Thursday 10 May 2012


The end of an era is approaching.  Not the Mayan Long-Count calendar, but the final episodes of the TV show House. 

I started watching House in its second season.  The initial description of a cranky, drug-popping doctor treating mysterious ailments wasn’t one that appealed to me.  Particularly coming on the tail end of a glut of medical shows ranging from ER to Dr. Quinn.  I dismissed it as just one more doctor show.

My husband started watching it and I began catching the last twenty minutes of it when I came home from karate class.  House hooked me with one line in particular:

Foreman: So your motto is ram the treatment down the patient’s throat, unless it’s curing their paralysis and then we stop?

House: Yeah.  It used to be live and let live but I’m taking a needlepoint class and they gave us these really big pillowcases.

I’ve mentioned I am a sucker for good dialogue.

I’m really going to miss watching Hugh Laurie turn what should be a completely unsympathetic misanthropic character into something more.  House is mean, crass, hurtful and brutally honest, with the emphasis on brutality.  But Hugh Laurie managed to create a sublayer with quiet moments and subtle facial expressions.  Without saying a word, he convinced me that he cared about his patients and colleagues, cared so deeply that he was bleeding deep inside for each and every one of them.  The sarcasm and attacks were partly because he was absolutely convinced of his own rightness and willing to do anything to get the patient the treatment they needed.  And partly, they were a shield against others knowing about his vulnerability and using it to manipulate him.

Take the snippet of dialogue above.  Foreman is upset because they’ve removed a treatment which is helping their patient.  He’s lashing out at House.  House responds with sarcasm because he sees the answer as so obvious that it doesn’t need to be spoken.  The patient was on several treatments.  By withdrawing them and doing them one at a time, the team will figure out which condition the patient has and be able to treat it more effectively.  Later in the episode, there’s what I call the House-crisis moment.  This is when he’s no longer confident about his answers and diagnosis.  The sarcasm vanishes (although the meanness and attacks still sometimes happen).  His flippancy disappears as he gets more desperate to help the patient.

Within the show, House is often accused of only caring about solving the medical puzzle.  But if that were true, he wouldn’t show the desperation he often does.  No matter how passionately we want to solve an intellectual puzzle, we aren’t desperate to solve it.  Frustrated at lack of progress, certainly.  But not desperate.  It’s how the actor and writers show that House really does care.

My favourite episode of all time is The Lecture, an episode from the first season.  House is lecturing a bunch of medical students about thinking outside the box when it comes to diagnosis.  He tells them that despite what they’ve been told, right and wrong are real and not knowing which is which is no excuse for making the wrong decision.  When a student is hesitating over giving an answer and complains that it’s difficult to think with him shouting and standing over her, he snarls back: Do you think it will be any easier when you have a real patient really dying?

I hope that I can someday write a character with such deep layers.  I hope I can take someone who would seem to be completely amoral and unlikable and show their other side in such a way that they become fascinating to a reader. 

The writers never made the mistake of turning House into a good guy.  His prickliness is a part of him and downplaying it would have made the character into the same boring old Beauty and the Beast interpretation.  Love/affection/satisfaction/whatever transforms the Beast into a Prince.  House is always a Beast.  That’s what makes the glimpses of the Prince inside so satisfying.  But through it all, he’s still a Beast.

I love the series but I think they’re finishing at a good time.  There’s not much more they could throw at House without venturing into the ridiculous.  Ending it now makes sense.  I’ll miss it, but that’s why the gods invented series DVDs.

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