (Olivia Wilde), and Kutner (Kal Penn) was a bit more interesting, in particular Thirteen's struggle with Huntington's Disease. But ultimately all the team members felt like bodies for House to interact with and backstories to exploit.

Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) added a nice element to the story, especially as her relationship with House evolved over time. On an episode-to-episode basis her place in the story was repetitive, but she was the only one who really knew how to handle House, and the only one who could play his games as well as he could. House also desperately wanted to be with her, which added a good objective for the story outside of medical mysteries and provided an opportunity for emotional growth for them both.

Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) was the reassuring constant throughout the series. He put up with a lot from House—a huge understatement, to be fair—and was always around to keep House grounded and, well, alive. House always knew how to manipulate him, but ultimately House really needed Wilson, and needed to know that at least Wilson cared about his well-being.

In all, House is a great character study, a rare instance of a kind of anti-hero on a mainstream network series. It's a pretty good drama that made the most of its huge success. And it brought America's attention to the magic of Hugh Laurie, which is never a bad thing. It's not the best show I've ever watched, but it was worth watching. It grabbed my attention and kept it, which is what it should do.

Don't watch it while you're sick, though. It might be porphyria.
My Favorite Episode: "Wilson's Heart," (S4, Ep. 16): This is actually the second half of a two-part episode, but it really runs the gamut of the emotional range of the show. House was involved in a bus accident with Wilson's girlfriend, and she is in grave danger as a result. The key to saving her is trapped in House's concussed, drug-addled brain. This episode is really the first time we see the devastating destruction House's actions can cause, how deeply his problems run, and how far he's willing to push himself, physically and emotionally, to solve a puzzle. It also shows, for a rare moment, how much House is capable of caring, particularly when it comes to Wilson.

Some Trivia:

  • Hugh Laurie became so used to Dr. House's limp that, even after the show ended, he would automatically start limping when a director called "action." Laurie has also said that the limp has caused him actual physical injury.
  • House lives in apartment 221B, just like Sherlock Holmes.
  • When patients with a history of drug abuse are admitted to the ER, they are given the label HOUSE in their charts, meaning "History of Use."
Next Up:
Life on Mars


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