House calls, I listen

Yesterday I broke down a typical episode of House to examine its parts.  When you look at those beats (12 in an eleven-minute act!) one by one, there’s nothing outstandingly special or dramatic about them — they’re just television.  There is soap and there are fake crises and dramatic standoffs and stern confrontations and passionate advocations, just like in any other show.

And yet House blazes like a, well, like a house (sorry) afire compared to every other detective show or medical drama currently on television.  Why?

After watching thirty or so episodes (some more than once) I have some theories.

1. Hugh Laurie’s performance.  I know, I know, here I am, a Hollywood screenwriter, the most abused and overlooked class of artisans in the entertainment business, and I’m not starting with the outstanding work of series creator David Shore.  But, as Shore himself admits, without Laurie’s performance the character, and the show, wouldn’t work.  If you had a less than fully imagined, fully committed, richly detailed performance of the character, you would have to write all his dialogue on the nose and the show would have to work overtime to demonstrate that it’s “just kidding,” that it doesn’t really support the acid rantings and bellicosity of its protagonist.  Mind you, the notion of a misanthropic, spiteful ass as a doctor is just as artificial and unbelievable concept as the notion of a deeply caring, heroic doctor, and may not be an actual improvement.  But because Laurie’s performance is so committed, so fearless and so detailed (on a par with Michael Chiklis on The Shield, a performance in a role that blows my mind with its intensity and daring), the extremely talented writers of House get to put the most outrageous lines into his mouth and know that he will make them fly and take the audience along with them, making us gasp in disbelief instead of turning away in disgust.  Laurie has brought the most seamless bonding of actor and character to television detective work since Peter Falk invented Columbo.  The fact that he has done so while doing an impeccable American accent is a miracle.

2. Plotting.  As I say, there’s nothing extraordinary about the individual scenes on House, but the skill and innovation brought to bear on their deployment and arrangement is very extraordinary indeed.  Each story is so complex and twist-ridden it’s impossible to know where the hell it’s going.  Let’s look at “Sex Kills” again, which I consider a typical, not-especially vital or “special” episode of House.  The A-story twists go from “man has an STD” to “man has brucellosis” to “man needs a new heart” to “he can’t have a new heart” to “where will we find a new heart” to “a overweight dying woman can give her his heart” to “what did the overweight woman die of” and the show’s only half over!  Compare that to a typical A-story on CSI, where the story seems to go from “we know who the murderer is” to “well maybe we don’t know who the murderer is” to “it turns out we were right the first time, butnot for the reasons we originally thought.”  The plots on House (and any screenwriter will tell you that plot is the hardest thing of all) are dizzying in their complexity and rarely, if ever, fail to ultimately satisfy.

3. Tempo.  With such an elevated level of complexity, everything on House must move very quickly in order to accomodate all its plot machinations.  This, as it turns out, helps everything.  The acting is better when we don’t have time to dwell on an actor’s choices, the writing is better when we don’t have time to notice that it’s as riddled with cliches as any other show in the history of television, the direction is better when there’s no time for indulgence, the production design looks better when we don’t dwell on its improbabilities, the characters are more interesting when there are more of them and they don’t have enough time on screen for us to register that they aren’t that interesting.  Tempo makes the “differential” scenes dazzling displays of knowledge instead of leaden exposition, the “character” scenes are welcome respites from the dense, sometime impenetrable medical jargon, the “crisis” scenes arrive with the suddenness of emergency.

Strangely, even though the show hurtles at an exceptional pace (try watching House back-to-back with Monk — the latter will feel like it’s wearing lead boots in comparison) it never feels rushed.  This I’m putting down to —

4.  Production design, “background” and camera movement.  On top of the speed of the dialogue, the sheer busyness of the show is impressive.  Characters are always doing something, and not in the Law & Order sense of “the mechanic can’t stop working on the car in order to talk to a pair of homicide detectives investigating the murder of his best friend.”  The hospital of House is a busy, busy place (and filled with all those glass walls so we can see exactly how busy it is) and the characters are constantly hurrying through it on their way to somewhere else.  Which makes it that much more ironic and amusing that House himself is constantly found goofing off, watching medical dramas on TV or playing video games.  TV shows have had impressive worlds created before, but they always seem artificial and arch, like CSI, which seems to take place in a permanent midnight where no room is well lit.  The sunniness of the hospital of House somehow helps sell its darkness.  The intense, unbelievable stories (and their  intense, unbelievable protagonist) are all happening in an extremely pleasant, well-lit, well-appointed, well-maintained environment.  No one on House has the problems with the world House does — he’s a splinter sticking out from an otherwise smooth plank.

5. Stance.  By centering the show around the indelible House, the show’s creators present a philosophical outlook that never preaches, never offers solutions and never provides reconciliations.  House is never going to be happy, but then he’s not trying to be happy.  That keeps him mysterious, unreachable and fascinating.  The fact that his brilliance is matched by the desperate ordinariness of his preoccupations — monster trucks, medical dramas, hookers, etc — makes him recognizable, and his pain makes him human.  Somehow the parts all add up and provide us with a character we can’t stop watching.  As a medical drama/detective show, House is exemplary and exhilirating, but it’s the shows underlying view of humanity, both compassionate and disgusted, that keeps us watching.

 notes that the medical stuff on House is as implausible and fantastic as I have always suspected it is.  And yet it presents its, shall we say, “heightened reality” lightly (and swiftly), not with grim determination or dark seriousness.  House doesn’t have time to sell us on his fantastical diagnoses, he’s got someplace to limp off to.  She also notes that too much medical work on House is done by doctors, and yet I am consistenly impressed at the number of personnel on display on the show — there are surgeons and nurses and all manner of interns and students and clerks cluttering up the hallways and when the show calls for someone with specialized knowledge, they, often as not, show up, as in “Sex Kills” where one staff member is shown (she gets her own close-up) preparing to shut off the overweight woman’s breathing apparatus and another is shown to be in charge of organ donations and there are two teams of anonymous surgeons to do the heart transplants.  Personnel shows up and trundles off with an impressive regularity on House, indicating that all House has to do is wish it and the personnel will appear to make it so, which I guess is the exact opposite of the care I’ve received in hospitals, where the MRIs are given by MRI technicians, not doctors, and certainly not teams of doctors.  On the other hand, in terms of caregiving, Princeton-Plainsboro is a fantasyland on the level of Narnia — when a patient checks into House’s hospital with baffling, contridictory symptoms, heaven and earth are moved to discover the truth.  When I check into St. Vincent’s in New York with some unexplained tingling in my limbs, the staff is hurried, incompetent and inefficient, discharges me without diagnosis, refuses to return my phone calls and charges me $17,000.

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22 Responses to “House calls, I listen”
  1. eronanke says:

    Another reason to keep watching: Waiting to see when it’s finally Lupus. (HINT: It’s *never* Lupus)

  2. tamburlaine says:

    I used to be fully invested in this show because of its innovative-but-not characters like House and Cuddy and Wilson who fulfill my strong personal desire to see exciting doctor characters on TV. But the show’s gotten crappy in the last two seasons. It’s interesting to see how as popularity of a network show increases, innovation decreases. I still have kept all of my House Livejournal icons, though.

    If you want to see a good episode, see “Three Stories” (which I just found out has its own Wikipedia page — ???)

    Hey, if you ever get around to it, I’d love to read what you think of the show Deadwood. I’m obsessed with its high quality, and I’d be interested to see how a screenwriter feels about it.

  3. teamwak says:

    Well said.

    And I still think David Morse was fantastically terrifying and real as Houses nemesis in season 3. Even the bad guy is grounded in that Hyper Reality the show exists in.

  4. Ah, St. Vincent’s…where an orderly once purposely and impatiently rapped a wheelchair footrest against my injured leg, yelling “come on, already!” because, in his opinion, I was taking too long to lift it up into the footrest. You know, because it was injured…and it didn’t work right anymore…and had been operated on about four hours earlier.

    I’ve only seen one episode of “House,” on a Jet Blue flight no less. I liked it but never sought out its regularly-broadcast brothers and sisters. On your recommendation, I will now.

    • eronanke says:

      It is so worth it. Not only for *dreamy* Hugh Laurie, but also because you only need to focus on one character, which is a nice palate cleanser from the majority of television where there can be dozens to hundreds of characters you’re supposed to care about (See: The Simpsons).

  5. Off-topic here

    Are you ever going to give us your summation of the 2006 Casino Royale?

    • Todd says:

      Re: Off-topic here

      I certainly am. I haven’t had the chance to rent it yet. And it didn’t come with my giant Bond box set, so I have to rent it.

  6. Anonymous says:

    It’s never Lupus!

    Lupus is easy to diagnose but it is a bad one.No treatment.All you can possibly do is ‘manage’.Doubt if it would ever be Lupus!

  7. mcbrennan says:

    House is the one sick patient on the show who absolutely never gets better. His “illness” (physical, mental, emotional, all three) changes, but a cure? Healthy, happy, functional, pain-free? Nah. Gives an extra jolt of tension to his actions–in a way it feels like he’s running away from his “disease” by throwing himself into others’ and despite the alleged professional detachment I think he lives and dies with his patients. He also has a merciless sense of morality–while he advertises that “everybody lies” philosophy, to me it comes off as an artificial self-protection thing, concealing the number of times he forgot that rule and got burned by believing. I think from a writing standpoint, the thing that makes House work as a character, the thing that makes his abrasive anti-everything outrageousness not only palatable but enjoyable, is his righteous outrage, his internal morality, his drive to do the right thing–and the right thing is usually to solve the mystery or to save the patient but is always to find the lie. No matter what. No matter who it hurts, even himself. He’s a crusader for truth, which seems ridiculous given his dissolute behavior and his own multitude of lies, but I think it’s true.

    It’s hard to see Hugh Laurie in his comic persona now (reruns of A Bit Of Fry And Laurie, Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster, etc) and think it’s the same actor. I think Laurie’s performance as House shows a tremendous amount of courage. The way he eviscerates himself in some of those scenes…yeesh. Stunning.

    You’re right about the tempo. Well, you’re right about everything, but especially about the tempo. There isn’t time to really question the plotting and the twists because the pace is so quick and before you can go “hey, waaaait a minute” they’ve hit you with another emotional punch to the gut and you never look back. In fact I think it’s the emotional rawness that sells it. The stakes are always so high for everyone involved, and the shock of the things that happen is so palpable. And that’s not only good drama, it’s emotionally true. It’s true to life. Forget the improbability of this or that–if you’ve ever been in a hospital, had a loved one in there in an emergency, with anything more complicated than a cold, it’s exactly like that. That feeling of panic, of what’s next, not understanding anything, the tests, the desperation. And they do an excellent job of showing the emotional impact on the doctors as well. I think that stuff covers a multitude of sins in the actual medicine–though I’ve actually googled their differential diagnoses during certain episodes and I’ve yet to catch them in any actual balls-out falsehoods. I doubt any of it fools a professional but it passes the google test.

    St. Vincent’s must have franchises because I experienced the exact same symptoms and got the exact same result in Phoenix and San Luis Obispo. Maybe that’s another reason House works so well–because he actually seems to give a damn. If not about the actual human patient, at least he gives a damn about the mystery. We should all be so lucky.

    • Todd says:

      House is the one sick patient on the show who absolutely never gets better.

      The enigma of House’s “illness” is one of the most important aspects of the character. On the one hand, he’s obsessed with anomalies and driven to solve their mysteries because of what happened to his leg, but on the other hand he was, by all accounts, the same bitter, twisted, angry rule-breaking maniac he was before his illness. Or that’s what Stacy says to Cameron in the Season 1 closer anyway, which, you know, she could easily be lying.

      He’s a crusader for truth, which seems ridiculous given his dissolute behavior and his own multitude of lies, but I think it’s true.

      Contridiction is what makes the difference between a good TV character and a great one, and it is a character’s hypocrisies that make us want to watch them. The more contridictory and hypocritical they are, the more dramatic tension they produce.

      There is a tiny 2-episode arc in Season 1 where Cameron quits and House becomes a completely different show. The absence of her heart-on-sleeve caring makes all the male characters try to top each other with caustic belligerence and the show approaches the brink of unpleasantness. Another lesson about why you have a recurring cast and what different characters (and the actors portraying them) bring to a show.

      It’s hard to see Hugh Laurie in his comic persona now and think it’s the same actor.

      It completely freaks me out to watch interviews with him, where there is the familiar sandy grain to his voice but with this preposterous British accent on top of it. And watching him on an episode of Blackadder is mortifying, seeing him do this music-hall-style twee, self-conscious comedy seems like such an embarrassment.

      There isn’t time to really question the plotting and the twists because the pace is so quick and before you can go “hey, waaaait a minute” they’ve hit you with another emotional punch to the gut and you never look back.

      I would be remiss in my duties if I did not point out one of the greatest innovations of House, its marriage of forms. Just as Law & Order found TV gold by marrying the detective show and the courtroom drama, House produces electrifying television by marrying the detective show to the medical drama.

      Because, think of this — what possible ticking clocks do you have on a detective show? There’s always the suspense of “who done it” or “is the detective going to catch who done it?” but where is the ticking clock? There’s “stop him before he kills again” and “stop him before he leaves town,” what else? And yet the “find out what’s wrong before the patient dies” is part and parcel of the medical drama. House is such a good idea for a show structurally that it might have actually worked in a Law & Order sense — a show about diagnosis and treatment (that is, a system) instead of a show about characters. As it happened, the casting of Hugh Laurie gave us both — a compelling show about a system anchored to a Columbo-level marriage of character and performer.

    • Todd says:

      In fact, let’s think about Columbo for a moment. Not only is Columbo not about a system, there was no supporting cast whatsoever. Each episode is about a completely different environment: psychiatry, classical music, filmmaking. In fact, we could say that each episode has a completely different protagonist — the guy committing the murder. We never see Columbo reporting in to his superior, we never see him obsessing over the case, we never see the end-of-Act III-moment where the detective is despairing about ever solving the case and then some random occurrance suddenly give him the connection he needs to put two and two together, we never see him at home with his crazy wife. All that is left up to our imagination. Making Columbo, in fact, the antagonist of the show. And the penultimate moment-of-despair is inverted to be the protagonist’s penultimate moment of triumph — he has gotten Columbo thrown off the case, he has explained away the last bit of contridiction, he has had the charges against him dropped — before Columbo comes back in the final act to utterly annihilate him.

      And they do an excellent job of showing the emotional impact on the doctors as well.

      Do you really think any of this has an emotional impact on doctors in the real world? I find most doctors in the real world to be a lot like the one on the episode of House where the doctor comes from LA to offer Foreman a job — pleasant, smug, aloof, and surviving through their ability to consider a patient’s death a mistake to learn from rather than a life-or-death situation.

      I doubt any of it fools a professional but it passes the google test.

      Another of my favorite things about House is how he thinks that all patients are idiots, but patients who actually try to learn something about their illnesses over the internet are more idiotic than others.

      • mcbrennan says:

        I’ve always thought of Columbo as an almost supernatural thriller. The killers are always brilliant. In real life? In real life those guys would get away with it every time. The various murderous Patrick McGoohans and William Shatners would be sunning themselves in Acapulco before any real cops even suspected them. But Columbo’s like a hound of hell, (a vengeful angel, perhaps?) this relentless being who cannot be fooled and cannot be escaped. That we never see him in the context of a system makes him all the more spooky, a nagging conscience personified. There’s an aspect of it that makes him almost scarier than the killer. The murder’s usually quick and easy, borderline camp, almost an afterthought–but Columbo stalks his “victim” and even toys with him before finally making the “kill”. He’s very much the antagonist–that’s a brilliant observation. Falk plays him with such a balance of easygoing humor and relentless obsession that the scary-guy aspect isn’t as obvious, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to cross him.

        You know, I think that medical-professional aloofness is a little bit of a myth. Or at least not as common as it’s presented. In my personal experience as a patient, I have met a lot of heartless-bastard medical professionals who were exactly that guy. Smug, aloof, all math and no feeling. But I have a nephew who’s struggled with life-threatening illnesses for years, and I’ve seen his doctors crying with the family and afterwards. I know they felt it. I think just like anything else, doctors come in all types. A lot of them probably need that detachment to function, but there are some–and maybe Cameron has this function on House–who need to care, who got into medicine for idealistic reasons and who need the emotional connection as a motivating factor. House does a great job of showing that range of motivations, from House’s supposed callous detachment and Chase’s calculating self-interest one one end of the spectrum to Foreman, Wilson and Cameron on the other. Probably the Camerons of the world burn out faster from all that emotion, leaving us with more smug and aloof types. And if they could all produce results like House does, I’m sure we’d forgive them that.

        • Todd says:

          In some ways I see Foreman as the protagonist of House, because he’s the one who’s most torn by conflicting impulses. He’s certainly aloof enough, but for him it’s more about escaping from his rough environment and acting like a “real doctor.” His impulse to act like a “real doctor” makes him cold and uncaring, but he’s still appalled when House does something unethical. Left on his own, Foreman would become the ideal cog, a brilliant doctor, happy to make deals with pharmaceutical companies, driving his expensive car, living in the Hamptons and golfing with his doctor buddies. House is the one who keeps reminding him that there is more to medicine than taking it easy and having an ideal life.

  8. popebuck1 says:

    On the other hand, in terms of caregiving, Princeton-Plainsboro is a fantasyland on the level of Narnia — when a patient checks into House’s hospital with baffling, contridictory symptoms, heaven and earth are moved to discover the truth. When I check into St. Vincent’s in New York with some unexplained tingling in my limbs, the staff is hurried, incompetent and inefficient, discharges me without diagnosis, refuses to return my phone calls and charges me $17,000.

    I think of “House” as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for every doctor stuck in an HMO who wishes he could always prescribe EVERY arcane, expensive medical test under the sun!

  9. hklbry says:

    I have to agree with you overall. The plotting is very well done, but was far too subtle for the last few episodes of the 3rd season. I actually was ranting about the writers not following the show’s bible and making House too easy going. Two or three epsidoes later we find out he has been “dosed” with anti-depressants for several weeks. Oh. My apologies to the writers. If Laurie hadn’t been so good at it I might not have noticed the change.

    My biggest problem this season – several episodes were just way over directed. A fisheye lens here, a running zoom there might be momentarily amusing, but it takes away from the show as a whole.

    • Todd says:

      I actually haven’t gotten to see any of Season 3 — I don’t really watch television. I don’t even know what network the show is on. I’m a new generation of TV viewers who watches two-year-old shows on DVD.

      • teamwak says:

        Then I am so glad that I havent blurted out anything too bad in my gushing about season 3!

        Saying that, I mearly enjoyed very much season 1 & 2. I thought season 3 was a noticable step up from the first two. Some of the storylines to come left me reeling and dizzy. It just gets so good.

        House season 3 really is one of the best seasons of TV I’ve ever seen. Enjoy!

        PS. Have you seen any of the new Battlestar Galactica or have any thoughts on it? BSG was a show I was convinced was destined to fail. The original is campy cheese-fest. What we got was the darkest, tightest, frankly scariest sci-fi show ever. It is brilliant! What the new show is ultimately about is genocide and fear. As the survivors flee topics like where the Military ends and politics begin, seperaation of church/state, fixing elections, unpopular military actions, sucicide bombers, and other such fun topics. The new evolved Cylons are now a religeous, fanatical bunch of barely sane creatures. I cannot recommend this show enough, and Season 3 ep 4 “Exodus pt2” is THE best hour of TV I have ever seen, ever!

        • Todd says:

          I’ve heard from many people that Battlestar Galactica is one of the best shows on television. As it happens, its structure (continuing as opposed to episodic drama) falls outside my current research. When I develop a continuing drama it will be at the top of my list of things to watch. After The Shield, of course.

          • teamwak says:

            There’s just not enough hours in the day anymore for all the good TV out there.

            And I really must watch The Shield. Everyone raves about it. I’m sure it’ll be right up my street. At the moment I am working my way through all the seasons of The Sopranos, another series as good as I thought it would be.

  10. Todd says:

    Right now the show I’m working on is kind of a marriage between Numbers and Antiques Roadshow.