Thoughts on “House MD” (Season 1)

After finishing off “The Bionic Woman”, my plan was then to pick up something from my stack that would run longer and make an effort to finish it off.  The main idea was to use “The Bionic Woman” to ease my way into my new schedule and then just pick up one of the longer ones which would fit neatly into the new routine.  However, “The Bionic Woman” had an odd way to placing its episodes on disk, so I never really managed to get into the routine with it (the basic idea is that I was supposed to have some days where I watched half a disk and some days where I watched an entire disk, and so ranged from starting early and starting late with watching DVDs according to a schedule I made considering what things I tended to do on those days.  “The Bionic Woman” was one where I pretty much always watched half a disk and so always started earlier).  However, the DVDs that I had left were likely pretty standard in terms of episodes, but all had more seasons in them, so I decided to pick up “House MD” instead of the others.

Now, my relationship with this show is interesting.  I had, of course, heard about the show when it was running but never watched it myself.  However, when I went to visit my parents it was on at times and they liked it so I saw it a couple of times, and found it not unentertaining but not entertaining enough to watch it regularly.  So I had some ideas about the show but didn’t really know what it was like and certainly had never watched the first season, or any episodes from it.  And after watching the first season, I want to comment on it.  Now, regular readers will know that I don’t comment on shows very much while watching the show, but I want to comment on it because enough things happen in it that I need to make a long post to get them out before moving on to the second season.

Okay, so let’s talk about the basic premise.  From what I had heard from pop culture and from the few episodes that I watched, it seemed to be pretty much a “Sherlock Holmes as a doctor” kinda thing, if Holmes was also a bitter and angry jerk.  They even have the drug use angle (although for a different reason).  And, to be fair to the show, those elements are there.  House — the doctor — does tend to notice little things that allow him to make incredible diagnoses that no one else could come up with.  From that, you might expect that this would be a medical mystery show, especially from the framing device in the first season, where it starts with showing the person who is going to be the patient in this episode with their initial symptoms and then usually collapsing in some horrific way, with the bulk of the episode focusing on House and his team trying to figure out what is actually causing them.  As a mystery, though, the structure is a bit weak because you can’t really go back and see what you missed that led to that conclusion because the show relies on very specific medical knowledge that the audience won’t have, and so perhaps because of that they always immediately spell out what the clue actually means and their entire reasoning for why that could be it, as well as any alternative explanations and why they won’t work.  So the audience can’t really solve the mystery themselves because we don’t get a lot of clues that add up to an explanation at the end, and every time we get a clue the show immediately explains the reasoning so we can’t even rely on our memories and thoughts to figure it out.  So while it is a bit of a mystery it’s more about us following along with them rather than figuring it out ourselves.

The other reason that it’s not really a mystery is that a lot of the time they are experimenting, not really solving a mystery.  I’ve mused while watching the show that I’m not sure that I’d want him to be my doctor in such a situation because the number of times he says to give someone a treatment because if they’re right it will help and if they’re wrong it will kill the patient is frighteningly high.  A lot of the time they are trying things to see what will happen and hoping that it will fix things instead of properly reasoning it out.  In fact, in one episode a major plot point was about giving different medications to two different infants to see which one of them got better, knowing that the two of them were so far gone that it would likely kill the one who received the wrong medication that wasn’t helping their condition (it turned out that neither of the two medications was the right one, although only one infant died).  So it’s really, really hard to have a good, solid mystery — especially in a medical show — when a lot of the reasoning ends up being “It’s probably this, try it and see what happens and hope it doesn’t kill them”, even if it often leads to rather dramatic near death experiences when the patient almost dies because either the condition progresses or else the medication itself exacerbates the condition.  There’s just way too much guesswork for the show to work as a true mystery, although the mysterious elements do contribute to the drama and give them something to hold the audience’s interest while waiting for the drama to build, which can also be done by the interpersonal relations between House and the other characters in the hospital.

At which point I have to single out the character of Wilson as being, in this season, a really great character that I really like.  He’s a highly placed doctor on the staff of the hospital, but is not the administrator that House fights with (that’s Cuddy).  He clearly likes and is a good friend of House’s, but also isn’t at all afraid or intimidated by him and his jerkiness (if that’s a word.  I guess it is because the spell check recognizes it.  That’s one of the skills that I learned from writing blogs).  So he is able to engage in a lot of witty banter with House which can help to lighten the atmosphere, but he’s also enough of an expert to get directly involved in the medical discussions and is willing to call House out on his crap at times.  But he himself has serious flaws — his marriage is not going well and he is noted for constantly hitting on and having affairs with the women he comes across — and so it doesn’t end up being “perfect moral person chides House for his failings” but instead “flawed person chides House for failing as well”, allowing House to fire back at him and also for the audience to note that if Wilson is calling it out it’s probably pretty serious.  None of House’s team could do anything like that, given that they are subordinate to him (and at least one of them couldn’t criticize him in that way even if she disagrees with him, which is problematic since she’s the member of his team that has the most reason to criticize him over those sorts of things).

The most interesting thing about Wilson is that from the few episodes I watched I remembered the name but couldn’t remember who the character was.  Going in, I actually thought that the character of “Wilson” was actually the character that is actually called “Foreman”, and I was unaware that a separate character with that name actually existed.  It could be the case that the character was written out later and that Foreman took over that role — I do seem to remember at least one episode where Foreman was playing that sort of good-natured critic, whereas in this season he’s much more of a frustrated critic — but it’s still a bit odd.  Anyway, for as long as it lasts I think I will really like that character.

Another thing that’s odd for me is how much House reminds me of … myself.  Except that I’m quite a bit less of a jerk and so a bit better person than he is.  Most of the time, anyway, because there are a few cases where I’d be worse.  One of them is the Christmas episode, where Wilson decides to skip out on his wife to keep House company on Christmas Eve, which House seems to appreciate, whereas for myself I would have really pushed Wilson to go home to his wife because I would rather have spent the time by myself (one of my fears is that a neighbour or coworker will try to do the “Christmas special” thing and invite me to spend time with them on Christmas because “No one should be alone on Christmas!”, when all I want to do is watch some movies and play some games and stuff like that).  Another one is that Cameron — that doctor I reference above — finds out when his birthday is from a form she had access to and gives him a gift.  His look at her is, well, pretty much what mine would be, annoyance that someone found out when his birthday was, but I would probably have been less gracious about it, pointing out that there’s a reason that I don’t tell anyone when my birthday is and telling her to keep it quiet.  So in a lot of ways I’m more of a curmudgeon than he is … although I’m far more diplomatic and less pompous and arrogant and less of a troublemaker than he is.

At this point, it probably makes sense for me to talk about Cameron herself.  In the couple of episodes that I watched, I kinda liked the character and figured that I’d like her character when I watched the show.  And I found her really, really annoying in the first season.  A big part of the reason for this is that my impression of the character from what I watched was that she was pretty, smart and nice with a bit of a crush on House.  The problem is that in the first season, at least, she’s not really just those things but is instead the ur-versions of those things.  She’s not pretty, she’s gorgeous (according to the characters as well).  She’s incredibly smart, but it’s debatable whether she’s smarter than would be expected from someone in her role.  However, we get back to things being excessive with niceness, because she’s presented as being incredibly and completely nice, so much so that she’s given every single scene or line when they have to consider the feelings of the patients or people around them, and it’s an early plot point that she’s too nice to give people bad news (despite being enough of a doctor to have to expect to do that).  She comes across less as a contrast to House and more as a doormat and excessively nice, especially since Foreman and Chase (the other member of his team) also show empathy and work with patients without being so cloyingly nice.  All of these traits, then, add up to make her a much less interesting character than she could have been.

Which only makes the “crush” storyline all the worse, because while it’s reasonable to think that she has a crush on House she takes it way too far, especially given how attractive and smart and nice she is.  She would have a lot of options, and so almost certainly would have had other dates, and so her fixation on House is a bit creepy.  The nice things she does for him — like the birthday present — work really well to show that she has a bit of a crush on him but isn’t pursuing it, but eventually she pursues it more directly — and gets rejected — which is a monumentally bad idea given their working relationship.  But, sure, okay, fine, people do stupid things.  But partly because of that and partly because a new investor in the hospital is trying to force House to fire one of his staff, she ends up quitting.  House wants her back, and after things are resolved with the other plot he tries to bring her back, and she has one condition:  he has to go out with her on one date before she will.  This is an even more monumentally bad idea, and it doesn’t go well, but of course she tells everyone else on the team about it and they tease her with it, and she comments that House is her boss so it isn’t sexual harassment in a very glib way (and, of course, she’s wrong about that, but let’s put that aside).  The season ends with two episodes where the love of House’s life returns with her new husband that he ends up treating (and we find out what happened to his leg) and at the end of the last one she sees him looking at the love of his life and her husband and comments that she had thought that he couldn’t love anyone but it turns out that he just couldn’t love her (Cameron) and I swear I thought “It’s not all about you, Cameron!”.  So in this season, at least, she was just really, really annoying to me.

I also dislike a plot that followed from the new investor plot above, where Chase rats House out to the new investor — who hates House and is trying to get rid of him — in exchange for protection from losing his job.  The problem is that I’m not at all convinced that Chase would actually make that deal, and it raises a conflict among the team — and especially between Foreman and Chase — that is never really resolved, and House himself ends up making Chase’s life miserable over that for about one episode, with the plot kinda fizzling out after that.  It doesn’t really add anything and seems to make it so that the team couldn’t work together after that without some sort of major atonement on Chase’s part, which I don’t recall seeing up to this point (but note that I do at times doze off during these episodes and so might have missed it, but that’s okay here because I also didn’t care for it while it was developing and not just because I didn’t feel it was properly resolved).

That being said, the worst part about it was that it was attached to the even worse plot to the investor.  A guy who runs a pharmaceutical company donates 100 million dollars to the hospital, and in exchange wants to have some influence in how things are run.  He, of course, very quickly comes to dislike House, and also insists on a number of occasions that he wants to run the hospital as a business, and then that House doesn’t fit in that model.  However, House has a contract that gives him tenure and so he can only be booted out of the entire board agrees, and with both Wilson and Cuddy on the board that wasn’t going to happen.  So he starts conflicts with House, culminating in the demand that House fire one of his staff for “budgetary” reasons, but it quickly becomes clear that he is doing it to antagonize House.  House, however, does seem to care about his staff and doesn’t want to get rid of them, and ends up taking Cameron’s suggestion that everyone take a pay cut to make the budget work out, which the investor (Vogler, so I don’t have to keep calling him “the investor”) flat out rejects, so it’s clear that he’s antagonizing House and not just concerned about budgets.  So House finally decides to fire Chase, but Vogler says that House can’t fire Chase (because he’s Vogler’s informant) and that he has to fire someone else.  Vogler later offers to rescind the “fire someone” demand if House will give a speech at a conference talking about this great new drug that Vogler’s pharmaceutical company is making, which it turns out isn’t all that different in terms of effect but is a lot more expensive.  House almost goes through with it, but at the speech itself gives a very perfunctory one about it and when Vogler demands that he do more expresses what he really thinks, which of course Vogler hates.  Cameron, having heard the speech, then decides to quit to resolve the “firing” problem.

This doesn’t satisfy Vogler, of course, who then attempts to get rid of House.  There is still the issue of tenure, so Vogler puts it before the board that either they get rid of House or he will withdraw his huge donation.  Cuddy goes along with it, but Wilson still opposes it, so House gets to stay.  Vogler then immediately raises a motion to get rid of Wilson, but since he also has tenure he couldn’t get the board to kick him out, but I think he does get Wilson off the board and pressures him into resigning from the hospital.  It isn’t clear how Vogler managed that, but it likely involved exposing some of his affairs.  Wilson gets angry at House for not just giving the speech and avoiding all of this.  Anyway, at the next meeting Vogler tries getting rid of House again, but this time Cuddy opposes it on the basis that Vogler was trying to run roughshod over all of them, so Vogler immediately moves that she be dismissed, at which she points out that Volger is trying to buy them off and the board rejects that move, and Vogler withdraws the donation.

There is so much wrong with how this was handled that it’s hard to know where to begin.  I guess the best way to start is that we are way too early in the show for a “House opposes dictatorial power-that-be who wants him out because he can’t control House”.  In the first season, and especially given how irascible House is and how he doesn’t want to follow any of the rules and do what every else has to do, what we would have needed was a case where an authority figure is opposing House because the figure doesn’t think that the hospital benefits enough from him to put up with his problematic nature, at which point we’d go through an arc where everyone comes to understand why House is indeed valuable enough to put up with despite being a jerk and to also have House be shown to be more compassionate than he was originally presented to be (which does work in this arc).  That person can’t be Cuddy given her past with him, so bringing in a business expert who wants to run it like one and finds House to be too problematic would indeed really work.  After all, there are indeed lots of reasons to hold that House doesn’t fit into a standard business model, so it would be perfectly believable and make perfect sense.  So what you’d have is a clash between someone reasonable but business minded and our unsympathetic character House, which allows the show to show why he should be sympathetic, why we should like him, and why there are good reasons to allow him to get away with what he does beyond the fact that Cuddy probably feels a bit guilty and Wilson likes him, which would culminate in the entire board rejecting getting rid of him instead of rejecting getting rid of Cuddy.  The way it was done also cost them a chance to bring in another relevant plot where they could have raised the question of whether a hospital should be run as a business, and whether looking at House’s department purely on the basis of how much revenue in brought in was the wrong way to look at it because it’s really about saving lives.  Vogler mentions that line at least once or twice and Cuddy references it at least once, but it can’t get off the ground because at the end of the day it’s not about business vs medicine at all.

See, while Vogler talks about wanting to run things as a business it is obvious that he isn’t thinking of it that way and has a personal grudge against House, likely because he knows he can’t control House.  While it’s pretty clear before this, it is completely solidified when he rejects Cameron’s proposal to lower salaries to meet the budget.  It’s also clear that he is trying to control — and humiliate — House by the alternative of giving that speech.  When he tries to kick out Wilson and then Cuddy so that he can get rid of House that’s just the culmination of all of that.  Cuddy’s comment about him having bought them if they go along with it is both incredibly obvious at that point and completely wrong, since it isn’t about that anymore, but is indeed about Vogler wanting complete control and being willing to get rid of anyone who would dare challenge him.  That’s not a business mindset.  That’s not him wanting to run things like a business.  He has shown that he is perfectly willing to create new problems for himself in order to quash any resistance to him (for example, in rejecting firing Chase he leaves the choice of people to fire to being between the black man and the woman, and he had offered to protect Foreman as well.  If House had tried to fire Foreman and Vogler had rejected that, then it really would have looked like he was demanding that House fire the young woman from his staff, which has “Discrimination Lawsuit!” written all over it, and since House makes jokes about affirmative action someone would have thought of it).  So what we end up with is a tyrant singling out House because he won’t conform and the fact that House simply won’t conform ends up saving the hospital from him.  That’s a plot that you should run when House is sympathetic and so we can see him use his jerkiness for good and to oppose evil, and so in a later season, not when we aren’t sure if the hospital wouldn’t be better off without him.

So the big flaw in this plot is this:  it relies on having an obvious villain that once it becomes clear what he’s doing everyone should oppose, so almost no one stands up to Vogler to defend House, which means that we never get a plot where people defend House because House deserves defending, which means that we don’t quite get to move to feeling sympathetic for him from that plot — although some elements of it help — and so the plot is wasted.  They lose building sympathy for House and lose exploring the question of whether a hospital should be run as a business for a plot that at best could have been jerk-on-jerk warfare but doesn’t even manage that.  And it was a subplot for far too much of the season to ignore.

That being said, for all of its flaws, I did like the first season.  House’s snarkiness (if that’s a word.  I know it’s not, because spell check marks it) can be funny at times, the patient drama mostly works, the character interactions mostly work, and I don’t feel that I have to know anything about medicine to get what’s going on.  Thus, so far I like it.  Now if they’d only tone down the scenes where they seem to delight in showing medical “gore” …

2 Responses to “Thoughts on “House MD” (Season 1)”

  1. Thoughts on “House MD” (Season 2) | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] MD”, but I don’t intend for this to be a weekly thing.  But I noted some things in my comments on Season 1 that I wanted to follow up on in how they evolved in Season 2, and so figured I’d drop a post […]

  2. Accomplishments Update | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] usual, DVDs are working out pretty well.  I got through both The Bionic Woman and House M.D. which means that I’ve gotten through two TV series that I wanted to get through at the start […]

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