Ostensibly the subject of House, the wonderful television show on Fox, is the eponymous doctor’s attempts, week after week, to solve mysterious, tentacled illnesses. (Amazingly it always seems to take about an hour of television time, including commercials, to solve any illness.) Or else the real theme of the show is the character of House himself: complex, contradictory, savagely logical, flawed, somewhere between Richard III and Sherlock Holmes.
I prefer to dismiss both synopses. I propose that House is really “about” irony and sarcasm; it asks the question … what is the acceptable level of emotion in the modern world?
Let us take another famous medical show, E.R. I have come to dread the 10 AM arrival of this program on TNT, rudely awakening me from the supernatural, ironic meta-worlds of Angel and Charmed into an ever-so-gritty-and-overworked Chicago emergency room. Oh, the humanity! Mark Green juggling child and ex-wife, Noah Wyle struggling with drug addiction and the burden of aimless wealth, George Clooney rebelling and refusing to commit, and of course the evil heartless Romano, colder than any demon in Angel’s dark, manipulated L.A. nightscape. I have come to hate all these characters and, particularly, the writers who subject us to their maudlin trials and tribulations. Everything is so, so emotional, and yet not redeemed by soap-opera camp; interventions abound; doctors weep quietly in locker rooms, and are asked if they are “ok”; schoolbuses of children are wheeled in, seemingly, only to be wounded and pathetic, and just as swiftly wheeled out. E.R. is Dr. Phil, in dramatic form; it wants us all to tell all, to confess, and be emotionally healed in the great common waiting room. Sarcasm is not welcome. (And again, after an hour, get the hell off the set, please.)
Enter Dr. House.
House strums certain recurring themes. First: is House really a softy, hiding under a sarcastic veneer? Such seems to be the constant, desperate hypothesis of his friends and colleagues, and the scriptwriters perpetually tantalize us with the possibility of a sentimental breakdown. At the end of the last season, when House finally went into rehab, I felt with dread the sense that the show would become classically heartwarming, that he would finally “learn something.” But magnificently—of course!—it all turned out to be a sham, showing House to be more manipulative, deceitful, and selfish than one could have ever imagined. I cheered. Why do these evils make me love him? His evil is entertaining, satisfying; his reformation would be boring, saddening, life-destroying. But he is not a villain.
As one watches, then, one gets mired in meta-concerns: we think less about the fate of patient X or disease Y than the fate of the show itself; will it disintegrate into E.R.-esque empathy, or will the writers somehow prolong the moral strange ground, the absence of judgment? In other words, can the show survive its premise?
A second theme: House “needs to be healed.” The writers gave him a painful, lingering, physical wound (metaphor for the inner, emotional wound) which is almost a deal-breaker, almost dips the show in a disastrous pity-bath. The other characters in the show always seem to want to heal him up, to convert him into a lesson learned, a summable plot point; they are always thematizing, moralizing, empathizing. “House is behaving this way because he secretly loves me, or craves love …” “House loves his own mind more than other people, and needs to change …” “House is trying to destroy himself, since he has no joy in life …” And House stands alone, protecting the fort of cynicism, deflating each of these pat theories. The perpetual explainer of illnesses, he refuses to be “explained.”
A third theme of House: the patient-at-fault, blame-the-victim. House is always suspicious of the histories his patients provide; it is often some concealed fact of the patient’s life that makes the difference … The patients are somehow therefore complicit in their failure to be healed, and most of House’s most amazingly cruel, but funniest, moments have to do with targeting those-who-are-to-be-pitied, with refusing to respect the sacred cow of illness. House is ill, like his patients; he knows, moreover, that everyone is ill. The people around him who think they’ve got it all together, that they’re “normal,” usual-life-livers, who imagine that they represent a “standard” or acceptable life-method: they’re the real suckers. Plus (and here’s the kicker): they’re boring.
House is a show where two possible shows intersect: imagine the story narrated by one of House’s underlings or colleagues, an earnest tale of a flawed doctor at work, and heartbreaking patients; or imagine the story narrated by House himself, in which all are exposed for the posers they are … and you must decide which story you prefer. And then take this principle and apply it to the vast surrounding narratives of our society, to CNN coverage of tragedies, to movies, to presidential speeches, newspaper editorials … I personally fantasize about replacing Matt Lauer with Gregory House, for a week. Apply it, if you will, to music …
House confronts the vast emotional movie-music of our time. Am I supposed to feel bad if I don't like Oprah or Dr. Phil, if I feel uncomfortable with this vast buffet of amateur psychotherapy, of human emotion and confession, bundled and marketed like a creamy, filling psychic Frappuccino? Am I repressed, elitist? Letterman speaks for me (yay!) when he mocks Oprah, when he says enough is enough, and yet a disturbing question haunts me. Why do I feel (self-satisfied jerk that I am) that it is better to play Beethoven or Ives for people, displaying and communicating publicly all sorts of emotions, and receive a check … how is that “better” than Oprah doing her emotional thing and becoming fabulously wealthy? If anyone has a good answer to this question, let me know. I know Gregory House would simply snort disdainfully, reminding me how pathetic I am to worry about the question in the first place.