Monday, January 19, 2009

Viewing Habits: "House"

Recently, Marc and I have been watching television series by dvd, or, when we catch up: iTunes, years after the original seasons come out. Given our limited time (evenings when the kids are in bed), we would rather sacrifice hipness for enough feedback on the show to justify the commitment. We used to watch more movies. The problem is it requires a lot of research to not completely waste your time there, given the high proportion of duds and formula flicks churned out every year.

A good television series, on the other hand, is a known quantity. Once you wind up investing the time getting to know the characters and getting caught up in the story arc, you'll even put up with the filler episodes, hoping for the eventual plot development crumb. It's sort of like catching up with an old friend. You may not always have much to say to each other, but there's a reassuring comfort in your shared experience.


You've got to love a series based on a misanthropic diagnostician, who believes everybody is a liar. When some guest character meets House for the first time, the character remarks: "You must be really good at what you do, because, with your winning personality, nobody would tolerate you ten seconds, if you weren't." If American society weren't so anesthetized with political correctness, it might not be such a vicarious thrill to dwell on a character who hasn't been conditioned not to say what he thinks.

Great character development aside, what really made the series work was tightly-written episode-specific narrative--any random episode could be enjoyed out of the series and season the overall story arc was compelling enough to keep you coming back. Unfortunately, that all changed after Season 3, when House fired his whole team. The original team of Cameron, Chase and Foreman had relative depth; there was tension and chemistry among those three and House.

I simply didn't buy into the contest/Survivor twist that House uses to get the new team in Season 4. Kutner, Taub and "Thirteen" are very loosely written, pastiches almost. There is little tension among these three and House, and their interaction tends to be sitcom predictable. Meanwhile, the steam has gone out of House's long-time friendship with Wilson. After everything House has done to Wilson, it simply is not believable that these two are still friends. It would appear the writers feel this too--this relationship has also become sit-commy and is limping along.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm basically holding on to see if House and Cuddy will get together. Now romantic tension is the bread and butter of these long-running series, especially with the female element like me, that is routing for them to finally act on their latent attraction and hop in the sack (and then get married and have lots of babies:) I'm also aware of David Mamet (the the first person I read who verbalized this in "Bambi vs. Godzilla")'s rule for love stories: the plot tension does not come from what brings these two people together (presumably they are relatively young and attractive), but what keeps them apart. However, in House and Cuddy's case, enough is enough. There's a certain amount of House sabotaging this relationship that I'm willing to tolerate and attribute to the Imp of the Perverse or some cowardly instinct where a known misery is better than grasping at happiness and losing and it. Nevertheless, this has become such a staple of the more recent seasons of the show that it's starting to become a mechanical, tired old tease.

As for the episodic mini medical plots a la Sherlock Holmes (thus the much commented on House/Wilson, Holmes/Watson parallel), I was always afraid to ask any doctor acquaintances what they felt about the show for fear of having an expert dismiss my fun little rendez-vous with "House" as a vulgar distraction for the ignorant masses. However, from the point of view of somebody with no medical background, I wonder if they aren't running out of good story lines. The episode opens so often with the same Scooby Doo set-up--it's not the character you think who will fall deathly ill--that it's become a cliche. Also, I'm finding my self less able to follow (theoretically) the diagnostic path leading to the discovery of the true medical culprit, not to mention the patient soap operas seem less interesting, as of lately.

On the other hand, one consequence of the show, due to the rare nature of some of these diseases (in non-tropical, first world countries), is the acquisition of some rare phobias about un-pasteurized cheeses, lurking tape-worms and stagnant water in fountains. I carry an epi-pen in case of asthmatic reaction, which, in my case, has only happened in a doctor's office as a consequence of allergy shots. However, I'm jut waiting for the right case of life-threatening anaphylaxis to wield it heroically.

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