Doctor Greg House: Incurably Himself?
If you can read it, check out that tagline in the upper-right corner of the House M.D. “Snakes on a Cane” poster.
It reads, “Incurably himself.”
Do you watch House? I got hooked into it about a year ago, and the wife and I absorbed the entire run in a very short time thanks to the one-two punch of Netflix and the USA Network. Last night was the show’s sixth season premiere (“Broken”), and it was a goddamn great episode. (Beware some light spoilers.)
House, trapped in an asylum for two hours of showtime because he had potentially lost his mind at the end of last season, must figure out a way to get the hospital’s head psychologist to write him a letter that allows him to reclaim his medical license.
The episode was eyebrow-raising in two ways.
A lot of straight-up procedurals (from CSI to Psych) don’t stray from the show’s central procedure. Sure, the gang from CSI might end up at a funny Christmas party for the episode, and everybody’s drunk and it’s a hoary host of good cheer, and just as we think this is it for the episode, wham, somebody killed Santa, and Grissom has to pull his CSI gear out of his asshole to examine the crime scene. Or something; I don’t actually watch that one. The point is, they rarely stray from what makes the show the show. Every episode of Psych will have the problem that must be solved by Shawn Spencer’s fake psychic powers and real deductive reasoning. Every episode of NCIS will have Jethro and his crew digging into some crime related to the Navy or Marine Corps. Every episode of Two and a Half Men will have Jon Cryer, Charlie Sheen and that cigar-chomping midget engaged in another hilarious three-way sexcapade. (Okay, I don’t watch that one either.)
The central procedure of House M.D. is that House and his team must diagnose some crazy disease before time (i.e. the episode) runs out. It’s a mystery show more than a medical one.
Last night’s House had no central medical mystery. It toyed with two small ones: one, a mute girl, and two, the head psychologists’s dying father. But these comprise maybe five minutes of screen time together during a two-hour episode, and each isn’t much of a mystery, and the one isn’t even medical.
It’s an interesting line in the sand for the show, because — aptly so — they’re saying, “The core of this show isn’t the central premise of the zebra-hunting medical mystery, but the core of this show is instead the character of Gregory House.”
I buy it. CSI can lose any and all of its characters, and you might keep watching. House loses that central character, and the show is a gutted carcass. Still, it’s an interesting line to draw given that procedural shows — shows with limited mythology and that offer smaller (or sometimes non-existent) episode-to-episode story arcs — are a much bigger draw than those that are not. They’re saying the procedure doesn’t matter, that you’ll watch just for House. For me, that’s true. It may not be for others.
The second thing that they did on House that was a big deal — arguably a bigger deal — is that they may have just changed the character of Greg House in a couple dramatic strokes.
Listen. It’s a fairly established rule that characters on television don’t change. (Let me once again plug Crafty TV Writing, which will help you write anything or even plan game sessions, if you choose.) A character’s circumstances might change. New job. New lover. New hat. Old lover. Old dog. Gay son. But the characters in television rarely possess an arc. It’s more… a series of dots on a line. Or a gentle sine wave. Tommy Gavin on Rescue Me has had his circumstances change episode to episode, but to this day, his character remains as his character was on day one: an alcoholic, a shitty father, a superhuman firefighter, and an all-around fucked-up human being. Tony Soprano, the king of characters on what was a very sophisticated television show, really didn’t change — arguably, that’s what made the series closer so interesting, is that it seemed to be saying that he hasn’t learned a thing, hasn’t changed a thing, and neither has his family, and they’re (now or later) going to eat a bullet for their transgressions.
I get why this is. The character’s arc in a film or a book is a start-to-finish proposal. The end of that character’s arc is the end of the book, or the end of that character’s life, or a major turning point in a plotted tale. Television shows aren’t plotted in the long run, usually. Moreover, many don’t have an end plotted, so it’s hard to plan a character’s shift for an end game if no end game really exists.
Lost is perhaps one good example of how you can have television characters change. But, in having them change, you sometimes find yourself lost among those characters — think of how they drastically changed the character of Charlie, and how suddenly it was difficult to relate to him. John Locke has changed over the course of the show, mostly for good, though once more, they threaten to “lose you” when they shift his character in notable ways. For many seasons, Buffy Summers didn’t change, but then her mother died (that episode so so good) and she herself died, and then it was more than circumstances that were changing for Buffy — she got a harder edge, became more world-weary, and I think that maybe lost some people. It lost me. The fun spark of the show, which was centrally located around her character, had gone.
So, back to House.
They just changed the character of Greg House.
They did so in what might be some very big ways.
Two of House’s central character traits are: Vicodin addiction due to unmanageable leg pain and his brusque (let’s just go with “assholeish”) medical demeanor. More central are the conflicts derived from these traits. His Vicodin problem has offered up a wealth of storylines — the pissed off cop played by David Morse, the recent hallucinations, the short-lived shift from Vicodin to opiates, and so on. His demeanor is potentially one of the background conflicts in every show. He’s a dick, and he causes trouble for everybody, usually just in time for his brilliant brain to deduce the truth (remember: Greg House is a purposeful parallel to Sherlock Holmes — Watson/Wilson, Holmes/House, cocaine/Vicodin, etc.).
What happens when you take those traits away?
Tumbleweeds tumble. Crickets chirp.
We might get to find out, because –
They cured his Vicodin addiction. His leg pain is now manageable without it.
And, halfway through the episode, House stopped fucking with the treatment process. He stopped trying to bring the asylum down around his ears, and…
He started working with the process. He started listening. He went to therapy. He not only opened up, but he laughed, he cried, he got on stage during a talent show and… well, he rapped. And then comically put his face in some cake.
That rapping, or the cake-face, might be the moment that people flag as being when the show officially jumped the shark. That’s a shame, because the episode was a really great one, well-written, well-acted, well-handled all around.
But it does beg the question: what now?
Why characters don’t change on television is partly as-noted. We no longer relate to them. That’s not so much an issue here, but the other issue with changing the traits of a character is that you remove some of the conflicts that drive those traits or are born from them.
The poster says, “incurably himself,” but what happens when himself gets cured?
It’s going to be interesting to see where it goes from here. I think they have the chance to do good things. I like that they’re willing to take risks like this; I think you have to be willing to take those risks after time has passed, lest you drift into stagnation. But, it is a risk. People don’t like characters changing. They like the comfort of expectation. They like routine.
What happens now? I’ll admit, the experiment has me hooked. I’ll watch.
What shows do you watch? Do the characters change on that show?