Friday, March 11, 2011

The Wheel and the Horizon: A Reflection on House

I have read my co-author's review of the latest House episode, and for the most part, his expressions of disappointment reflect my own feelings. I believe, however, that my thoughts on Bombshells and the House canon in general are unique enough to warrant their own response post. I apologize in advance if this becomes over-long.

When it comes to setting a show's format, a television writer has two basic choices: He or she can write according to the anthological format, or he or she can write according to the evolutionary format. There are pros and cons inherent in each. On the one hand, the audience can pop in and out of an anthological series without losing the thread, which frees the showrunner from the stress of maintaining viewership and allows him or her to focus on crafting interesting stand-alone plots. The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits are both examples of quality shows written in the anthological format; they are, in essence, short story magazines translated to the small screen, and in these two cases at least, the adaptation works beautifully. On the other hand, the writer of an evolutionary series has the unique opportunity to inspire brand loyalty. This writer's audience may be smaller, but it is also more avid. Look at the Babylon 5 fandom, for instance. We B5 fans are so enthusiastic because JMS consistently rewarded us for paying attention. That is what all evolutionary series are designed to do: they are designed to get the viewer invested in the characters and the storylines over the long term.

Most fans know how House came into being, I'm sure, but just to summarize: As David Shore has explained in many interviews, he was interested in exploring what would happen if his character said to a patient's face what most doctors say behind closed doors. Eventually, this basic concept was folded into a largely anthological format modeled on Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and what emerged was the first season of House. But there was a problem: Shore's central character was too interesting -- and that was bound to encourage concept drift.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when House switched from "a cleverly written medical procedural" to "an exploration of a multi-layered character who, by the way, solves medical mysteries" because there were movements in the latter direction very early on. By episode 1:11 (Detox), for example, the writers were already taking aim at House's pill habit -- and there was also that (quickly aborted) attempt to bring House and Cameron together. But if I must draw a line somewhere, I'd probably draw it at Stacy's arrival. As I've observed elsewhere, Stacy upset whatever equilibrium House had managed to cultivate over the previous years by reminding him that he was unhappy. From that point on, I think, House and the show were never the same: House became increasingly self-destructive, and the writers began to focus more on the "soap opera" because they understandably found it fascinating.

Unfortunately, Shore and Jacobs have failed to recognize that in pouring so much creative energy into the exploration of House's psyche, they have completely shifted the format of their series. They still want to write in the anthological style, but the time they have spent on House's character development has made the evolutionary style all but obligatory. To put it another way: Now that Shore and Jacobs and the other writers have convinced us to love House not as a wise-cracking cipher but as a living, breathing human being, they can't keep writing modern-day Sherlock Holmes mysteries in which the main character is preserved like a butterfly under glass. It's too late for that now. But, alas, the House writers apparently expect us to keep riding their wheel - their never-ending cycle of growth and decay. Oh, they will allow House to change for a short time, but eventually, they must return to status quo ante because they just don't know what a walk towards the horizon would look like --and they're not really inclined to court the risk of finding out.

I do find it difficult to fault the writers for the manner in which they pressed the reset button this time around. I believe House and Cuddy faced some pretty substantial obstacles to their long-term success as a couple, and a part of me is frankly unsurprised that Bombshells turned out the way it did. Neither House nor Cuddy was ready for an adult relationship, truth be told. House's issues are obvious and central (and stem from his belief in a purposeless and merciless universe), but I think it's a big mistake to ignore Cuddy's equally significant personal flaws. For one thing, her standards are WAY too damned high. If her dreams in Bombshells are any indication, Cuddy lives in a world of black-and-white dichotomies in which her only choices are domestic perfection or utter chaos. No wonder she remains single; even a happy and well-adjusted man would struggle - and probably fail - to please her. Additionally, Cuddy consistently underestimates House's capacity for growth. Granted, House often lets his inner six-year-old run riot, but I wonder how much of that is driven by Cuddy's (and Wilson's) low expectations. If you declare a man an overgrown child often enough, that declaration becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you tolerate or try to manipulate a man's immature behavior, that immature behavior will likely persist.

It is definitely arguable that House and Cuddy were doomed to split from the start. But if this is so, what purpose does sustaining their relationship over fourteen episodes serve exactly? As SABR Matt states, at some point, you have to stop jerking our chains -- you have to stop tearing your main character down and actually take on the challenge of leading him to something better. For goodness sake, let House have some happiness! Otherwise, your viewers are going to start slitting their wrists in the parking lot.

1 comment:

  1. I really thoght they were going to mature as writers...I thought they were learning to let House grow...I thoguht I saw a pattern of growth that was very believable and logical for someone like him that began in season 2 (his split from Stacy) and ended with his becoming united with Cuddy in 7:14 (right before Bombshells) and realizing that his happiness was more important than a PERCEIVED slight drop in professional skill.

    Bombshells isn't hitting the reset button in a way that makes sense to me...I get that Cuddy and he were both problematic people who probably shouldn't have been in a relationship to begin with...but you don't build up the WONDERFUL revelation that House is finally abandoning his neuroses and then DESTROY IT the NEXT EPISODE!!! What the F***!!

    I'm giving the show a chance to find a different status quo ante...but if it returns to first season...or worse...fifth season...I will be mad enough to walk away.