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?


  • On the one hand, I’m hoping for some repercussions for the character, as he’s still fundamentally the same. How the other two patients were “healed” was still based upon House’s original idea. He has less cause to doubt himself than he might have, so that much will remain the same.

    What we may get to see as viewers is House put up a front that we are on the inside of. Hopefully we’ll get some rewards for that insider knowledge.

    Or they’ll punch the reset button. Hard. Sigh.

    • I suspect we’ll see him regress. But, in this opener episode, I’ll argue he was not fundamentally the same. He had a breakthrough. His approach and his outlook shifted. The episode is a pivot point, and his arc from A to Z (or A to B, at least) occurred across this two-hour non-procedural story.

      I don’t think they’re going to punch the reset button. But I’ll be similarly disappointed if all they do is introduce these shifts in his character only to pretend like they never happened, either.

  • Leverage did this pretty well (and very consciously, to judge by John Rogers’ writing on the topic) in Nate Ford from season 1 to season 2. I’d say more, but it’s a bit spoiler-y.

    This is also the thing I’ve been watching closely on my favorite show, “Burn Notice”, because the whole premise of the show hinges on the lead’s drive to have his Burn Notice revoked so he can go back to his old life. The show has, I suspect, run longer than they originally bet because they’re now running up against the fact that they can only defer resolution on that for so long before it becomes totally hollow. They’ve been playing it very well, but I genuinely fear that the show I love can’t survive the transformation that would come out of that resolution.

    -Rob D.

    • Bingo, Rob. (I’m only halfway through Leverage’s first season. Love that show; looking forward to seeing what you’re talking about.)

      Burn Notice is a good example of what happens when you remove the driving conflict and accidentally load your show with the kind of conflict that might have a ticking bomb.

      That being said, I think Burn Notice could survive, because Michael getting his notice revoked is actually the B story of each episode, despite it being the A story of the season(s). The A story of each episode is *usually* his A-Team/MacGyver handling of some local problem, and doing it in a cool, “realistic” spy way. If they kept that and simply put on the table a new conflict — old enemies, trouble for his brother, trouble for Fee, etc. — then the show can probably continue indefinitely.

      EDIT: In fact, you could argue that the burn notice conflict isn’t integral to his character. On or off, Michael is Michael, and hasn’t changed as a result.

      — c.

  • True: I think that you could still do a show about Michael that I would watch (because, well, awesome) but it would end up uprooting everything else around him. A lot of the useful friction in the show comes from the necessity of scarce resources – it drives him to do more clever (and thus, fun) stuff, but also drives home the relationships. I think I’d miss that.

    -Rob D.

  • (Oh, and I mention the burn notice as a crux of change because the two possible exits are either a) he gets it revoked or b) he decides to stop pursuing it. B would be a pretty drastic change in the character, though not necessarily an unreasonable one based on events).

  • Slow day, so I’ll ramble on. It occurs to me there’s also a cheat that hinges off this which works well with fandom, which is to change the character in a way that no-one else but a loyal fan would notice. I am a big fan of the show “Supernatural”, and having watched it from beginning to end, I could point to ways in which the characters have changed, but those changes (while quite powerful within scope) don’t stray outside the essential description of the characters, or if they do they’re elastic enough to snap back after an episode or two. I can still say “He’s the cocky older brother and he’s the smarter younger brother: they look hot and fight monsters” and capture the essence of what’s going on for a casual viewer. Of course, for the true fan, such a simplification is apostasy, but that’s a whole other issue.

    -Rob D.

    • Rob:

      True dat. In gamist terms, the characters are gaining +1 or -1 to various personality traits — but, no more than that, and their core traits remain the same. They don’t change *overall* — they remain roughly calcified, their character sheets inked in dark, uneraseable pen. :)

      — c.

  • Having just caught up with HOUSE, I’m eager to weigh in… on BURN NOTICE. I think Michael has changed from the character he was in the pilot — the roving, unfettered spy — and that whatever resolution comes for his burn notice (whether it’s Option A or Option B) we’ll find that Michael went through an arc as the show’s treatment of spyhood changed.

    Michael is sort of held up now as something better than a spy, because he helps individuals and doesn’t do dirty missions. He has principles that we’re lead to believe spies often don’t — and that reverting to Company Man status will jeopardize. That is, Michael’s shifted gradually deeper into the role the show requires of him, and it’s point B on his arc rather than point A. The question is if he’ll revert, if he can stay at point B. That kind of tension may be what we can get out of HOUSE this season.

    For one thing, I think HOUSE has sort of toyed with this idea before, in tiny doses. (Get it? Doses?) Dr. House is an asshole because he cares, but about being right. Now he’ll be an asshole because he cares… about people. Aww. Still, I predict his behavior will be enough the same that the casual viewer can tune in to see House be witty and brilliant.

    It works because the procedural on HOUSE is utter bullshit — it’s a mystery that we in the audience cannot participate in, because we are not doctors. We can’t guess the culprit. We just watch the doctors be wrong for 40 minutes so they can make a choice/breakthrough/discovery in the final two minutes. The medical stuff only diverts me because I like to watch people work and talk, but as a mystery-of-the-week the show is bogus. Thus so many medical mysteries come down to personal drama on the show, and we find the final twist comes from patients lying and doctors making dramatic assumptions, rather than medicine.

    I say this as somebody who hated HOUSE in its first season and came back during this past season because the character dynamics and dialogue are just too good to resist. I enjoy watching the writers juggle the medical stuff, but again that’s because I like to watch people work, whether they be writers, doctors, or former spies.

    • (crossposted from Wordstudio! Live, from Will’s brain!)

      I don’t know where to comment. Here? Or at Terribleminds? Here, or there? HERE OR THERE THE WEEVILS ARE EATING MY BRAINCORN

      Uhh. I’ll post here, and cross-comment there.

      Your comments on House are spot on. The mystery is a false flag. I have no way to diagnose what happens when someone bleeds out of the rectum, an act that occurs more often than I might’ve thought was possible. If it’s not a genuine mystery show, and it’s not a genuine medical show — what is it? A show about relationships and about a broken genius? Could be, and it could be that the writers want to showcase that more. I dunno.

      I’ll throw a half-agree, half-disagree toward your Burn Notice comment. (Though, I’ll also add: I haven’t seen any of the new season.) He’s changed, yeah, but it’s in such subtle, tiny ways, it’s more like Rob D. was saying — for fans of the show, they’ll be pleased by those subtle shifts in his character. Really, though, he’s not a different character. He hasn’t changed in any significant ways — this isn’t white to black, it’s light gray to darker light gray.

      — c.

  • Just caught this ep via Hulu. I think this year we’re seeing a lot of playing with the indelible character. Y’all correctly reference Burn Notice and Leverage, but Dexter also has aspects in which the main character changes for the long-term (if not perhaps forever).

    I think as people have more and more ability to follow multi-episode stories that we’ll see more of this. I’m continually excited and pleased to see how a show like House is courageous enough to reinvent its own formula to keep things interesting.

    • We’re juuuuust finishing Leverage, First Season (The Second David Job). Can I mention how much I adore that show?

      Dexter is a changed character, but not… by much? Once again, he’s more a “he’s changed to the fans,” but he’s not really changed in overt ways. His shifts are ultimately minor in that the Primary Things that define him remain unmodified.

      — c.

  • I don’t watch many shows, mostly because I don’t have and don’t want a telly. I did dl and watch one called ‘Deadwood’, which I have to say is utterly excellent. There’s a character in there (Al) who changes pretty drastically over the three seasons…but not really. But kinda. That is, his actions go from being pure villainy to much ore cooperative, much more noble, but his personality remains the same in many ways. It seems that the changes are brought about by what needs to happen to get what he wants…but what I find totally interesting is that you see him struggling with these changes. He’s bewildered, even furious to find himself suddenly doing ‘good’ things, taking care to help others, showing compassion, etc. I thought they handled it very very well.

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