Thursday, September 1, 2016
Calling Dr. House
In its initial run I caught the occasional episode of House. I had always been a fan of Hugh Laurie and he played the part of the gimpy cynical doctor to perfection. Well almost. Now that I have had the chance to go back and watch the series from its initial pilot, thanks to Netflix, House is no longer so appealing.
What started as a witty take on Sherlock Holmes devolved into a soap opera over time, with way too much focus on the lives of House and Wilson and Cuddy and the young doctors that formed his diagnostic team at the fictional Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. For some reason I had previously thought it was set in Boston, but maybe that was because I wrongly associated David Shore with St. Elsewhere.
The show was clearly more fun when Dr. House was diagnosing mysterious illnesses and having to deal with the petty maladies of clinic patients. The first two seasons seemed to be grounded in actual cases, as there was often painful attention to details. Andrew Holtz offered a guide to the cases in House, MD vs. Reality, noting that there is a fact-checking program scriptwriters can turn to -- Hollywood, Health & Society, which apparently the House writers turn to quite often. Viewers would turn to the web to search the many references, finding out that the experimental drugs and treatments were real. The writers also seemed to take particular relish in how dangerous tick bites can be and how important it is to keep a clean kitchen.
As the seasons wore on, House's diagnoses focused more on his colleagues, particularly Cuddy, which read as an absurd form of foreplay to a romantic relationship that never quite materialized. He often became petulant and mean-spirited, as the writers took this cynical doctor to extremes, even to the point of having him shot at the end of Season Two when it appeared this series was badly in need of a reboot. It wasn't surprising given that House treated his patients like shit, but there was no link to a previous episode. Instead, House drifts off into a dreamworld where the shooter becomes his conscience, or what's left of it anyway.
His refrain "everybody lies" pretty much summed up the concept. Kids were often the biggest liars of all and House seemed to perversely enjoy drawing them out of their lies by confronting them with the sad realities of life. By the second season's end, you couldn't trust what anyone said, least of all House, who had become an anti-hero.
The shooter remained a mystery as Season Three started with a surprisingly gimp-free doctor who finds a new nemesis in a police detective played by Robert Morse. Maybe this is why I thought Shore was part of St. Elsewhere, since Morse had been one of the young doctors at St. Eligius. This was perhaps the worst season of House, as Detective Tritter proved more annoying than vicious as was the case with Edward Vogler in Season One.
Vogler had been the perfect antagonist to House, lording over the hospital like Napoleon, strong arming the other doctors into compliance and even threatening to oust House if he didn't conform to his ways. In the end, House won but at times he appeared genuinely scared, as Chi McBride cast a menacing presence over him.
Once the nasty Vogler was gone, House had a free run of the place, delighting in Cuddy's low-cut blouses and tight skirts, antagonizing his patients, and forcing his assistants to do the dirty work for him, including breaking into patients' homes to discover what might have set off their illnesses and whatever other secrets they might be hiding. Wilson played Watson for the most part, someone House could unload on at inopportune moments. I kind of liked Wilson but the whole thing about confronting House about his vicodin addiction was as annoying as Det. Tritter's investigation, especially after the attempt to heal House failed.
The assistants were never anything more than foils. I thought after Season Three we would get a new crew as we went through a very amusing screening process to find new young doctors after the big fall out. Unfortunately, Foreman, Chase and Cameron were all teasingly re-introduced and became part of the show once again, albeit as incidental figures. House finally winnowed down his 40 applicants to 4. He had a hard time letting go of Amber, or Cutthroat Bitch as he called her, only to see her come back as Wilson's girlfriend.
The misogyny that ran through the show became most blatant in Season 4. We were supposed to excuse House because he is such a genius, but I have to think a strong doctor like Amber wouldn't take too kindly to being openly called a bitch. And, I had to wonder how much an ambitious administrator like Cuddy could take House's insulting sexual jibes each and every episode. In the end, we were supposed to chalk these both up to unrequited love, but the only person who really seemed to love House was Cameron, who as we learned back in Season One was drawn to broken men.
We did get his ex-wife in Season Two, a reasonably strong woman in Stacy Warner, played by veteran actress Sela Ward. There was conflict for awhile and eventually appeasement and finally sex, only for House to reject her, as she had apparently done him during the low point of his pre-show recovery. With Stacy gone, House was free to be a narcissistic bastard, running roughshod over his colleagues as harshly as Vogler had done before.
It wasn't just the women who got the brunt of his abuse. Wilson was humiliated by House time and time again until he finally had enough when House showed no empathy for his loss of Amber. Granted, it was an odd romance, with Amber used mostly to get back at House, but still you would think House would show at least a little sympathy for his only buddy. Instead, he mercilessly taunts Wilson, giving the chief oncologist no option other than to leave. But, Wilson comes back. It seems no one can get enough of House's abuse.
You would think it would be better for Cuddy to fire House, since he is the one who incites all these bad feelings. We were told time and time again that this diagnostics department existed only to serve his great ego, but you have to think Vogler was right back in Season One in that it served no real purpose as far as the hospital was concerned. Surely, the chief doctors could get together and perform a differential diagnosis if a patient's case proved too vexing for one of them. Instead, House is presented as Batman, the only one able to crack these mysterious cases. Amusingly, in an episode of a fallen CIA operative, he is secretly flown from the roof of the hospital in a black helicopter to solve the case. His name is now so famous that even Cuban refugees seek him out.
Granted, this is all done in misanthropic humor, but it reaches its ugly head in Season Five when House starts having hallucinations of Amber. She has come back once again to taunt him, this time as his evil alter-ego. House doesn't figure it out at first. After all, it is his own mind playing tricks on him, the only worth adversary he has. But, when Amber's diagnoses prove to be wrong and the elaborate bachelor party turns out to be a diabolical plan to kill Chase, House realizes it is time to check into the mental ward.
By this point, the show had come to resemble the soap opera he watched in comatose patients' rooms, Prescription Passion. Chase and Cameron were the two young doctors in love. House chased after Cuddy for no other reason than to get under her skin. Foreman hooked up with "Thirteen," after she had run her course of lesbian affairs. Poor Wilson still pined over the loss of Amber. There was even one amusing episode where House actually kidnapped the doctor from the soap opera, sensing there was something wrong in his delayed reactions on screen. Cases no longer seemed to matter. They served as means for the doctors to confront their own insecurities, eventually even House when he badly misdiagnosed a case thanks to his evil secret sharer Amber.
Apparently, the death of Kutner inspired these visions. He was rather surprisingly killed off in Season Five and House became convinced the suicide concealed a murder, searching his flat for clues while the others attended his funeral. I was curious why Kutner was written out of the show and it turned he left acting to serve in the Obama administration as the director of the Office of Public Liaison in 2009. There was a nice chemistry between Kutner and House.
House in a mental ward could have easily filled a whole season, but the writers confined it to two amusing episodes where he did battle and eventually came to an accord with Dr. Nolan, wonderfully played by Andre Braugher. But, only after House had badly underestimated the depth of one of his fellow patients' psychoses, leading Freedom Master to jump off a parking garage. Lin-Manuel Miranda stole many scenes as Alvie. We also witnessed House's only serious romance with the piano-playing, sister-in-law of a catatonic patient known as "Silent Girl." The scenes with Franka Potente were genuinely poignant and I thought we were going to see a whole new House. Instead, it was the same old caustic humor when House returned to Plainsboro to mercilessly taunt the staff once again, seeming to have gained nothing from this experience.
House suffered from what many long-running television shows have suffered -- fatigue. It is hard to come up with 23 episodes per year to fill out the mainstream television schedule. The cable channels have discovered that it is best to keep a series to 10 or 12 episodes per year, with a story arch tying the episodes together. Most of the episodes in House are one-off affairs, except for the occasional two-parter. There is a story arch, but as I found out it isn't necessary to follow. In fact, it is better not to, as it only makes you realize what an ugly misanthrope House is and your time is wasted trying to figure him out.