I have loved a lot of television shows over the years. Stone cold classics like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men; cultishly beloved comedies like Arrested Development and Community (yay for a 4th season! #sixseasonsandamovie; nay for no Dan Harmon!); and plenty of other shows that are less officially cool but still had compelling characters, conceits and/or plots. I think the first show I every truly obsessed over was MacGyver, a show that doesn’t hold up all that well but was certainly iconic (and fed a burgeoning interest in science which was being starved in Christian elementary school).
But only one show has been a borderline religion for me.
House M.D. was the groundbreaking character study of an Americanized Sherlock Holmes in the form of brilliant, acerbic, bitter and atheistic diagnostician, Dr. Gregory House , played by the incomparable British actor/comedian/novelist/musician/etc. Hugh Laurie. Considering that the show has gone down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most popular show in the world, it seems like there can’t be anyone who wouldn’t have at least some familiarity with the show. Here is proof that I’m not a hipster: I’m glad that something I love is loved by millions (billions?) also.
Though the show has always been a strong performer for its home network, Fox, its audience in the U.S. has declined in the most recent seasons, and with fair reason. The ‘Huddy’ romantic plotline of season 7 was terrible, something I knew was coming for years but always hoped they’d find a way to avoid. Even when they set it up in the season 6 finale (spoilers!), I had hopes that the writers could find a way to make it interesting. I was, unfortunately, too optimistic.
I write that paragraph to get my shit-talking out of the way. In my opinion, the best seasons of House were 2 and 3, but other than season 7, every year has had its strong runs that are worth revisiting, including this current and final season, the 8th.
The show has its fair share of critics. Some of the laziest are those that decry it for having a formula (what show doesn’t? Even fans of Mad Men must realize that there is a loose formula to most episodes which makes the odd ones stand out). To criticize the show for sticking to the formula of the brilliant doctor who solves medical mysteries is like complaining that all Sherlock Holmes ever did was solve mysteries. That’s the entire conceit! (And that ignores the fact that the show actually did a good job of throwing in random off-shoot episodes.)
There are those who criticize the medicine and actions of the characters. I hate to break it to you, but the real lives of doctors, like that of lawyers, cops, firemen and teachers are boring. That’s why we have television, to make life seem more interesting than it really is. And, yes, the actions and procedures House and his team takes throughout the series are over the top and something real doctors would never do, but again, it’s a show centered around a doctor who is far more brilliant than any doctor around. You just have to go with it (I knew a girl who complained about the ‘unrealistic’ choices of the doctors on House, and then would turn on Grey’s Anatomy; welcome to Irony 101).
But forget the criticisms. The show is ending and I just want to express how much it has meant to me.
I started watching the show here and there while I was in Charlotte, the first of my 10 Cities Project. I didn’t really get hooked until Philly, just as the show had finished up its 2nd season. Right at a time when I was coming into my own and for the first time starting to actually label myself as an atheist (even though I had stopped believing in God years earlier), here was this amazing show about a sarcastic, dark, vaguely-depressed but very-intelligent atheist. Not to toot my own horn, but yeah, I related.
Atheists don’t see too many portrayals of themselves in media. Or, at least, we didn’t. That’s changing, but up until House, I can’t think of a single atheist who was the central character of a major network television show. If there was one, it wasn’t a character where atheism and the pursuit of pure rational truth was his (or her) defining trait. In the era of Bush, House was a breath of fresh air.
Hugh Laurie has said about the character of House that he is “on the side of the angels but that doesn’t mean he is an angel,” and that pretty much nails it. The character of House, and the show that takes his name, is all about dichotomies in human nature, the contradictions that make us undeniably human. We can be logical but overwhelmed by emotion. We can be a good person and do something terrible. We can be fundamentally honest but lie, because, well, everybody does. We can know that it’s never lupus, but still have one case of it.
At its best (I’d argue season 2’s “House vs. God“) the show could be a gripping medical mystery, a compelling philosophical discussion and a tremendously funny drama (there’s that dichotomy again). Plus, the show was always an actor’s class put on by Hugh Laurie (with assistance from Robert Sean Leonard). The fact that Hugh Laurie never won an Emmy for his work on the show is a testament to how strong the acting work on television has been the past 8 years, but that still doesn’t mitigate the fact that it’s one of the great oversights in the award’s history. House on the page is a great character. House on the screen is an icon.
So, it is with great sadness that I will be watching the finale tonight. It can be a little silly to get so invested in a television show, but no more silly than being invested in The Great Gatsby or OK Computer. Great television is art just like any other form, and when House M.D. was at its best, it could transcend the medium (think of the powerhouse back-to-back episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart“).
Everyone has speculation and spoilers on how the show will end, but I’m not interested in that. So far I’ve been able to avoid most advanced tidbits about the finale and that’s how I like it. I look forward to sitting down one last time with the good doctor to be insulted, scammed and manipulated before being brilliantly healed at the last minute. As House would tell you, existence can be an unending string of pain and struggle, so its nice to have a distraction once in awhile.
Farewell House. I’d say never change, but we both know that wasn’t an option.
You talk to God, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.