[22 November 2004]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
As the philosopher Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.”
—Dr. House (Hugh Laurie), “Pilot,” House
The invasive camera isn’t exactly a recent tv invention. But it’s become ubiquitous with the advent of forensics shows. It’s one thing to show doctors’ instruments plunging into open chests or bloody wounds, rushing to a gurney with scalpel at the ready. These are people’s bodies in frame, and folks with nerves and problems and ambitions cutting into them.
The forensics imagery delivers something else—a seeming camera hurtling past nose hairs and zoom through veins pulsing with platelets. Where the first can be horrifying, granting a sense of the ugliness that doctors engage in order to do their good work, the latter is pretty and fantastic, a digital adventure set to a dance track. Such detail removes the effect that you’re looking at a (fictional) person with a (scripted) life at risk. With the microscopic pictures, it’s all about the pulse, the digital coolness, the “realistic” innovation.
The newest show to deploy the invasive camera is House, Fox’s answer to CBS’ viral CSIs and NBC’s recent catch-up effort, Medical Investigation. But while the camera here is just as uncomfortably close, imagining similar assaults on any teeny-weeny, otherwise unseeable part of the human body, it is also standing in, weirdly, for the doctor who’s overseeing the weekly inquiries, one Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie, of MI-5, as well as Stuart Little). Even when he’s not doing the looking, you get the feeling that he’s thinking about doing it, and that he tends to think of his patients as just the sort of impersonal lab specimens as the camera shows them to be.
Dr. House is, in other words, a product of too much forensics tv. He’s irritable with his team members. He walks with a cane. He pops Vicodin for his persistent pain and resents it, too; asked why he doesn’t spend more time with patients, like he used too, he grumps, “People don’t want a sick doctor.” That’s probably true, but it’s also an excuse not to hang out with co-workers and clients, or attend to his duties at the free clinic (which he’s avoided for years, despite his contractual obligation and his ongoing interactions with his no-nonsense boss, Dr. Lisa Cuddy [Lisa Edelstein]). Averse to surprises or emotional mess, he’s happiest watching the predictable melodrama of General Hospital.
As conceived by creator David Shore and (initial) director Bryan Singer (The X-Men), House is also predictable in his own way. The big meanie front only goes so far, and by the end of the first episode (which aired last Tuesday, 16 November), it’s clear that he’s also a closet softie, with particular affection and loyalty for his staff, though he’s loathe to admit it even to himself. Among these lucky and very young few are oncologist James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard), neurologist Eric Foreman (Omar Epps), immunologist Allison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison), and British Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), who must also have another professional function.
The first episode begins with every teacher’s nightmare: Rebecca (Robin Tunney) loses control in front of her grade school students, twitching and sputtering for air as she scrawls on the board, “Call the nurse,” just before she collapses in some sort of scary fit. James hears of the case and tries to get his friend House on it by calling her his cousin and describing symptoms: in the hospital, she’s “a 29-year-old female who can’t talk.” House limps along the corridor with James and shakes his head, glowering, “Brain tumor. She’s gonna die. Boring.” Ouch.
So okay, he’s a tough guy and James is sympathetic and “gets” that part, but he also knows how to intrigue this self-isolating genius. But the episode—which features clever dialogue and terrific performances—is all about themes and connections. And so the scene cuts to the other young doctors, discussing their own current boredom. Chase confesses that he would like “to be bored, to have time to tell women I’m a doctor and have time to date them.” Given this implied comparison, House’s gruffness looks more conventionally ethical, if not precisely more pleasant. And now you see: this is how House works, by setting up his surly brilliance alongside mundane types, so he can look edgy and relatively “good.”
And that’s the point: “good” is a relative concept. Rather than showcase the broad scope of the doctor’s skills, nobility, or even dedication to a mission, House is about minutiae, about sensationalism and distraction. It’s about tv. (That said, the show’s best tv-related moment was one that left out the expected “Clear!” and paddles business that every other doctor show does: instead, House cut to a commercial break, and came back with the patient already in bed and recovering from the ordeal.)
And so, House’s distrust gets a full airing in the first episode. Asked why he won’t bother ton interview Rebecca, he asserts, “Everybody lies.” Oh yes, explains one of his team member, “Dr. House doesn’t like dealing with patients.” Harrumph and grrr. He’s not in this business to save patients, much less chat with them. “Treating illnesses is why we became doctors,” he instructs his naïve charges. “If we don’t talk to them, they can’t lie to us, and we can’t lie to them.” Asked where one might find the “humanity” in such a view, he has an answer for that too: “Humanity is overrated.” This just before his patient-from-a-distance, Rebecca, has an allergic reaction to something during an MRI and his team performs an emergency tracheotomy on her—all bloody spurts, pounding score, and ER-style crisis—illustrating that, despite and because of Dr. House, “humanity” has its place.
Even when they’re not working, the team tends to be the series’ repository for the “emotional” gunk that House so despises. So, Allison has a hang-up about being beautiful, wishing that she’d be respected for her mind and not just her appearance; House informs her that he did choose her because she’s beautiful, and there’s nothing wrong with that, though he adds that he’s also impressed that she’s worked so hard to be a good doctor even though she didn’t have to, being beautiful and could have had everything handed to her. “People choose the paths that gain them the greatest rewards for the least amount of effort. That’s a law of nature,” he smirks, “And you defied it.” Yes, she’s damned if she does or doesn’t.
Eric is equally troubled by House, though for seemingly opposite reasons. He came up in a stereotypically hard knocks environment, and so he was busted for a break-in when he was 16; House insinuates he picked him for the team so he’d have someone capable of illegalities if ever needed (the fact that this episode’s illegal action—breaking in to Rebecca’s apartment to look for causes for her ailment—hardly needs to be illegal suggests that House is even more insidious than her seems. It’s like he wants to remind his single black team member of his beginnings. Why, you wonder? “The truth begins in lies,” he tells Eric, who at least has the right answer: “That doesn’t mean anything, does it?” Like I say, it’s tv.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/house-2004/