Friday, April 20, 2007

More About House

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.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, I think the thing that's cloying and a touch distasteful about Oprah is that her shtick isn't so much an emotional experience as is a a commercialized package of an emotional experience (not that I don't enjoy an afternoon of Oprah now and then...)Enjoying loofahs and mud bath spas is elevated to "caring for your soul" because enjoying your wealth would just be too crass. I think even in her philanthropic endeavors the subtext to it all is money and her ego. "how can I feel good about being this rich??" You probably don't like Dr. Phil and Oprah because really when you get down to it, we human beings only have about 5 or 6 big problems in different combination and after you've spent any amount of time at all considering them, it becomes just too tedious to work out, especially with the pat solutions TV talk shows offer. The freak show paraded on TV is not so different from real life, it's just higher doses and packaged so we can feel that hopefully we're not as clueless as the guests on the couch. (not to belittle human suffering, those 5 or 6 big things can really hurt...) I think that what might be hard for you is that you are so super smart that you don't have too many peers and it can be difficult to walk around in a world of Oprahs and Dr. Phils getting it on (that doesn't sound right). I think House is beginning to realize that Cutty is a peer and that is the horizon of a whole new world. It sounds hokey but love IS healing and transformative and leaving the saftey of the old rational self is terrifying (but at a certain time for each person worth the jump) I don't think House is evil as you said-- he's a doctor and while he doesn't enjoy interacting with most people (although for someone who doesn't like people, he spends a lot of time out in the world), his efforts are directed outward. What's NOT to love about him? He's smart, sexy, funny, and amazingly talented. I don't believe it's possible for an artist to be truly cynical. The craggiest author still writes his name on the title page and sends his work out into the world. That's an act of generosity. I think that what you do is worthy because it's difficult and not that many people can do it. We need something special to happen to us, and sitting in a dark hall listening to another language is special. It can be transformative to experience art. It makes it easier to go home and clean up and take care of the kids and slog through our work a day world. (It is possible however that we also need some Dr.Phil and Oprah who are probably expressing something in them to the best of their ability, even if what they are expressing is how to trick people into thinking they feel better so the big guy (or gal) can amass vast sums of money!) Sorry for the long ramble, I'm sloggin it out at home right now. I enjoy your blog and wish you all the best.

Lane Savant said...

The most important thing about Mr. House is that he used to be Bertie Wooster.
I'm sorry, but I can't seem to keep from commenting on my seething hatred of that quackulous scumbag "Dr" Phil.
Truly sorry, Mr Denk, please forgive me.

eusebius said...

My short, flip answer to your disturbing question would be:
Dude, just be happy you're getting a cheque!!
Seriously, I think the question itself maybe could be re-thought. In essence, you're comparing your own artistic activity -- the time-honoured art of the pianist -- to the prepackaged, formulaic "emotional content" of Dr. Phil and Oprah. Apples and oranges, IMO. Come to think of it, even Dr. Phil and Oprah are apples and oranges. Because Dr. Phil just endlessly repeats his own 2 or 3 hackneyed ideas whereas Oprah at least invites a wide range of guests to appear on her show (who have included Kathleen Battle and Denyce Graves, among many less luminous presences). Anyway, my point (if indeed I have one) is that it is undoubtedly better *for you* to keep doing what you're doing (as if you wouldn't anyway)than to be concerned with this other sphere of activity.

rednepentha said...

i like dr. house because he's not saccherine sweet. he's got character, which makes him more real; he's so cute too.

as for oprah and dr. phil, they know just how much to push their envelopes with the public. they never forget who butters their toast.

but, who died and crowned oprah the queen of the book clubs?

Sam said...

House's rudeness and mistrust of his patients are what make him such an effective doctor. He needs to be able to cut through all the bullshit in order to save the people placed under his care, and his blunt force approach is the most efficient way to do it. And this is why it's so satisfying to watch. He isn't just a run-of-the-mill jerk going around pissing people off; he turns abrasiveness to his advantage (the brilliant mind doesn't hurt, either) in order to save peoples' lives when other "nicer" approaches would fail.

But when House finally goes home at night, what does he do? He plays the piano. And I'm pretty sure he doesn't do it sarcastically. There is a place in the world for "genuine emotions," and music is perhaps the most elegant, mysterious, and visceral way to communicate them. Which is why performing or listening to a concert is infinitely more satisfying and therapeutic than anything Dr. Phil could every say to us.

Anonymous said...

You speak that which can't be communicated with words when you play,Jeremy. It took you years of practice,foregoing other interests and often working alone to arrive at that level.Oprah does good things,but she sells quick fixes along with that. I'm willing to bet memories of your performances stay in peoples' minds a lot longer than her shows do.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Phil and Oprah peddle cheap emotion. In many ways, it is the least emotional of emotions. It has an intellectual quality (while being the opposite of intellectual in its simplicity.) It is superficial jargon with which millions can empathize but which neither touches nor changes one's soul.

Beethoven and Ives rarely peddle cheap emotion. Ives's appeals to patriotism and spirituality always seem veiled in commentary - sometimes cynicism, sometimes admiration, sometimes bafflement - most often a combination of the above. There are no cliches. Nothing feels like simple, store-bought Americana.

Having listened to and played Beethoven for years, I still have not found his music to be cliche. Try listening to any of it as background music. It immediately becomes foreground music. And, more often than not, it changes the very ground on which it stands.

You wrestle with Beethoven and Ives. You take blueprints and make a building of sound.

Oprah and Dr. Phil take what is beautiful and terrifying about man and render it into glue.

Anonymous said...

Why not try giving away cars after especially prickly performances of Ives? Might make your audiences' response more geniunely emotional. Or have you ever tried hugging your audience after concerts? There's so much more you could do.

Seriously, House is crap. It's merely the flip side of the same coin as ER. Lane Savant is absolutely right: The role of Bertie Wooster was the career apex of Hugh Laurie. To see him garnering fame and fortune by way of this network drivel is depressing (for me that is, not for Hugh Laurie).

Perhaps you should be a guest on Dr. Phil discussing your neurotic navel-gaving pianist Oprah-inadequacy complex. Might be bad for ratings though.

Love you.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, you don't want to do anything that makes people respond to you like Ophah's do to her. I swear, when she does her gifting to everyone in that studio audience it's like watching a cult!Today I think she gave everybody a compressed fluorescent lamp for Earth Day.Lions pulling down a zebra could learn something about enthusiasm from those ladies.

laura said...

Both you and Oprah communicate emotion-just on different levels. After all, how 'emotional' can you be while watching TV? It doesn't require you to think or interact. You can basically just sit there and drool.

But going to a concert or listening to a great recording IS different. How many episodes of Oprah give you goosebumps? Music requires us to use our imagination-in playing and listening. Your own mind has to supply the imagery and feeling. It's not already there for you.

Maybe that's the reason Oprah makes tons of money. The drama played out on the TV is just so much more interesting than real life. Maybe people like watching Oprah so they can feel superior to the people on the show. I don't know. Musicians try, but music is a two-sided conversation. It definitely requires something on your part.

Now I'm not saying TV is evil. I like TV. House is a great show, second only to 24. Like you, I love House because he is a jerk. I like the time he spends in the Clinic because people are there for such minor things. House just cuts through their BS and drama and tells them the obvious. Reminds me of this story:

A man went to the doctor and said, "Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I bend my thumb backwards!" The doctor's respose: "Then don't do that!"

Anonymous said...

One significant difference is that when Oprah or Dr. Phil exploit a person's innermost emotions, the audience often simultaneously identifies with and pities the exploitee.

When a musician exploits Beethoven's innermost emotions onstage, the audience simulaneously identifies and is awestruck by LVB's transcription of life.

samantha g. said...

All here have said it so eloquently, I needn't repeat it. Oh heck, I'll say it anyway: Hands down, you've got the better gig, bro.

I have to wonder, though, about the "anonymous" poster from 10:48pm. Why continue to read Think Denk if you positively cannot stand it? As Laura mentioned,

<<<"Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I bend my thumb backwards!" The doctor's respose: "Then don't do that!">>

Duh.

In the meantime, Jeremy, where's my creamy psychic frappucino? :)

Anonymous said...

samantha g.: anonymous 10:48 LOVES Think Denk. He wants to marry the boy. He also finds La Denk's easy embrace of the worst in pop culture to be hilarious but endearing. If you can't read between the lines, you shouldn't be reading this blog in the first place. Stop being so literal and chill...Duh!!!

Anonymous said...

I second the above. As another anonymus (guy) who would marry Denk if it were legal (even if he objected) I needle him with posts.
But whatever he posts, says, analyzes, what does it matter, when he plays, Heaven opens!!!
"Rude" anonymous

Jude said...

I watch House occasionally for the character of House. I always think of House as being me, except that I am not so obviously a curmudgeon, because how could a real person hold a job in the real world if they acted like that all the time? Besides, I look too innocent to be sarcastic, so no one seems to get it when I am. I once chose a therapist because he was cynical and sarcastic. It made him a lousy therapist, but I liked that aspect of him anyway.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, when the heck do you practice, what with the soaps, the blogging, Dr. Phil, and the gym? Is it possible you practice with the TV tuned to Oprah?

Geigerin said...

You may never find the answer to that question, but as House would say, "Never is just 'reven' spelled backwards." ;)

I agree, Oprah can be incredibley sappy sometimes, but some shows can be very enlightening. Last year she did a show on America's education and how our schools are suffering. Since then, there have been several movements made to better our education. I've been trying to get classical music on her show because I feel that once Oprah endorses classical music (and/or a musical education), people will view classical music more open-mindedly.

Adam Baratz said...

I occasionally wonder how right it is to value my cultural preferences over those of others. To an extent, we're just repeating the set of archetypal stories that remind us of how we want to relate to each other (yes, this is very reductive). I'm comfortable sticking to my little niche as long as I try to get into someone else's shoes every now and then and figure out why they choose to live the way that they do.

Anonymous said...

Well, I could only marry Denk in those communities in Utah that think they are outside of the law, but I love House and Beethoven too.

Keep up the navel gazing, frankly that is one of my favorite hobbies (own and others!)

Ya'll be nice or I'll start posting some of that Wallace Stevens shit that nobody really understands....

Christina said...

The world needs sarcasm. Half of it doesn't understand humor. Sarcasm least makes it more interesting for the rest of us.

Music is so much more interesting than TV psychology, your parallel doesn't even click for me.

Emily said...

I’ve never gotten around to buying a TV, ergo I'm afraid I can't comment on the personality flaws of Dr. House. Did you mention something about sounding elitist? I do know that when the frivolous, defunct medical drama "MD's" (booted off the air after a nanosecond or two) was being shot outside SF General a few years back, it was hard not to snicker a little bit. I found myself tempted to invite the film crew inside for a taste of the real &%@# which was often far stranger than any fictitious storyline the TV screenwriters could dream up.

As for gospel according to Oprah and Dr. Phil, it’s a little frightening to consider how much power and influence those two wield over the American public. A stamp of approval from Oprah’s Book Club, for example, practically guarantees a best seller. Personally, I would find it pretty unsatisfying to make a living out of tweaking people’s emotions and manufacturing drama out of otherwise ordinary situations. If their shows seemed a little less contrived, perhaps I wouldn't be so critical. But then again, I don't own a TV so what the hell do I know?

Στέφανος Νάσος said...

Just discovered you Mr Denk.

-a "colleague" myself- I liked your analysis on House. (I like the show too, although over here, I guess we see it a bit later).

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