The Curious Appeal of House MD

The Curious Appeal of House MD

Many network shows rely on some sort of formula to tell their episodic stories week to week in relative isolation from each other. Sure there are the deviations in location such as a beach episode or a look back via a clip show (the bane of every loyal viewer and a boon to a seasonal budget), but more often than not, it’s a reliable route that takes us from point A, around the bend to B, and then back around again to the status quo. No show exemplifies this tendency more than House MD.

For the uninitiated, House MD is a medical drama that used modernized all-but-direct Sherlock Holmes parallels to recount the medical mastery of crippled curmudgeon, Gregory House. Every episode goes more or less the same. A new patient is afflicted with something novel enough to garner the interest of our protagonist. House then runs down a checklist of being borderline abusive to his subordinates, chasing a red herring, being explicitly abusive, committing some crimes, and sexually harassing his boss before a solution presents itself through some marvel of lateral thinking. Somewhere along the line they’ll play trip-hop over a sitting-and-thinking montage and if you’re lucky they’ll spend 10 minutes on whatever overarching plot is the only thing reminding you of what season you’re watching.

Even the rotating cast isn't enough to keep it fresh.

Even the rotating cast isn't enough to keep it fresh.

Besides some window dressing, nothing is changed in the presentation of whatever patient-of-the-week is being portrayed in a manner that drives 1st year medical students to drink. Yet somehow they kept this train running for a whopping eight seasons. While it’s hardly surprising to discover formulaic and predictable is hardly a death sentence when it comes to network TV, but I couldn’t let go of the fact that something different was going on here.

So what’s the appeal? None of the characters, including are particularly likable, especially the titular one. He hates everyone, but in the end he’s always right. He can see things coming in ways others are unable to and being this uniquely skilled in his profession gives him a pass on behaviour that would drive medical administrators to drink. In an early episode, for example, he illicitly obtains DNA samples from a patient’s parents to run a genetic analysis. This will tell him if the patient was adopted. His prime motivation to do this? To settle a bet with his colleagues.

It's a good thing rampant unprofessionalism isn't tolerated these days.

It's a good thing rampant unprofessionalism isn't tolerated these days.

Then it became clear to me. I could see what was going on under the surface. House MD is about a bitter narcissist who hates everyone around him and figure out everything that’s going to happen before it actually does. The show glorifies and all but celebrates his superiority over all around him despite his disability. In watching, the viewer is invited into this world. Like House, we hate everyone and thanks to the unerringly formulaic plot structure, we always know what’s coming.

It is possible that I’m reading too much into this and it’s just a happy coincidence. Otherwise, it’s a interesting writing choice, to make such an ostensibly unrelatable main character the audience surrogate. What other series, television or otherwise, do you know that do this?

Like them or not, they did pave the way for this.

Like them or not, they did pave the way for this.

 

Thanks for listening,

 

SJC

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