This isnt easy or fun for me, but when I saw that screaming match between a baby, Cuddy, House and Cameron in the middle of brain surgery with a fully conscious patient screaming back, I saw fins.
I am worried that "House, MD" is jumping the shark. It's not a good time, either, with its landmark 100th episode ready to go.
I am a huge fan, and I reject many of the criticisms that have been directed at the program, because I think that it stands on its own as an internally consistent and externally meaningful work of fiction (can you tell i'm knee-deep in the middle of a rigorous and reading-intensive literary criticism course?). Not only that, but it's got rich characters with questionable motives and realistic problems, compelling relationships, and a formula that is both interesting and satisfying on many levels.
But I'm not sure that the writers havent gotten themselves into too troublesome a situation this season, and it's exposing some seriously flawed choices on their part. It started off interestingly enough, with the conflict between Wilson and House as a result of Amber's death, and with House searching for a new friend and hiring a private detective to research Wilson and his staff — that was good stuff. I have always thought that the circumstances of Amber's death, namely House's involvement in it, were not quite believable as a catharsis for Wilson's extreme reaction, but I accepted it as an interesting, sudden and honest plot twist designed to move the story along in a reasonable way.
Tangent: I thought that what House did to try to save Amber not only absolved him of any responsibility for her death, but should have caused Wilson and "the team" to reassess their view of him as a misanthrope - he risked his life to save her, which went well beyond his traditional motive of treating the patient's life as a singular goal, because he risked his life not for the actual saving of her, but just to try to find more clues as to her condition - and he wasnt just putting himself in harm's way, he was actually taking steps to get closer to death. Now, in his final scenes of last season, where he's talking to Amber in a kind of afterlife dream state, we see that he might have gotten himself into such a position that he wanted to just quit the game, but, even still, a suicide is still a suicide, and if he felt that his death could redeem his actions that night, I would have to agree. Even though he didnt die, he made every deliberate action possible with the knowledge that he would die, and if that doesnt redeem a person, I dont know what does. Not to mention the flimsy idea that House was at all responsible for Amber's death simply by calling Wilson and asking for a ride home from a bar. /Tangent
After they resolved the Wilson-House relationship, things started getting shaky. I think that through that point, they were successful in keeping the original team in the storylines to a certain extent, and that they were starting to explore the new team in interesting ways. But it became quickly repetitive. Recalling the first 2-3 seasons, they developed the characters of Chase, Foreman and Cameron very gradually. But now they are applying this "I'm keeping a secret and you cant guess it" formula to the new team too often and too obviously. Kutner is perhaps the only character whose "reveals" havent been linked to the primary or secondary plotline. But Taub's marital problems, once they were basically exposed during the hiring phase, are being treated like new revelations in each new episode. And, while 13's progress has been interesting, it is dragging. This might sound contradictory to what I liked about the gradual development of the original team, but it's not - because the reason 13's story is dragging is because they are spending more time on it in each episode but moving it forward just as slowly, or even more slowly. These kinds of satellite stories are best told in brief shots, with the occasional intersection with the main stories, like with Chase's relationship with his father, or Cameron's infatuation with House, or Foreman's brush with death.
How it is supposed to go
In a work like "House, MD," which is, despite its unique characteristics, still an hour-long medical drama, the formula is important. The formula that has worked is the introduction of the patient, the interest of the team, which plays off the moral issues raised by House's approach and the various philosophical attitudes represented by his team, the medical mystery, which has an appropriate number of red herrings and ethical questions, and then a revelation and solution. This all moves along because each character has unique and deliberate motivations, whether it is the patient who "always lies," or the doctor who values the oath, or the addict who believes only in the most immediate answers, etc., but each of whom is smart enough to have a reason for their choices, even if the reason is flawed.
Now, having said all that, what I find problematic with this season is that they seem to have shifted from an episode-by-episode conflict, which has worked, to a season-long conflict, which only works to the extent it is moved along by the weekly episodes, and not the other way around. When the larger stories move the weekly stories along, the weekly stories lose all the mystery, all the moral questions, all the little, interesting conflicts that made the program what it is. It is treating the longer stories, about the primary characters, like the main stories, which are then affected by the patient and the mystery. But what has worked is treating the patient stories like the main story and slowly working in the character development of the main characters as they happen to relate to the patient or the condition.
And what results are bad choices. All tv programs make some bad choices in storytelling, but thats part of the game. It's an hour-long drama told in 44 minutes and it has to have a resolution to a new story each week. That is in itself a contrivance, and we accept certain contrivances in tv dramas because, otherwise, they wouldnt work on a dramatic level. Of course it's not realistic to have a diagnostic team (which doesnt even exist at any hospital) treat so few patients and encounter so many rare cases. But thats the accepted contrivance. It works. but that doesnt give the writers a license to skew anything - they still have to make good choices at critical points. But I'm seeing a lot of bad choices recently.
They are bad choices because, in focusing on the wrong story, the contrivances happen to the main story, which breaks down the whole reason the show was good in the first place. It's ok, for example, when they contrive to make Wilson hate House for Amber's death even though it's not perfect, because thats a secondary story. But when the main story becomes full of artificial events and decisions, then we lose the drama.
How it has been going
- Cuddy freaking out about how to raise a child she has spent years yearning for runs counter to her collected demeanor, and, most importantly, insults her character's intelligence. It's okay for her to have problems, but her confusion is out of place.
- Taub's constant refusal to engage in a conversation with Kutner, who has showed himself to be nothing if not a genuine, good-natured person and a solid doctor, about his relationship problems, even though by the end of every episode the truth comes out anyway, doesnt make any sense. Taub is supposed to be a realist, but he cant recognize when he's having a completely inane and superfluous conversation and then wakes up the next morning to repeat it? It feels like Groundhog Day.
- And when Kutner put Cuddy on speakerphone in the middle of a surgery with a fully conscious patient, with Cuddy trying to yell at House and get her baby to stop crying at the same time, while Cameron tried to have a conversation with the speakerphone while monitoring the patient and administering emergency medicine, I felt I needed whatever Cameron was giving that patient, and fast. It was a typical contrivance for the program in that House needed a strange symptom to reveal itself, but it was far too clumsy to be an acceptable "House, MD" scene. I almost think that it would have been stupid even in an "ER" episode, which is pretty bad.
- Foreman's concern about putting 13 on the real medicine was artificial. Yes, he follows the rules, yes, he has struggled with dating. But he is the one who was supposed to have hit a turning point by pursuing 13 romantically, and he's supposedly already come to terms with bending the rules on his own terms (he rescheduled 13's appointment so she could see another patient's improvement, for example) and now we're supposed to believe that he's wondering whether or not to switch her medication in a way that won't affect the outcome of the testing? Isnt he pretty high up in the ladder in terms of administering the experiment? It wasnt a decision of how to get away with it, it was a decision of whether or not to do it. I would have accepted the former, but not the latter.
- Wilson is the ultimate moral authority on the show. Thats his role. I get that Cuddy had to figure out how to be a mom on her own, but to have Wilson speak such awkward and meaningless lines in a worthless effort to convince her that she has to give it more than a couple of weeks to bond with a baby she didnt actually give birth to just fell flat. If I'm watching the scene and i can figure out what Wilson should be saying, and he cant figure it out, then it loses its meaning.
Now, to be fair, what the program has on tap for next week may transcend the problem of where to focus the main story. By putting one of the main characters (13) into the role of the patient, instead of trying to deal with a strong new patient plot alongside a strong main character plot, the story is more likely to work within its own context. It has worked in the past on the show, and there is little to indicate that it won't work again. My only hope is that once they get through this story line, they return to their tried and true formula.
Meeting their own challenges
But it may be difficult to get through it. Thirteen is a compelling character whose absence would jolt the formula, and the last thing we need is a last half of the season occupied by continued shifts in character roles. And I strongly believe that Foreman is perhaps the most intelligent character on dramatic television today. Especially since the beginning of last season, with his new role as House's monitor, he has been a consistent voice of reason and medical competence, and one that is independent from House's recklessness. So the second-to-last thing that we need is for his character to return to the emotionally charged doctor that performed an excruciatingly painful bone marrow extraction on a fully conscious adolescent patient, or the one who intentionally tried to infect Cameron with a deadly disease just so she would work harder on his own condition. He was supposed to have learned from those mistakes. His move to switch his new girlfriend's medicine to the good stuff was ethically sound and carefully considered, if rather unrealistic. But we can accept that, as long as it is balanced by his true nature.
And thats a big challenge. The show has set a very high standard in terms of the intelligence, competence and decision-making of its characters. On the one hand, thats a big reason it's a great show. On the other hand, the threshold for what we accept as variations on the theme is much lower. In the past, the place I thought the show sometimes wobbled was in its attempt to make every character hyper-sensitive in how they interpreted things - they could spot a lie a mile away, or spot another person's motivation immediately. Thats not quite believable, but it's a lot more believable (and consistent) than when they have a screaming match in the middle of brain surgery or fail to come up with a justification for not turning over a newborn to some fucked up foster parent.
This scares me, because I really, really like the show. I know they cant work on House's addiction all the time, and I know that they made a risky choice to revise the secondary characters completely after 3 seasons and largely succeeded, and I know that Wilson and Cuddy cant continue to be static characters forever, and I also know that, even if I'm wrong about it jumping the shark, and I hope that I am, because there is no reason not to expect or at least hope that it will get back on track, it will eventually jump the shark - there is no avoiding it. But it still sucks that I am thinking like this, because the only thing left on tv that I can bear to watch is "30 Rock," "The Office," "My Name is Earl," "Scrubs" and "24." And "24" is pushing it, and "Scrubs" is almost over, and "The Office" is starting to push it, too, to be honest.
Then again, I really should be studying right now and not watching tv in the first fucking place.