This New House
- Alex Wainer theFish.com Contributing Writer
- 2010 3 Mar
Do people really change? According to television, usually not. Situation comedies are premised on the immutability of their characters. Nobody learns from their mistakes and character flaws. They may bring misery to the characters, but they produce laughs from the audience. We depend on our favorite sitcom characters to be consistently selfish, dopey or carnal. That's why we have to give a new comedy a little time to introduce itself; once we know that the cast of loonies on Seinfeld are basically petty, we're prepped to laugh and snicker when they stay true to expectations. Old episodes of another classic comedy, Everybody Loves Raymond, can be watched repeatedly because the gags fit the family's dysfunctional dynamic. For two decades, The Simpsons have gloried in this no-growth comedy policy so much that no matter what has happened to Homer and his clan, everything will deliberately be exactly the way it was at the beginning of next week's episode.
Television dramas are similarly presented. As Aristotle said, "We are what we repeatedly do." Television offers us the comfort food of characters who are creatures of habit. Even in classic westerns, the characters never even changed their clothes. That's why successful shows depend on a well-rounded cast that provides a contrasting set of comfortably unchanging but complementary temperaments—it's a surrogate family for our vicarious enjoyment. No matter what kind of "character arc" someone may go through over a season, it's more likely his interior status will be quo when it's over.
So when the title character of a popular series puts himself into a sanitarium for chronic drug addiction and the psychological problems underlying it, we may actually be rooting for him to change, but we wonder what it will do to his "entertainment value." That's the big risk the producers of House, M. D. took last year when the season ended with the brilliant but grouchy diagnostician realized that his painkiller addiction was deeply messing up his mind and making him a danger to himself and others. The current season opened with a two hour premiere that followed the painful process of getting the drugs out of his system and the deeper breakthrough of realizing the underlying problems with his own psyche. For five years, Gregory House had driven his staff of smart doctors up the wall with his rudeness, sarcasm and manipulative behavior. His deductive brilliance was offset by his misogyny and distrust of his fellow man. "Everybody Lies," was his motto from the first season on and perhaps this cynicism concealed a deep hurt at past betrayals as well as his knowledge that patients try to hide secrets to their own hurt. Viewers kept watching this bad behavior because they perceived that the curmudgeon concealed depths of emotional pain beyond his unendingly tortured leg. That, and in my wife's case, actor Hugh Laurie's baby blue eyes. The actor's fascinating portrayal of House keeps us watching despite the doctor's repeated lying and downright cruelty to colleagues and patients.
Thus when House had his breakthrough at the sanitarium and broke free of his addiction, he seemed genuinely changed. More at peace with himself and less trying on others, he is determined to hang on to his freedom and sanity even if it means occasionally saying "I'm sorry." He's still a jerk at times. He manipulated his former team members into coming back for more punishment, and hasn't been able to contrive his secret love, Dr. Cuddy, into breaking up with her boyfriend. House still uses his cane, but his Vicodin crutch is gone and he's the better for it.
But do we want him to be? Sometimes dull things happen to bad characters when they start being good. This was the case, for example, when the classic sitcom M*A*S*H*, after a prodigious 11 seasons of Korean war black comedy. What had for years been a sharp anti-war satire full of raucous hijinks and sharp putdowns from the like of Hawkeye and Trapper John, was in its last seasons a beloved but bland dish of sweetened oatmeal. Hawkeye especially had more than twice the length of the Korean war to devolve out of his acidic wittiness and into a sweet gentle mensch. Pleasant for him, but not particularly funny for viewers .
So, will House be less interesting if he gains a little happiness and contentment? Or, can a person's upward progress away from snarkiness and toward greater humanity be new be as compelling a character arc? (This discussion thread follows the debate on whether the doctor will stay clean and sober.) If any actor can pull it off, Laurie can, but he will need a support group of writers who understand that a wounded healer can show empathy as well as issue withering insults. They can take their time—too much change too fast really is unrealistic. (In most cases—many of us know that a true spiritual conversion can bring immediate change in certain individuals when the soul has been broken and then lifted up by grace.)
But House is first and foremost a television character. The writers, having designed him as a catalyst for drama in the series, may use him in various plots experiments. The atheistic doctor has been challenged before on the case for faith such as in a classic episode from the third season, "The Fetal Position," So perhaps the empirical rationalist in House doesn't have to supplant the growing human being. What matters for the series of course, is that the writers believe this change makes for a compellingly dramatic course and that we the audience agrees that a renovated House is better.
House Seasons 1-5 are available on DVD. Episodes from Season 6 air on FOX Monday nights at 8:00/7:00 Central and on hulu.com.
Alex Wainer, Ph.D. teaches media and film at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He is a regular contributor to theFish.com.
Review posted March 12, 2010.