House M.D. returned for its seventh season this week and not a moment too soon for the millions of fans worldwide. The award-winning show is one of the richest in recent television history, preparing to traverse a minefield this season that has torpedoed many acclaimed shows before it (I’ll refrain from being more specific than that for those wishing to avoid spoilers). The show has sailed dangerous waters before with mixed results but through it all has flourished due to a magnetic force at its center. As Season 7 debuts, now is the perfect time to reflect on how the show reached this pivotal moment in its history and there is a new book that is perfect to do just that.
Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D. by Barbara Barnett is an outsider’s look at the inner workings of one of the best shows that has ever hooked me. I say outsider because Barnett was not hired by the studio that produces the show (NBC Universal) nor has she ever worked for the show in any capacity, but she has gotten access to several of the show’s writers, producers, and actors and used that access to help craft as comprehensive a look at the show as you’re likely to find anywhere.
Before we leave that idea of access behind, now would probably be a good time to disclose the fact that a significant part of the evolution Chasing Zebras happened here at Blogcritics, where Barnett is a writer and editor. Before any of you start screaming conflict of interest, know this: neither Blogcritics nor I are getting cut in by the author or the publisher. Remember, writers and reporters who have worked for the New York Times or Washington Post have had their books reviewed by their home paper. Legendary journalist Bob Woodward just completed a book about President Obama and the war in Afghanistan. You’ll probably read mention of it in the Post. My point is this: the work of Chasing Zebras is entirely that of Barnett and the review you’re about to read is solely my opinion with no pressure to do anything other than review the book. With that out of the way, let’s discuss Chasing Zebras and House M.D.
One of Chasing Zebras’ strengths is its structure. It is structured in a way that allows for a long read in one sitting but can also be used for picking and choosing your topic of interest or to quickly refer back to notes on a particular episode. There is more to the guide than simply recapping episodes. Barnett traces the evolution of characters and storylines, how they relate to one another, and like the show’s main character brilliantly portrayed by the amazing Hugh Laurie she assembles the clues and does her own differential diagnosis.
It becomes clear throughout the guide Barnett is relentlessly enthusiastic about the show and obsessive about it, but that doesn’t prevent her from offering criticisms or recognizing criticisms of other House fans about different aspects of the show and its workings. She discusses casting changes and how those were resolved and fan issues with them. She also notes a storyline in Season 3 that introduced a new foil for Dr. House was not entirely well received. She also looks into technical features such as how changes in the Fox network’s commercial breaks caused the writers to structure and pace the show differently and the challenges that presented.
Chasing Zebras‘ greatest strength is its ability to be a primer for fans new to the show who want to catch up or delve deeper as well as rewarding obsessives like me who have seen every episode multiple times. I was continually amazed as I read through the examinations of the individual episodes and the broader themes at all the things I missed or never clued in to because I was following the horse, not the zebra. Barnett has spent a lot of time pouring over these episodes and connecting dots in a compelling way, and that’s important because even if you don’t reach the same conclusion on this point or that, she makes her case persuasively throughout.
Over the course of the guide, we learn interesting tidbits about how art imitates life and life imitates the art of House. We get examinations of the principle characters using Barnett’s critical eye and in many cases through the eyes of the actors who portray and experience these characters and the writers who put words in their mouths. The music, settings, and ethical dilemmas that are so much a part of what makes the show great are also dissected. We become aware of things we’ve missed as we read these sections and also understand how they add to the impact of the more obvious dynamics in the show.
There is also a section devoted to recapping each episode through six seasons. The medical puzzle is discussed as are major plot points that are developed over multiple episodes. The book also identifies the “Eureka” moment, when some seemingly trivial piece of dialog or random occurrence leads House to the solution to the puzzle. My wife refers to this as the “Ham Sandwich moment,” as House could seemingly find a cure for some obscure, infectious disease by looking at or eating a ham sandwich. It’s a favorite moment of many of the best episodes and it’s always fun to see the look on House’s face when the final piece of the puzzle is put in place and to follow him to the end of that conclusion to episode’s end.
Chasing Zebras is an informative, thought-provoking, exhaustive effort that does what any guide like this should do: it delves deep into the subtleties and minutiae of the magic of the show and in the process explains why so many fans are so deeply in love with it in the first place.