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Nearly five seasons later, House, M.D. is still great TV!

House, M.D.: Still In Love After All These Years

House, M.D. is heading into the home stretch of season five. The new fellows, approached with wariness by a large segment of the show’s considerable fan-base, grew on people over the season. Enough so that Kutner’s (Kal Penn) suicide was met with shock and sadness. Like any series several years into its run, fans have found fault with a variety of things from screen time to storyline; and no television series is perfect. But as the show marches into its final three episodes, we await with anticipation, knowing that the series central character, Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is suffering hallucinations and worrying that he’s lost his medical mojo; and wonder what is to become of him by season’s end.

As I’ve said before in this space, I don’t follow a lot of television series, and maybe once a decade I get really hooked. In the 1960s (when I was but a wee lass) it was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and then Star Trek (original). In the ‘70s, it was M*A*S*H; I went into labor with my first child watching Scarecrow and Mrs. King in the 1980s (and refused to actually give birth until the episode ended—OK, so I’m stretching here). In the ‘90s I got hooked on The X-Files, which brings us to House, M.D.

I fell in love with House, M.D. for many of the same reasons I got hooked on those other shows: complex central character (or major secondary player); complex writing (with lots of subtext), an intriguing ongoing story placed within a procedural context. Granted, not all of the series I’ve been hooked on have had all those elements. Although these elements don’t completely explain why as a nine-year-old I got hooked on U.N.C.L.E. (who thinks that deeply at nine?), they do form a pattern. House, M.D. embodies all of these essential elements and more: flawed, romantic (even tragic) anti-hero at its center; fantastic, intricate and complex scripts, wonderful performances. And, even within its procedural format, the compelling ongoing story of House and those in his orbit.

Traveling through the House fandom during the past five years, it’s clear that not everyone is always delighted with the series. Group of fans become upset about various character arcs, turns in the story, relationships, guest characters. Fans spoiled by tidbits and of information spilling out across the Internet and fueled by expectation are disappointed when what they get isn’t quite what they imagined. (And why I’ve tried to keep this column as “spoiler-free” as possible.)

Of course, the biggest and most recent of these outcries was in season four when David Shore and the other “powers that be” shocked viewers by shaking up House’s team of fellows. The reverberations have remained throughout much of this season, but most viewers adjusted to the new team. Even growing fond of the new fellows (while keenly missing the absence of Chase and Cameron). And then – wham! Kutner commits suicide (due to Kal Penn’s sudden career change into the  political realm). More shaking.

After a time change into a much more competitive slot, House still pulls in millions of viewers in its initial showing and many more in its USA Network “re-purposing,” the series has lost none of what makes it great. At least not for me. (And if you happen to be one of those fans who started watching mid-run and haven't seen the series from the beginning, I highly recommend that you re-watch starting from the pilot episode if you can.)

Even after nearly five seasons, the writing on the show is solid. Each episode is a tightly structured and intricate weave of procedural medical mystery and character drama. Is there a formula to the medical mystery? Undoubtedly. And if you happen to be a casual viewer, that formula may appear…well, formulaic. Patient gets sick in the teaser; House reluctantly takes the case, harasses his team and eventually cures the patient after several missteps. And a trademark “epiphany moment.”  

But it is clear that the medical mysteries are only the skeleton upon which hangs the real story. Most of the time, the “A” patient story intersects with the character-driven and more ongoing tale. Because more than a medical mystery, House, the series, follows the journey of House the doctor. It is always fun to tease out the various threads of each week’s weave of character and procedural. What does the episode title tell us? How is House’s story connected to that of the patient? Where are the double, triple and even quadruple parallels?

The writers have always planted seeds for future stories, from the very first episodes of season one. Much to the frustration of some hard-core fans, character hints and back story grace notes are exposed only to be seemingly dropped forever. But those apparently forgotten gems are often eventually revisited.

In season one (“Cursed”) Dr. Robert Chase’s (Jesse Spencer) father shows up with stage four lung cancer. It is an important moment for both Chase and for House, but we heard nothing more about it until the middle of season two and the “The Mistake,” in which Rowan Chase’s death factored heavily into the story. Likewise, in season one we learn that Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) has a brother, who is evidently homeless. We’d heard nothing more about him until the middle of this season, when Wilson finally finds him—a patient in a psychiatric unit. We’d learned in season two that Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) has known House since her university days. Again, no real impact on the ongoing story until in “Let Them Eat Cake,” this season when we learn that House (in one of his more romantic gestures) has restored her med school desk–something he could have only known about having had such a long-standing friendship. And his plan to restore the desk explains why, in “Last Resort,” House was so busily at work destroying Cuddy’s desk before he was rudely interrupted (and taken hostage) by  the desperate patient.

In a recent interview, Jennifer Morrison (Dr. Allison Cameron), explained to me that the writing process is really two-fold (or more). Writers come up with a medical mystery, and then the character aspects are tailored to the patient and medical story by the entire team of writers (led by David Shore). The actors have some influence on the way their characters play specific scenes (some more than others do). Because most of the writers have been with the series since the first or second season, they have a detailed sense of characters’ histories and can draw from and expand upon them. (Of course the occasional timeline gaffe befuddles the more hard-core fans among us, leading to the most amusing of “fanwanks”). This helps explain how the procedural and character development angles can be so intricately interwoven and have become a series hallmark.

I realize some fans have suggested that the writing has declined over the last couple of years, something with which I do not agree. In the first couple of seasons, House was a surprise; it was a stunning revelation to find House’s inner human core wrapped as it is in yards of chainmail. We’ve gotten to know him better than either his colleagues or his staff because we see him in those rare unguarded moments (so nicely captured in season three by photographer Emma in “Fetal Position”). But as we’ve gotten to know him—and his colleagues got to know him better, there are fewer surprises.

New characters, sometimes in multi-episode story arcs have been introduced to reveal new things about House and the other characters. In the first season, it was Vogler, then Stacy in two, and then in season three it was Tritter. At the time, fans criticized the story arcs as too long, too unrealistic and, finally over, leaving viewers exactly where they were before the arc began.

When David Shore decided to shake up the cast at the end of season three, the fandom held its collective breath. Although season four drew some criticism from some of the more hard-core fan base, (and many are still underwhelmed by some of the changes — particularly the lack of screen time for Chase and Cameron, and the overuse in season five of 13), the new team has been embraced (and even 13 has her fans). So much so that in season five, viewers had been concerned for Taub’s well-being and horrified at Kutner’s tragic suicide.  

It was a brilliant, albeit controversial, move to shake up the casting and House’s team in season four. By providing House with new characters with whom to interact—and who were wiser to him than his original team (as we were more knowledgeable about House in season four than in season one), the writers have been able to find new angles and new situations to explore. And it bred both Wilson’s relationship with Amber—and the two of the series best episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart.” So maybe Shore’s gambit has paid off, keeping the viewers slightly off-kilter and perhaps lengthening the shelf-life of the series.

But I think one of the best things about the writing is that the series can be enjoyed on several levels: straight up medical procedural; character-driven continuing story; a weekly exploration of ethics, philosophy and societies hypocrisies. Of course, the third option (and maybe the second) requires multiple viewings to catch it all.

Hugh Laurie has often said that in a television series, the central character cannot change (at least not much). In film, the central character changes, while the supporting characters remain the same (most of the time). In television, the supporting characters change, come and go; they move on. And although the central character may slowly, slowly change over time, the pay-off is not in change per se, but in the journey itself. And because a television series can last a season or 15 seasons (or something in between), character growth is at a snail’s pace. Two steps forwards, three back. The character might try to change; might want to change, but fundamentally (like in real life) does not significantly change.

Has the character of Dr. Gregory House changed over the course of five years? When first we meet him, he is an acerbic, misanthropic, intensely guarded man. A genius who eschews the spotlight as much as he avoids patients and the dreaded clinic. House has gone through a lot in those five years, and although his mantra is often “people don’t change,” even he has tried (from time to time, at least) to take some tentative steps forward. Unfortunately for the character, but true to form, those attempts usually end in failure. By the end of season five, we can see that House has made some strides. No longer quite as reclusive, he has even reached out tentatively to Cuddy; begun to accept that his friends worry about him (without shooting them down or shooing them away). He has even tried to help himself (despite his mantra that he’s just fine the way he is). But because a healed, happy and completely functional House would mean the end of the journey, House can never succeed while the show is still on the air.

But more than change, the character of Gregory House has been revealed. House, M.D. is the story of a remarkable man. Deeply flawed, but equally heroic, House is one of the most complex characters written for television.  Neither “nice” nor conventionally “good,” House is (sometimes despite himself) an extraordinary healer, whose blunt and honest approach to medicine can be annoying to everyone except his patients. As Wilson put it in “Merry Little Christmas,” House is a “force for good in the universe.” But to find the hero, you have to look beneath his armor and past the mask. Casual viewers who are put off by House’s “jerk” persona miss much by not digging even slightly deeper within the facets of this rough-hewn diamond.

As more of House’s heart and soul have been revealed, so have his less attractive facets. He’s sometimes smug, crass, arrogant and belittling. And with any other character, I’d have stopped watching long ago. But along with those traits, we’ve seen his dedication even when in severe pain, we’ve seen him be generous, humble and compassionate. Even noble. We’ve seen him as a fierce patient advocate and in honest and emotional dialogue with patients on the brink of death. We see him as a brilliant teacher and flashes of what makes the reclusive House a world-renowned doctor and chief asset of Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. We see what he colleagues cannot; what House won’t let them see.

But so much of what makes House is the nuanced performance by Hugh Laurie. His natural humanity tempers House’s sharper edges, and without a word spoken he can express in his eyes and body language what House feels but cannot (or will not) say. After so much success, so many awards and now becoming an executive producer on the show, Laurie could be phoning in performances after five years; but he doesn’t. He brings 100 percent to the performance and some of the bravest and emotionally raw performances on television today.

Clearly, House is not an ensemble show. It’s not about a group of doctors and the their lives and loves at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. It’s the character study of a single doctor—Gregory House. But we learn about House through his relationships with those in his orbit. None of his relationships are straightforward. And they shouldn’t be; relationships are seldom “storybook.” They are messy and fraught with emotional danger. Especially when the characters are smart, overachieving workaholics.

The relationship between House and Wilson is one of the most interesting on television. On the surface they’re frat boys, pulling pranks and hazing each other. Beneath the surface they deeply care for each other. It’s a completely straight but loving relationship between two men. Sometimes that love is tough, or even misguidedly handled, but it’s deep and a thing of beauty.

As we’ve watched House and Cuddy over the past couple of years, we’ve observed the almost painful (for them) discovery of each other. They are both reticent and guarded; their relationship is complex. Their mutual animosity conceals a mutual protective streak (and romantic attachment to each other); they would fit perfectly in a Victorian novel. I look forward to how that will play out; and after it undoubtedly falls apart (which we know it will), the fallout from it should only add fuel to the tension between them.

House drives his fellows hard. He wants them to be competitive with each other and he seems to enjoy playing mind games with them, manipulating them (seemingly) for his own amusement. But like the other relationships on the show, they are complex. He’s not just an ass to them. He is teacher and mentor, and It is always interesting watching him teach, by metaphor, by use of the Socratic Method, by example.

Likewise, I’ve enjoyed the development of the slow, steady and stable relationship between other characters. Chase and Cameron, who seem to look with some bemusement at the chaos of which they were once a part. From those days in season one when Chase was spoiled and self-centered, he has become a steady and strong resource to House—willing to help, but no pushover. Cameron, too, has found her place outside the House-universe, and although she does seem to long a bit to be back in the chaos. Wilson and Cuddy allied by their mutual concern and love for House and genuine affection for each other have been drawn together, providing the emotional support that House is unable to provide. Now that faded more into the show’s fabric, I’ve even begun to enjoy the relationship between Foreman and 13. And until Kutner’s tragic suicide, I’d grown to really like him and care about him—enjoying his growing friendship with the enigmatic Taub.

There is so much else to House, M.D. that makes it compelling viewing even five years later: its musings on philosophy, society, ethics and medical practice; its use of music (and of the its star’s musicianship); its humor and (sometimes oblique) pop culture references. As season five draws to a close I am still riveted, still captivated—still in love with House. M.D.

House returns with a new episode next Monday (April 27) at 8:00 ET. What keeps you coming back week to week? How long have you been watching? Been there since the pilot or get hooked this season after the time change or re-purposed viewings on other networks?

About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org). Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated novel, called "Anne Rice meets Michael Crichton," The Apothecary's Curse The Apothecary's Curse is now out from Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Her book on the TV series House, M.D., Chasing Zebras is a quintessential guide to the themes, characters and episodes of the hit show. Barnett is an accomplished speaker, an annual favorite at MENSA's HalloWEEM convention, where she has spoken to standing room crowds on subjects as diverse as "The Byronic Hero in Pop Culture," "The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes," "The Hidden History of Science Fiction," and "Our Passion for Disaster (Movies)."

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