When I headed over to the wonderful Barbara Barnett’s The End Of The Thought Process to check out her thoughts on season seven of House, I found that yet again she had put her finger on a key issue about the show. Her article asked about the nature of some of the dissatisfaction being voiced by some fans of the show and I realised I fall into the camp of the dissatisfied. For me, it’s been a long and winding road getting to this point, rather than a reaction to this season alone. I have had issues with the writing for some time now and I think the weight of writer room mis-steps for me may have reached critical mass.
I’ll begin by saying in my view the show has always had ups and downs, right from season one. I thought Vogler was a cartoon and largely wasted villain, I never bought into the Cameron/House thwarted love story plot and I thought the wind up of the Tritter arc was poorly done. So I do not look upon the first three seasons as a Golden Age of House. Indeed, I count several episodes of season four among my favourites, including of course the glorious two part finale, House’s Head and Wilson’s Heart.
The writers have also always had annoying problems with continuity. Showrunner David Shore has said his staff have no need of a show bible, but I would argue that not only would a show bible help keep facts like characters’ ages straight, but a timeline up on the wall would help the show’s scribes make back-story fit canon. Trying to make sense of when exactly House and Cuddy were at the same medical school taking the same class is a losing proposition and that kind of issue seems really unnecessary to me.
But these problems were quibbles rather than deal breakers, because what I thought the writers nailed were the emotional truths about the complex problems they explored. I love the character of House, defiantly breaking the rules to tell his perception of the truth, despite having a degree of self-loathing that may skew his vision more than he admits. I love his complex relationships with the people he allows to get close, as he both pokes at them like lab rats in his desire to uncover facts and very subtly also tries to get them to acknowledge unpleasant truths so they can move forward. The writing of the show was layered enough to allow for multiple viewpoints on who needed to learn what and why and that certainly fuelled a lively fan debate about House.
However, at a certain point, the writers began to play with the different ‘ships on House for the sake of playing with the fans rather than serving the story. And around the same time, they also began to offer plot and relationship twists that offered shock value but little fallout in the story. For a show that depends upon delivering emotional truth to offset often ridiculous story set ups, this is the kiss, if not of death, of at least many dissatisfied viewers.
My first taste of a plot twist that rankled because it felt false was during the Tritter arc. The story line raised the possibility through Detective Tritter that House was not a pain patient, as he claimed, but an addict who would be a better doctor without the vicodin. I had always liked the exploration of a man in constant pain with no good choice on how to manage his chronic pain. The vicodin appeared to me to offer House some but not enough pain control while allowing his intellect to operate unimpaired. I accepted he also used the drug sometimes to dull emotional pain, but I felt it was an honest portrayal of chronic pain where the emotional and the physical aspects of pain are hard to untangle. With this lens in mind, I found the way the Tritter arc wrapped up to be problematic.
The biggest issue for me was the impact on House’s relationships with Cuddy and Wilson. Cuddy seemed to have a foot on both sides of the line about the issue of addiction. She never disputed Tritter’s assertion House would be a better doctor off vicodin, but she protected House nonetheless so he could continue to practice medicine. In my view, there is a dissonance between these actions that needs to be explored once it is set up. As dean, Cuddy has to care if House is impaired and high from his vicodin intake. I wanted more than we got on how the dean of medicine wrestled with the vicodin question. Wilson had to struggle with the same issue as he refused to write more vicodin prescriptions for House, but even more importantly, he drew a huge line in the sand when he walked out on House passed out on the floor and vomiting from mixing copious amounts of oxycontin with even more copious amounts of alcohol.
The writers intended that scene to ratchet up the dramatic tension and they were successful. It was not clear if House intended to commit suicide or if he was just in such bad emotional shape he didn’t care if he lived or died, but either way, it was a shock to watch Wilson walk away as a doctor, never mind a friend. And leaving aside the intriguing and much debated question on whether he was right to do so, there is the dramatic requirement of the smoking gun. If you show it, it had better go off at some point. Wilson’s line in the sand was so high stakes, there should have been some fall out between House and Wilson. At the very least, Wilson writing prescriptions for House again should have been a very big deal.
But alas, we found out Wilson had resumed his former role through a casual comment later on in the season. Wilson as enabler is something the show touches upon when it suits the plot, but does not explore in any depth. And that’s as frustrating as the on again/off again addiction issue for House. Wilson’s issues were raised again—beautifully—in Wilson’s Heart, but the fall out in season five was again unsatisfying, because House’s willingness to do the DBT procedure at Wilson’s request was never addressed. Despite Wilson’s questioning of House’s friendship, what he did in the name of friendship was not part of the narrative. These kinds of huge plot points cannot just be used for shock value. They have to impact the relationships. David Shore is fond of saying people don’t change, but of course people change.
We all have core aspects of our personality—strengths and weaknesses—that tend to be stable. However, we are also able to hone our strengths and grow our weak areas, often through painful life experiences that help us grow. Our brains are able to change and put down new neural pathways during our whole lives. Emotional intelligence, unlike IQ, is not stable. And relationships certainly change, for good or ill, as we learn more about those we love—except on House, where too often complex and very dramatic issues get a reset button instead of exploration. It should matter that Wilson walked out on House when he was in danger of ODing. It should matter that House did the DBT for Wilson. It should matter that Cuddy in her capacity as dean thinks House’s use of vicodin means he is an addict and high.
I found the entire exploration of House and Cuddy’s relationship unsatisfying from season five on. I loved Joy, but then did not recognise the House who grabbed Cuddy’s boob or who went home with a hooker instead of obsessively waiting to see how Cuddy reacted to his gift of a desk. I didn’t recognise the Cuddy who laced her hospital with trip wires and laxatives. And most of all, I didn’t recognise a relationship between House and Cuddy with no sparkle, no clever snark and no underlying feeling of two people who understand the other’s outlying areas. Their shared sense of humour always seemed a key point to their relationship to me.
I thought there was enough fodder for dramatic tension between the two characters based on House’s obsession about his work and how much either he or Cuddy really wants to give up some control over his or her life. Rachel was a huge issue between the two—does House want to be a father? What are the implications of his relationship with his own father? And would Cuddy actually allow House a voice in raising Rachel? She likes to be in control and obviously has relationship issues of her own.
But instead of relationship difficulties of these kinds, we got awkward boob grabs and Cuddy getting upset about House needing a vicodin to handle the thought of her death. She was upset about the vicodin because it meant House was high and therefore unreliable, something not to be tolerated in her partner but again apparently fine in a doctor practicing in her hospital. As in the Tritter arc, this kind of dissonant dichotomy should be inherently unstable. There needs to be fall out. Instead, the addict question is tucked away until the next time a dramatic plot point is needed. I am tired of trying to make sense of the emotional threads on this show, because I think I spend a lot more time on this task than the writers do. And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of my dissatisfaction.
To me, the writing, while still often sharp, has too often gone for dramatic situations that were (and are) either poorly set up, poorly wrapped up or both. The new team was brought in without any plan for what to do with the old team. Cameron and Chase stumbled around the edges of the show for two years with nothing to do but remind their fans how much they missed them. Cameron’s exit was predicated on her judging House for shaping Chase into someone who would kill a patient because he morally judged him, when House has never advocated or acted on that kind of principle. Thirteen was given a huge dramatic arc concerning her Huntington’s before the audience had bonded enough with her to care. I need more care for the emotional through lines than I’ve been getting on this show for some time. Without that care, there is nothing to help me swallow the more ludicrous plot points, like House driving his team around in a monster truck. I watched that episode with my sister, who is a more casual House fan, and that scene prompted her to look askance and say, “I’m not down with this.” I could only agree.
And yet, I still tune in to House, if not live, then sometime in the week. I still care about House and love Hugh Laurie’s portrayal. But I wish the show had come with a set end point, probably at about five years, so the writers had more impetus to have the relationships make sense and to be less afraid to commit to exploring something that could impact the way House goes through life.