House M.D. is one of my favorite medical dramas, and the only one I've really watched all the way through. In fact, for a few years it was the only TV show I followed on mainstream, prime time television. I think the reason is that not many TV shows, especially not mainstream ones, have such intelligent characters whom I found easy to relate to, especially in the era of trashy reality TV House inhabited.
What makes House such a great character? To call him morally complex is to flatter him; he is a criminal, a drug addict, an asshole, inappropriate, rude, and frequently seems apathetic toward empathy and medical ethics. At first, he doesn't seem like the kind of doctor you'd want to have. But the fact is, he's really the only kind of doctor, or teacher or other authority figure, that I would want to have. Because he actually does care, he wants patients to make good choices and not screw up their lives for stupid reasons. He might seem like a logic-machine only motivated by "the puzzle", but there are a lot of puzzles in the world he could have chosen, and the fact that he chose medicine proves that he cares about saving lives, and also improving the quality of sick people's lives. His tough methods help guide patients to making rational, positive decisions about their care, cutting through emotional bullshit that gets in the way. So while on the surface, Dr. House is just rude, arrogant Dr. Jerk, I found it easy to sympathize with him.
Basic Formula of an Episode
Even though the show spends plenty of time messing with its own status quo, most episodes follow the general formula where:
- A patient is given to the team with an unsolvable medical problem.
- The team throws out possible suggestions and explanations, and House ridicules them all.
- House has some personal BS for a few scenes.
- Two doctors talk to each other while running tests and have their own personal BS.
- Wilson tries to talk to House to straighten out his BS.
- The patient gets worse.
- The team is reassembled to figure out what could have went wrong, and House ridicules all their suggestions.
- House is discussing something unrelated to the case, when he gets an epiphany that solves his case.
- There's sometimes some drama at this point surrounding either the patient, the patient's family, or the hospital management disagreeing with whatever House wants to do and he has to argue with Cuddy, a doctor with a differing opinion, the patient, or a family member.
- House gets his way, and the day is saved.
It doesn't always happen exactly like that, or exactly in that order, but that basically breaks down most of the main episodes.
Discussion and Themes:
House, M.D. contains many episodes and conversations which explore interesting philosophical themes. (For more on this, you can check out the book House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies, which I'll give the Amazon link to at the bottom of the page.) These include:
- Death, the afterlife, and God: House is a firm skeptic, and doesn't like when patients' religious beliefs interfere with their medical treatment. In the episode entitled 97 Seconds, House sees a patient who claims he had a near-death experience that changed his life and caused him to believe in a higher power. House, unwavering in his belief that this experience can be rooted in neurological chemical processes, induces his own near-death experience just to prove the sucker wrong. Oh snap!
- The book mentions that the way House and other characters have misery caused to them by human relationships mirrors French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's view that relationships inhibit personal autonomy and cause anxiety, hence his famous quote, "Hell is other people.". However, Sartre also believes that relationships are an essential part of our being. Sartre believed that relationships with others caused suffering for three reasons:
- They represent potential obstacles to our freedom.
- They objectify us, meaning in Sartre's use of the term that they remind us of the failings of our physical bodies, for example by commenting on our appearance.
- They rob the individual of their sense of control by exercising their own free will and autonomy.
All of these play a role in why House and several other characters experience stress in their interpersonal relationships. While people need others, acknowledging and fulfilling that need is not always easy, especially given that those possessing rare minds capable of working in medicine can find themselves isolated from the mainstream population. House finds this out in one scene where he tries speed dating. Needless to say, he doesn't find his dream gal too easily. And, when he does have a relationship, getting close to someone is something he finds tremendously difficult.
- Nietzsche's view of the Ubermensch: House usually sees himself as an exception to hospital rules, and he encourages his staff to unlearn their medical training, think outside the box, and question what they've been taught. Only House can do what House does, and he knows this, so he thinks himself to be above the rules that govern mere mortals. This gets him into trouble, as you might expect, but often, it also saves lives.
- Medical ethics: House tends to take a "doctor knows best" approach (aka a paternalistic approach) to biomedical ethics, he sees saving lives and maximizing healthcare outcomes as more important than making sure the patient gives fully informed consent to every procedure or treatment. This is known in medical ethics as prioritizing the principle of beneficence (doing good) over that of autonomy (respecting the patient's individual rights). Perhaps this is because House may regret his own decision not to amputate his leg, as revealed in the heart-pounding Season One episode, "Three Stories". However, once attempts have failed to persuade the patient, he does defend their autonomy, and he ultimately stands by his own with regards to his leg decision. Even though House's methods are often unorthodox and questionable, I don't believe that the only thing he really cares about is solving the puzzle, I think he also cares a great deal about the welfare of each patient. (But like many intellectuals with a jaded exterior, he fakes indifference for the purpose of avoiding being hurt. And it doesn't work for him.)
- In one episode, Wilson calls House "Machiavelli", which I think is fitting, because he does tend to think in an "ends justify the means" sort of way, as Machiavelli does in The Prince. But at least with House, the "ends" are good ones, saving lives or helping short lives be lived in a quality manner.
- "Everybody Lies", says a lot about House's philosophy of human nature.
- Literary reference to Sherlock Holmes: House bears obvious resemblance to Sherlock Holmes. In fact, one of my main peeves with the show was the way the team is surprisingly nonchalant about breaking into patients' homes and rifling through their personal belongings. Doctors don't do that in real life, but who does? Cops. If you think of each residence of each patient as "the crime scene", it starts to make a bit more sense. House and Wilson's rapport is also similar to that of Holmes and Watson. House often gets ideas that lead to him solving his cases partway through chats with Wilson (maybe Wilson should have sued for a share of House's salary?).
- Drug addiction: Not only with House, but the theme is explored in several episodes, dispelling many stereotypes about who uses drugs and why.
Obviously, House, M.D. is one of my favorite shows of all time, and I was sad to see it go. Some things I especially like about it are:
- Social realism. The show realizes that, in the real world, there aren't Twilight Sparkles, smart people usually end up failing at relationships and friendships, and it doesn't sugar coat the problems associated with that. It doesn't say abandon trying, but it does acknowledge the work involved.
- The show challenges its protagonist. In many shows, like Big Bang Theory for example, the show takes for granted that the main character is always right because he's the main character. Now, is House right an improbable number of times, even for a brilliant man? Sure. But other characters don't give him a free pass and usually the people criticizing and challenging him have a point. He gets away with things he shouldn't, but gets called out on it. He does things he shouldn't, but the show never treats that lightly or lets him escape real consequences.
- The dialogue. I could go on and on, but I really love the witty back-and-forth between characters in this show. There are snappy one-liners, even the occasional pun, and House's perverted and dark sense of humor. People don't think of this show as a comedy, and I wouldn't either, but the joke writing is top-notch.
Some things I don't like though are that House and other doctors always seem to end relationships for flimsy reasons. I guess this is to keep the interest in the show up, but I always questioned whether each breakup was really initiated on reasonable grounds. But, I guess this goes back to the social realism I liked, not everybody can make a relationship work, especially not people as psychologically complex as Dr. House and some of his colleagues.
What else is there to say? House is the perfect show for jaded misanthropes like me, especially those with sociopathic God complexes, I mean er... a desire to benefit mankind with their talents. The show doesn't take the easy way out when it explores complicated issues, and it doesn't present conflicts in a one-sided way, at least not most of the time. Pair that with intense drama, good character building, interesting medical puzzles, and snappy comedy, and you've got the perfect show, especially for people who are too smart for happy normal people TV. Enjoy!