Suspension of Disbelief: House, MD.
As the series finale to my absolute favorite TV show of all time nears, I feel compelled to write a review. Spanning eight seasons, it would truly be impossible to do it all justice in one blog post. This is the show that a relatively young age solidified my conviction that yes, TV shows and other nontraditional media can have artistic value. I’ll try to be somewhat objective, but I can’t promise this will be free of the fact that I am a long-time adoring fan. While my critical eye is much more developed now, fully setting aside the wonder of a 14 year-old fan girl becoming lost in a fictional universe just won’t cut it.
House shines largely because of its titular antihero, brilliantly acted by Hugh Laurie. While it was on air, especially in its earlier seasons, House garnered high ratings and was very well critically received. Which surprises me, to be perfectly honest. The show’s content received some controversy, but not nearly as much as you’d expect. There were some cheap-shot shock moments, but they were overwhelmed, at least in my mind, by content more deeply subversive to an American primetime TV audience.
The central character is an avowed and brash atheist. Where else did you see that on primetime TV? And sure, he’s an ass with loose morals, which one could argue perpetuates stereotypes of atheists, but he’s no Straw Man. His ideas are respected; regularly are lives trusted to his intelligence, narcissism and the requisite impulsiveness be damned. And all of this — everything in the show, in fact, save a few blatantly out-of-character one-offs in awkwardly timed episodes — is justified by marvelously interesting, three-dimensional characters.
The show’s record with respect to science is stellar. Realism? No, not by a long shot. The formula requires a bizarre and nigh-impossible medical scenario to unfold every week, scarcely held back by the wits and convictions of the diagnostic team. It is inherently unrealistic, and though they do have real medical consultants working with the writers, they are going to fudge a detail for the sake of plot once in a while. Overall, though, they do maintain a respect for the technical material they are working with. And most importantly, their respect for science philosophically — sincerely and on a practical, life and death level — is unparalleled by any other fiction to grace a major network.
Each mostly formulaic episode is the skeleton on which the meat of characters and philosophies grow during the 45 minute span. And, boy, does it ever dig into philosophy — not only that, the characters are inseparable from the philosophy. Almost every episode features competing ideas around life, death, ethics and truth in situations designed to bring those stakes to an emotionally relatable situation. One could argue the characters are only a vehicle for their philosophy, or one could argue the philosophy was there to serve character development. And that’s the beauty of it. They’re truly inseparable.
While many characters are extreme, they’re all human. House doesn’t rely on stereotypes spouting straw men to have the Conversations About Big Ideas while Someone Is Dying. The writers have an understanding of human psychology and emotion that either isn’t possessed by the majority of TV writers or perhaps simply goes unused do to lack of chutzpah to deal with anything so complicated, messy and at times unsettling. Yes, eight times a day we see a bloodied corpse. How many times do we see someone [SPOILER] in tears, wondering if there’s going to be anyone to pull the plug when their time comes? Or wresting with the guilt and secrecy of illegally killing a powerful man vaguely promising genocide? [end spoiler] House is a breathing ethics lab that manages to twist the dilemmas into your heart with characters that simply feel like there’s a real person behind those names.
Obviously, I wholeheartedly recommend this series from start to finish. It engages big ideas in bold ways and practically dares you to, too. There are a few lazy hiccup episodes in season 4 and season 8, and those prompt more than an eye roll for their gender-stereotypes and inconsistent characterization, and while they are legitimately bad, the work as a whole far outshines them. There’s been much talk of the ending that will be glowing on our screens so soon. I don’t know exactly what to expect, but I do know one thing: no matter what they do, they can’t ruin it. It’s been too good, too valuable in its own right that no single, last episode could mare it.