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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Television

A DOCTOR IN SPITE OF HIMSELF

A review of Fox's new television series House

by Mike D'Virgilio

It’s not every day that an acerbic curmudgeon with a habit of offending people becomes the star of a hit TV show, but Dr. Gregory House has done it on Fox’s medical drama House on Tuesday nights. In the Nielsen ratings near the end of the season, the show was number 12, which qualifies it as a hit.

House is not at all an ordinary television drama, and much of the credit must go to Hugh Laurie, a British theatrical actor sans his native English accent. (For those familiar with Laurie’s previous work, the transformation is quite astonishing.)

The show, which ended its first season on Tuesday, May 24 (don’t fret, there will be reruns all summer), has a satisfyingly predictable story arc. Each week, a patient comes into a large New Jersey hospital with a medical mystery that must be solved by Dr. House and his trio of young, physically attractive colleagues. But this predictable structure is given warmth and life by the witty and often deep dialogue that skewers human foibles and often highlights the grander side of the human condition.

Human nature is a funny, often inscrutable and infuriating thing. To the strict evolutionist, naturalist, secularist, atheist, et al., human nature is simply a social construct. There really is no there there. But to those of us who take a religious view of things, human nature is a gloriously predictable thing, whether that glory takes on the form of good or bad. Both of these confirm that human beings are made in the image of God, but that the image has been broken.

The stories that most grip us grapple with both sides of the human moral divide, and House does that very effectively and consistently. For instance, Dr. House has one fundamental belief about human beings: They lie, especially when confronting horrifying medical conditions nobody can seem to figure out, and particularly when they suspect something they’ve done may have caused it.

In one recent episode, for example, a gentleman captivated by a certain sexual fetish that includes pain and humiliation told the doctors his parents were dead, but they were actually alive but so ashamed of him that he considered them dead to him. In another episode, a women suffering from a rare form of African fever caught it in an affair she denies having had with her husband’s best friend. Other lies, although more benign, serve only to confirm House’s cynicism about human nature.

Yet the value of human life is evident in the passion House and his associates display in their attempt to solve the riddle of each mystery illness. Although House often seems more interested in the challenge of diagnosis than in the patients themselves, he does not fool the viewer for long: he cares about these people, despite his efforts not to.

Thus the show makes the point that no matter what the patients may have done, there is intrinsic value in each life and that life is worth saving. It is interesting that in this consideration of the value of human life, and the daily battle of the better angels of human nature versus the lesser, House and his associates are mostly agnostic or atheist. In fact, the pretty young colleague who is romantically interested in Dr. House is a confirmed atheist. Yet religion is treated respectfully on the show.

In an episode that appeared early in the season, a sick nun causes Dr. Chase, one of the young associates of Dr. House, to reveal he was a seminary student at one time. He didn’t finish, he admits, because he doesn’t have the faith that the nun had. But as the nun confesses her fear of death, the young doctor with little faith comforts her with a favorite bible verse and prayer. Such a respectful showing of Christian faith is not common in Hollywood, but it is another aspect of House that makes it appealing.

I must bring up the one shortcoming of the first season’s shows. About two-thirds of the way through the season, the hospital, always in a struggle for money, took a large donation from a businessman who came in to run the hospital as “a business” as a condition for their acceptance of his generosity. Unfortunately, the businessman is a caricature of a cold, heartless, profit-motivated Scrooge. Taking a strong, immediate dislike toward Dr. House (a quite justified response to the doctor’s open antagonism), the plutocrat seeks to control him by forcing him to fire one of his three talented young colleagues.

House, of course, refuses to comply, and the businessman ultimately leaves and takes his money with him. This story arc was a too-obvious attempt to inject some soap-opera emotionality into the show, and it failed because it was done in such a superficial manner. Financing of medical care, like any subject, deserves a better dramatic treatment than the melodramatic, mustache-twirling villainy of this evil-businessman subplot.

Fortunately, the producers dropped this angle after a few episodes and returned to their focus on the intriguing personality of Dr. House. Why is Dr. House, despite his gruff, annoying, and offensive manner, an attractive character? I suppose that all of us have a secret desire to be like him at times, to give not a rip what people think, to speak our unvarnished opinions as they pop up in our minds. We don't do that, of course, because society wouldn't work very well that way. As the Victorian saying went, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. But it is interesting to see someone get away with it in pursuit of a noble cause. Truth is a necessary precondition of the healing arts, and Dr. House sees no need to varnish the attempt to get at that truth.

Which brings me to the evolution of the House character during the season. Throughout the various episodes, it was apparent that something had happened to him in the past that caused him to walk with a limp, have to use a cane, and pop pain pills like candy. It seemed likely that the trauma that caused his injury had something to do with bringing out his cynical and gruff nature, and that is confirmed in the final two episodes of the season. The frailty of House’s psyche had been hinted at earlier when the young female colleague sought to woo him, and it is fully revealed in the final two episodes when his ex-girlfriend comes onto the scene in the person of Sela Ward.

The penultimate episode of the season was a spectacular example of powerful storytelling in a unique format. Dr. House is teaching young interns about medicine, using real-world examples. It so happens that one of the examples is House himself, though we do not realize this until a good part of the way through the episode. House’s gimpy leg and use of painkillers are explained, and the reasons for his breakup with his ex-girlfriend are revealed. As the story plays out, we learn from Sela Ward’s character that House is really much the same person he has always been, but it is clear that the emotional pain of his injury and near-death experience has left its mark. In the season’s final episode, House saves the life of the husband of this ex-girlfriend, and we see the myriad of conflicting emotions and integrity that drive House to be personally cruel while doing so much good.

We also learn that Ward’s character will be working at the hospital in the future, which should make for compelling new story lines as House’s complex personality is further explored in season two. •

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