Culture > Television

No doctoring this

Television | House succeeds as mystery wrapped in enigma

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

Why has a television show about a doctor who insults not only bosses, underlings, co-workers, and generous hospital donors, but also parents of dying children and the dying children themselves, gained a fervent fan base?

House, M.D. (FOX, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET) stars British actor and Cambridge grad Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House, who deciphers clues to baffling illnesses so that his patients (the same ones he's mostly too grumpy to meet with himself) often live.

The detective aspect of the show is intriguing, as House heads down lots of rabbit trails yet eventually tracks down some esoteric disease or ailment with the potential to kill. Despite conflict among the characters, and the apparent darkness of the title character, every episode illuminates some aspect of medical truth.

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But part of the appeal is that House is a walking exception to all that's normal and expected in social behavior: He's like a brilliant child, with no space between what he feels and what he says, and there are times when all of us would like to dispense with social niceties and even politeness itself. Maybe viewers, like Aristotle, believe that "reason is the constant support of an intelligible world," and House prides himself on being all brain, no heart.

Can anyone can live that way for long? The good doctor's colleagues wonder. In one episode a fellow physician, Wilson, tells him, "You have no relationships." House replies, "I don't want any relationships." Wilson says, "You alienate people." House responds, "I've been alienating people since I was 3."

We normally think that relationships should be developed. We normally don't want to alienate people. Here's someone who does all that is bad in personal exchanges yet makes a mighty social contribution. House deliberately makes himself seem worse than he actually is-or maybe he is that bad, but why then does he do good? Most television shows dwell on the obvious; this one dresses itself in psychological mystery.


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