I’m not watching House anymore.
But I think it came as a mild surprise to those who know me that I ever watched it at all. Me, with the anxiety problems all tightly clustered around health issues…medical shows are panic meltdowns waiting to happen, obviously, as far as I’m concerned.
Ordinarily, this would be true.
But House had something going for it that no other modern medical drama could match, and that’s disassociation. Uh…that’s the Brechtian thing, right?
I’m saying that right, aren’t I?
Anyway House was actually a pretty good inoculation against health-based panic, I found. Perhaps it begins right with the patients, all in the direst possible need, the most impossibly hopeless situation…subject to the most amazing confluence of both destructively invasive surgical procedures, and futile ones. Their loved ones all freaking out. Drama. Music. Of course in a notable break from the modern medical show’s formula, House saves almost all of the poor sick creatures…which is good stuff for me anyway, right there!…and yet of still greater importance is the crap they go through along the way (was there ever a patient on this show who didn’t vomit up blood, or have a heart attack in an MRI machine?), often to be finally resolved with a three-week course of pills you can buy from any drugstore, and then they’re gone. Not that this is Cronenberg by any means, but it’s some pretty striking bio-voyeurism for network TV…while House and his cronies spit bizarre terms at each other, labyrinthine magic spells of diagnosis that verge on the laughable, verge on the infuriating, verge on the onanistic, verge on the obscene…we already don’t care about the patient, that’s the point, the patient is already being stripped of their role as focus, as specific human character, as site of sympathy, identification, and concern…as that’s going on we’re treated to a psychedelic display of their inner goopiness, the mindless constituents that make them (as in some current biological perspectives) nothing much more than a colony of organs, a table of contents, a turbulent pattern of small independent entities that all together create the temporary illusion of a single larger creature with a single larger identity. But then?
Then the case is cracked, and somebody writes a prescription for some garden-variety antibiotics or something, and they’re gone. Disappeared from our sight, again whole and impenetrable. The visions cease along with the jargon. The intimacy with their traumatic flesh fades along with the ludicrously charged technique of abstraction that is the differential diagnosis…and in that moment comes the voyeur’s truest and most potent frisson, which is nowhere else than in the end of the illicit interval, the end of the fever dream…the restoration of the separateness that was really there the whole time anyway, that in fact drove the entire episode.
Because that’s what voyeurs do, you know; they experiment with the membranes between themselves and other people. They twist them and distort them, looking for the most perfect, the most tantalizing illusion. But that’s all they do, because that’s all they’re looking for.
And TV watchers are voyeurs in this mode too, obviously. So, identification with the terrified patient? That’s not what this show’s about. And the members of House’s team aren’t important in this sense either — we’re not supposed to care about them, and so things are arranged so that it’s pretty difficult to do so. The Cameron-Chase-Foreman bunch are simply hateful, aggravating to us as to House himself, not really people so much as the three panes of a make-up mirror; whereas the new bunch are aggressively opaque, too-solid personalities that know how to keep themselves to themselves while they’re doing their jobs. We have to intuit the shape of their interior spaces, because we can’t see them; just as we never have to intuit the inner life of Cameron and Chase and Foreman, because they too are constantly vomiting up their blood for us.
In other words: they’re out, too. Sometimes they are interestingly out…but they’re out regardless.
Then you’ve got Wilson, and Cuddy, and finally our titular character. Whose main attraction is that he’s always stubborn because he’s always right. He’s right about Wilson, for example: Wilson’s nowhere near as honest as House. Wilson’s a bag of jangling forks, Wilson’s clearly a head case, that guy’s got issues…I mean, we do care about him, at the beginning of every episode we even like him and care about him, but by the end of the episode House is still right, and Wilson’s not. And so there’s one more layer of identification peeled away: House, not Wilson, is the hero…
…Who’s right about Cuddy, too: and she’s more honest than either of the other main characters, but it’s not like it saves her. What she wants, she can’t get: as Wilson persuades himself that his fantasies can come true if he only acts them out sincerely enough, Cuddy waits for things to get better as they get truer...and then has to figure out what to do with herself if that never happens. If that faith is never justified.
As it never will be. And, wow, just think how beautifully sympathetic those two characters are, eh? How strongly we would identify with them both, if this were any other show! That’s your human dilemma right there, for heaven’s sake! But then there’s House, and he always ruins it. There’s always something about his human dilemma, that Wilson and Cuddy can’t encapsulate. Because he’s the hero, and they’re not; Hugh Laurie acts the hell out of every scene he’s in, growling through his own special Christian Bale voice — no one actually talks like that, you know! — I mean doesn’t he sound like he’s struggling? Isn’t it just like a drunk putting extra processing cycles into his enunciation? Isn’t that, kind of, the whole point of his delivery? — and he’s got everything it takes, he’s got the cane, he’s got the pain, he’s got the sarcasm and the sensitive blue eyes…we’re not going to identify with anybody but this guy by the end of the episode, are we? Like us, he’s so misunderstood…like us, he’s got a heart of gold…like us, he’s trying to suffer as honestly as he can, so that whatever tiny grain of redemption he can get out of his life will at least have been earned. AWWW…! POOR LITTLE FELLA! If only everybody else could see what we can see…!
Except then he blows it all up, doesn’t he?
He does something unforgivable, that’s just for us. Every episode. So in the end, we can’t identify with House either. Because the only thing he’s got going for him is that he’s good at his job…but then again, if we already don’t care about his patients, why should we care about that?
And so who’s left?
The answer is: just the person watching the show. We’re the only person left, to identify with.
And so here’s the ultimate disassociation, the ultimate reason why House, bizarrely of all modern medical dramas, doesn’t pluck my anxiety wire but instead artfully stills its quivering: because the only source of tension in the show lies within House himself…and to amplify it only addresses it, and to address it only resolves it, but either way it can never explain it, so to ramp it up, to seek to get closer to it, is pointless. Because House fascinates me, but only in the manner that his patients fascinate him. In other words, I don’t really care about House. I just want to see what he does. I just want to know what makes him the way he is. Hey, I want to watch Hugh Laurie act, is that so strange a thing?
But to feel something for House…no. It’s not what I’m here for. So it’s not what I’m given. And that’s the genius of it.
Which is why I’m not really watching it anymore. Although it’s still of some perhaps academic interest to me, as an example of what happens when shows try to reinvent themselves on the fly. I mean, it’s definitely a pattern, you know? Suddenly the characters become much more important than they were, and you’re supposed to care about them more: it’s decadence, but decadence can be interesting, decadence can have its own special frisson to it. When House hallucinated Amber for the last time on the bus, and she told him that “you can’t always get what you want”…well, one of the ways you could tell it was the end of the story was that line, a direct callback to the first episode. That story ended right there, that was closure. But then…
…To my astonishment, it came back, and I had to watch. What could they do with these ingredients, without a recipe? I did wonder. Because sometimes, though rarely, shows do manage to reinvent themselves successfully, even by unravelling all the things they used to be about. It can be done! And what I wanted to know was…
…Would they do it? Would they get better from the end of the story?
Well, the answer is that they did, and they didn’t. The “opaque” nature of House’s second team still had a surprising amount of mileage in it, and Wilson was still funny, and to see House try to change himself was…unnecessary, perhaps, but once having swallowed that pill there did turn out to be some beneficial effects proceeding from it. Of course none of it would’ve worked at all without Andre Braugher, who I think most people would watch in anything…hell, I’d watch Hugh Laurie in anything too, so it made it that much better: certain amount of mirroring going on in that room, a certain amount of gravitas, a certain amount of potentially-useful symbolism. And you know, I did want to believe they could figure it all out, after the epilogue. How, once you start messing around with the show’s essential systems, exposing this, resolving that, testing that other thing to destruction in the name of momentary dramatic punch, and above all finishing things off…how, then, do you find a way to keep it all going somewhere, instead of settling in one place and staring at its navel all day. Or even going backwards. For a while, I was even hopeful that they had figured it all out…and that the frisson I felt was the tingle of a new illusory excitement, rather than simply a sign of the old one exhausting itself, and finally allowing reality to return.
But, since the milestone has come and gone, I’ve been pretty sure they didn’t figure it out after all. And now I’m really out of it. Because since I do not care about House, House’s story doesn’t have a potential climax to it, for me…or at least, not one it hasn’t already passed. I mean, what kind of redemption can the guy possibly get, at this point? What’s left, that he hasn’t already gotten? He’s had an unborn baby’s hand wrapped around his finger, that would turn me freakin’ religious, I’m telling you. So after something like that, what’s left?
Is the series going to end with Wilson shooting House in the head? Or what? Is this “The Killing Joke”, is there actually going to be a moral?
It’s inconceivable. House always does something to screw it all up for himself — with his friends, with his hospital, with the law, with his love interests, with the viewers. Now all the stuff that used to make this show go has been unpacked and dissected, all that’s left to do is revisit resolutions we’ve already discarded, and hope one of them sticks better than it did the first time. Decadence? The only thing worse than decadence is the failure to push through it to something that’s genuinely new, instead of just to something that looks new but really isn’t. This is how we get “back-to-basics” serialized storytelling, people, and you know how incestuously bankrupt that gets! What will be left to say, after all, once one day the disease finally does turn out to be lupus? Once every possible cast member has dated the metaphorical equivalent of Tori Spelling’s character, shouldn’t that be the point where the plug gets pulled? To me at least, it seems plain that the time to polish this off for good was after House got out of the mental hospital. Then they could’ve done House made-for-TV movies ’til the end of time, a fresh start with old characters…”Whatever Happened To Gregory House”, or perhaps “The Diagnostician Returns”…if this season could’ve been those movies, I think there would’ve been room to move, still. Ways to avoid trying for a satisfying conclusion that House’s character will never let anyone, including us, enjoy. Such a metatextual sort of show deserves a metatextual sort of end, I think, if it’s to have a proper end at all: because we can’t afford to get sucked into the story of Dr. House, anymore than I can afford to get sucked into the ordinary heartstring-pulling hyperidentification-panic of the modern medical drama. I’d have to turn it off.
You’d have to turn it off.
In the Bible, the comforters of Job were those who made his suffering worse by trying to alleviate it. Serialized fiction writers, all! Because in the end, we all try to fix our way out of old stories, possibly because it seems like the right thing to do…because it seems like what you would do, if you had the best of intentions. Not that you can’t ever try to give the people what they want…but just consider how even that miracle of heroic cliche Indiana Jones fares, when his antagonist is someone other than the God of Abraham.
He can’t function.
And so it really doesn’t matter if he gets the girl or not. You know it recently struck me, though it’s really part of a much bigger point, that I never bemoan my age when I’m feeling it. It’s only when I don’t feel as old as I am, that I feel I’m losing time. Lots and lots of time. And you know why that is? It’s because the illusion is so superficially appealing, that I forget it’s all about the eventual return to earth.
I forget that’s where the real story is.