In the medical television drama, House, the English actor Hugh Laurie portrays a curmudgeonly bastard of a maverick antihero, Dr. Gregory House. “House,” as he is called not so endearingly by his team of diagnosticians, has the extraordinary gift of assimilating seemingly unrelated symptoms and diagnosing rare diseases, often in an ingenious and surly manner.
As a matter of course, House invariably gets the first diagnosis wrong and then proceeds to misdiagnose a second time and—apparently because the writers and producers have to fill an hour-long TV slot—usually botches the third diagnosis and so on. By the time House finally has figured out what’s wrong with the patient (typically after the patient has suffered through a multitude of near-death seizures, graphic skin manifestations, and an onslaught of pokes, prods, and verbal assaults), the dour doctor has managed to exasperate his staff and associates, the patient’s family, and anyone within earshot of his acerbic diatribes.
So why on earth are viewers so drawn to this despicable character? Is it because he is brilliant and able to articulate what many folks would love to say aloud but don’t have the nerve or vocabulary? Partly, yes, and partly too because Hugh Laurie is just so damned good at being clever; he was born for the role. But House taps in to more than just people’s admiration of disarming intelligence and biting sarcasm. House represents an outlier whose attraction is his repellence.
The idea of House, the character, works because House is the antithesis of clinical. He’s messy, he’s unpredictable, he’s gritty (unshaven), he’s irreverent, he’s insubordinate, he’s moody, he’s obnoxious, he’s outrageous. And he works in a hospital, a place where people must adhere to rules, where employees, visitors, patients all must conform to civilized society’s fragile facade. House openly pops pain killers while on duty and we watch in awe—not because we advocate his behavior, not because we think drug addiction is funny, not because we think he’s cool—we watch because the sheer notion of thumbing your nose at authority while you’re the authority is good theatre (and a secret dream of every dormant adolescent mind).
The idea of House, the TV show, works because it messes with people’s equilibrium. The world’s not supposed to work this way. Doctors are not supposed to misbehave in public. Sure, some doctors are notorious louses and social misfits, but poor bedside manner is one thing. We can live with that, unhappily, but we deal with it. It’s part of the trade-off. I’ll accept your indifference, Doctor, even your rudeness, as long as you’re competent. Outright anarchy, though, that’s quite another thing. That guy House, yeah, he’s crazy, he belongs behind bars, he’d never get away it. People don’t act that way. That’s why we love him.
In real life, people sometimes ogle over wretched individuals and make them celebrities because train wrecks are never boring. Hateful personalities possess a complexity of nature that drives people to stare. Others look away for fear of what they may see, but despite their best efforts to bury their heads in the Dow Jones Economic Report, the Bible, or the latest Harlequin romance, their imagination will not allow them to completely ignore the collision, nor the resulting wreckage. Adversity and tragedy invoke critical thought and reflection; it taunts the idle, the complacent mind; it demands a reaction of some sort. Revulsion, perhaps, but never boredom.
When a writer invents multi-layered fictional characters who are compelling, we tip our hats to the creation. We readers enjoy believable characters. We revel in rich story lines with plot and purpose. We hunger for character arcs and clean resolutions. Cliffhangers and choose-your-own endings, on the other hand, are frustrating. The writer copped out, we think; there’s no magical bedtime finality. The closet door was left open, the monsters are still under the bed, there will be no sleep tonight. Damn you, Daddy.
Creative writing is not meant to be clinical. There is no manual. There is no one right method of getting to the land of milk and honey. Some writers agonize over pacing, word choice, transition. Others spill their guts on the page until the massacre leaves a countless number of ill-conceived metaphors and fractured body parts. They leave piles of prose and dead bodies so high they’re not sure where the editorial cuts should begin and the killing should end. Editors can only do so much with that amount of carnage.
Some readers are up to the challenge of following a writer’s train of thought, while others choose a different mode of transportation. When a certain writer’s train leaves the station without them, they’re glad because that train never gets them to where they want to go. That train has been derailed. It’s still operating, they say, but the rails are made of breadcrumbs and the path to Grandma’s house is meandering and unpredictable.
When master storytellers like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King create psychological horrors too terrifying to fathom, readers expect them to pull out bags of tricks by the truckload. But the bags are never the same old bags and the so-called tricks can never be found in any magician’s handbook. Fiction writers who are respected for their craftsmanship will tell you that the only way to get better is to practice daily. If you are tired of hearing that mantra, remember this: sage advice always serves more than one purpose and it should be savored like a potent shot after last call.
A professional athlete, a golfer, let’s say, must practice his swing again and again (ad-Tiger Woods-nauseum) until the motion is fluid and consistent, textbook-like in both approach and delivery. In contrast, a writer of make-believe should not seek a textbook solution to developing a narrative voice. Yes, they should religiously work at their craft, but many genre-based writers (sci-fi/fantasy, horror, mystery), in particular, seem stuck in a formulaic hole with no magic beans to be found. They assume the answer to their quest for authorial immortality lies in the Shakespearean field of Golgotha, the cursed place of dead men’s skulls. Multiple deaths—no matter how surprisingly and inventively you slice and dice the body parts—do not always make for ghoulishly suspenseful spellbinders.
Writers first need to seek depth, most of all, in their characters. They also should be careful not to refine their writing to such a degree that it becomes clinical in nature. Take a tip from House and his ilk. Life on the page (and on the screen) tends to be way more interesting when the main character’s actions are wildly unpredictable, especially when they’re offset by an unlikely staid environment.
So, you ask, why would viewers have any compassion for House and his self-destructive ways? Why on earth would we care about a character who clearly could not exist in these politically correct modern times? As sure as the lakes of the legendary Loch Ness Monster are murky, I submit that we believe there’s a place—a swelling underground—in our lives for the morally bereft and criminally insane. And as long as these miscreants stay on the playful, outer edges of our imagination and they occasionally exhibit a semblance of what it means to be human, and as long as the closet door remains open just a sliver and Daddy keeps the monsters under the bed at bay…
Photo Source: Joel Hopkins
I think HOUSE M.D. is so successful in part not only because of the (Sherlock Holmsian) premise, but because of the great, and rare, and difficult-to-do acting of Hugh Laurie, whom I and many others consider to be one of the best comedic/tragic actor we have seen for a long while. I am sure this show would have died long ago without Laurie (and some of the sustaining cast, such as Robert Sean Leonard and … sadly, since she just left the show, Lisa Edelstein). It will be interesting to see how it goes this winter because it may be the last season, if people don’t like it without Lisa E.
There is something special about the show itself, of course. The flipping pancake of God VS. House: HOuse is right; Fate/God or whatever you wish to call it proves him wrong; he fights back and often rescues the patient from the jaws of doom… an ancient story. Moby-Dick: “Strike through the mask!” says Ahab; don’t lie down and accept what “God” or the future has ordained for you.
There’s more, of course, House is immensely subtle and ambiguous.And yes, we cannot ignore, or do so at our peril, the brilliant and yet– sigh– criminally insane. House is in that position since he tried to destroy Cuddy’s house with his car at the end of last season. I will watch the 8th season, however diminished, because I do find the character interactions and philosophical musings fascinating– and I like Laurie’s acting. The medical stuff is just the ground on which they walk. It is really Sherlock Holmes, and I loved and love Sherlock Holmes– but even more focused on the philosophical and the ultimate curiosity about what makes things happen, and the Melvillian theme of refusal to bow down.
Excellent commentary here, Isabella. I love the parallels that you (and the series creators) draw between House and Sherlock Holmes, and House and Moby-Dick. I was tempted to bring up the relationship between House and Wilson (Holmes and Watson) for just the very reasons you outline. It’s a fascinating show, I agree, so rich in nuance and character development. I’m afraid it took a turn for the dark with last season’s concluding episode, but the shock of his stunt keeps me fastened as to what the writers will come up with next. A shame indeed about Cuddy. I didn’t know that was official.
Thank you. I was raised on Melville, Blake and Shaw, and Holmes was one of my own first literary discoveries (unless my parents turned me on to it and I just don’t remember). My husband, Brion, says my family is like the Kao Dai sect in Vietnam– they worship Joan of Arc, Jesus, Buddha, and Victor Hugo. For me, House is one of the great heroes– with and without his Holmsian overtones… and with and without his “Ahabic” quality. “Only an idiot stands between Ahab and his whale,” he says at one point in the series. I suppose this could be one of the deep subconscious callings for me in particular– the sounding of the deep, so to speak…
i’m afraid i’ve never watched “house” since i don’t have a tv…but you made me want to check out the series. brilliant essay on the importance of sticking with the murky sons of bitches, too & on practicing daily (the latter being a mantra of mine). your passionate plea “for the morally bereft and criminally insane” (or for not taking political correctness with you to bed when you write late at night) is well taken—though hilary mantel disagreed when she wrote (about her choice of robespierre for a previous historical novel that swelled to 1000 pages and bombed as a novel): «If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice, it would be, ‘Choose healthier characters’». enjoyed!