The House Puzzle

I don't even know why I like HOUSE. I know what's good about it -- the dialogue is often sharp, Hugh Laurie is a titan and the show has a sharp style top to bottom. But I don't know what part of it grabbed me so thoroughly that I've been watching it for 8 years.

Not non-stop, mind you. There was a period in the middle, probably season 4 and 5, where I fell out of touch with the gang at Princeton-Plainsboro out of laziness. But when I got back in, during the season that introduced the ridiculously stunning Olivia Wilde (seriously her face is unbelievable I want to say absurd) I fell back into the habit of spending an hour a week watching House solve medical mysteries using only his intelligence, hatred, and bum leg.

It's a great show, but not really. It's not, like, The Wire good or even Friday Night Lights good. The show has very obvious problems that even devoted fans acknowledge. It is frequently formulaic in a way that we wouldn't put up with in other TV shows, to the degree that every episode falls into a scene-for-scene template of gross-out symptoms and backfiring diagnoses. On top of this, the show absolutely fears change. Some of the best episodes have been the ones that took an axe to House's life and put him in wildly different environments -- a prison, a mental hospital, on the run from the law in Hawaii. Yet, those conditions last one or two episodes max. Soon enough, he's back at Princeton-Plainsboro with the same reliable diagnostic team, status quo restored, and the episodes may as well not have aired. The show is allergic to not just lasting change, but letting temporary changes linger.

The character work is also sometimes suspect. Despite having great, likable and compelling characterization for House himself, everyone else suffers from chronic ordinariness and a bad case of static personalities. Over 7 years, has Foreman been anything but a straight-laced foil to House's misanthropy? Has Thirteen ever been given personality, as opposed to character traits like lesbianism and Huntington's disease? It's the reason Charlene Yi's character has worked so well for me -- she's so dramatically different from the type of character they normally cast, appearance and personality-wise, that she's a massively endearing addition. Even on their good characters, like Dr. Wilson, there's been poor attempts at back story since the beginning. One of the earliest episodes has him suddenly reminiscing about his homeless brother, which had consequences 4 seasons later, but it's pure plot device. It doesn't inform his character, alter his personality, or provide anything other than something to talk about for an episode.

But I watched nearly every episode the last couple years, all the way to the very end, when it finally came to a halt on May 21st, 2012. I'm not particularly devoted to many TV shows. I never started on Lost, I'm planning on getting into Mad Men and Breaking Bad when they're over, and Heroes got really really bad. So the fact that House has ended is kind of sentimental to me. It was the only show that I would categorize under, "my stories," along with the similarly doomed Community and the all-I-have-left Louie.

Sure, I zoned out during all the medical lingo where everything seemed to come down to lupus or a cancer growth pressing on a specific gland. I could skip those entire exchanges and not miss a thing. But I didn't. I sat, and parsed out some characterization, and laughed at all the appropriate times.

I won't be doing that anymore, and that's a little strange. I know Hugh Laurie's going to have some great roles in the future, although I will probably miss his American accent which is great, textured and perfect for sarcasm. As Gregory House, he was probably the epitome of "cool old man" -- understated fashion sensibilities, a wicked cane and quirky hobbies that range from the cultural slumming of monster trucks to handheld video game enthusiasm. He was such a model for middle aged coolness that I briefly considered getting a cane when I get older, whether I need it or not.

The final night of House began with a one hour "swan song," which was more of a retrospective documentary cut in with cast interviews presumably from the DVDs. It wasn't particularly revealing, unless you weren't aware of how difficult and fun working on a show for 8 years can be, but it was a feel-good celebration. The behind the scenes players got some recognition, we got to see our favorite characters act like people, and Hugh Laurie was all English & stuff. It wasn't important, but it was a great set-up primer for the finale.

The finale itself reflected the way I've felt about the series for the last few years. It had some serious flaws that I recognized, most notably some pretty annoying plot holes and cheap storytelling, but I found it hard to care about those. I overlooked the gunk, as I always have, and followed along until the well-deserved, good enough ending.

I fear that maybe this is too negative, like I'm painting it as a show that I hate but can't help but watch. But I enjoy it greatly, and the fact that I overlook the flaws that drag it into mediocrity puzzles me. It's a decent show that should have been great. When I try and figure out what it is that kept me loyal, I think about bands like Best Coast and Japandroids: they're kind of one-trick ponies, but they're fantastic at their one trick, so why else would I want anything more?

I think the appeal of HOUSE came down to the character, or more specifically, the reliable workhorse of an archetype that is the likeable asshole. Whether it's Tony Stark, Rorschach, Snape or Hunter S. Thompson, we've always had a thing for talented jerks, brilliant cynics, and endearing curmudgeons. House is just another variation of that. Sherlock Holmes with an empathy deficiency but a sharp wit. Someone that can make us laugh and save our life, but do nothing else. I don't know if it relates to our imagined potential to rise above our station, or if it speaks to the comfort of knowing that those in the spotlight are crippled by something else. Maybe it speaks to a lot of things. But the brilliant horrible savior is one of the most enjoyable character archetypes, and for a long time HOUSE was the best place for it.