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TV’s House continues to puzzle

I have a love/hate relationship with House, MD, which is really reflective of the main character himself, who seems to vacillate between being mind-numbingly irritating and absolutely delightful. Sometimes the show is drama at its finest, with nuanced, complicated explorations of characters and their motivations. At other times, it’s a frustrating example of the worst side of medical dramas, like the hyperfocus on attributing all negative behaviour to illness, rather than intrinsic character flaws.

This season, House has felt like a bit of a mixed bag. There was a period in the middle there where I had trouble sitting through a whole episode because they all felt so dull. Everything started to blur together and I lost some storylines in the middle. This is a common problem with US television and its endless nature, the ‘run it ’til the ratings fall through the floor’ approach where creators keep having to generate new content even if they’re out of original ideas because there’s no set end in sight.

Medical dramas have a particularly hard time with this because there are only so many exotic diseases viewers will tolerate, even on a show dedicated to the most exotic of the bunch. There are only so many ways to kill a patient, only so many dramatic scenarios to set up, and only so many ways we can watch the characters hook up and pair off. Medical dramas start to stall out after a certain point because they back themselves into a corner and there’s nowhere else to go. Viewers become attached to a particular tone and style and will resist vigorously if the show attempts to step outside of that.

House has pushed the envelope much more than other dramas and it’s perhaps the most interested in actual character development when compared to other medical shows. I can see the characters growing and changing, a far cry from other shows where everyone seems static and frozen in time. On House, things are happening, and they are not always nice things. Cuddy becomes more manipulative so she can push and pull House the way she wants to. Wilson grows more detached in the hopes that House will gain independence.

The show has made a bold move by revolving itself around a fundamentally unlikeable character. House is an asshole. He’s often not a very lovable asshole, he’s not an adorable brat like Richard Castle on Castle; he’s brusque, he’s harsh with patients, he routinely violates medical ethics and really ought to have lost his license long ago. He’s also a brilliant diagnostician and a master manipulator, capable of twisting the people around him to get what he wants before dropping them and leaving them with that sinking feeling that they’ve been had. Again.

A few weeks ago, my interest in House started perking up again from the sluggish middle season episodes, like the writers were finally ready to buckle down to business and remind us why we’re all watching again in the first place. It is not coincidental that this occurred at around the same time they brought Thirteen back and started to set us up for a potentially gory euthanasia plot.

This week’s episode, ‘Changes,’ was a reminder of the fact that all the characters consider themselves amateur psychiatrists and freely pschoanalyse each other as well as their patients, whether we’re probing the happiness of lottery winners or Foreman’s self control. It also brought us back to the theme of characters changing as a result of their interactions with House, some becoming more pessimistic about their patients while others skew in the opposite direction in a defiance of House’s usual attitude.

In the case of Thirteen, time away from House was an important part of her character development. She went away to a place we didn’t get to see and now that she’s returned, we’re watching her try to reintegrate with a team that has, in many senses, moved on. She’s also grappling with some emotional fallout after euthanasing her brother that expresses in sometimes peculiar ways; the new Thirteen is harder, sharper, edgier. I rather adore her.

Where House excels is in the character studies, which can make it kind of a sleepy show, at times. Going back to watch some of the episodes I skipped or zoned out on, I can always find more in there. Accustomed to fast-paced, dramatic entertainment, particularly in the case of medical shows, I have to remember that this is a show that is often subtle, and forces the users to pay attention to catch the shifts that occur in the personalities of the characters. House, much like its title character, is often ambiguous and it manipulates viewers to draw us in. This is not a show for casual fans.

The masterful craft lies not in the endlessly changing diagnosis and the final House lightbulb moment at the end of the episode, giving him an opportunity to walk off in the middle of a conversation to remind another character of his low opinion. The brilliance lies in the quiet, intense discussions between the characters as they grapple with the case and each other, in the tight-knit bonds between them as they revolve around House without allowing him to consume them.

I’m starting to get excited about House again and I am particularly curious to see where the show decides to take us next season. This is a show that does best when it introduces new characters for the team to interact with and upsets the established paradigm, and I hope to see more of that next season. I particularly enjoy characters who are capable of unsettling and unseating House, as Martha Masters (Amber Tamblyn on an extended guest role) did over the course of this season and Thirteen seems poised to do.

House is an exploration of a complicated and sometimes frustrating man and it is not afraid to confront the boundaries of acceptability in terms of topics we expect to see on primetime, and behaviours we are willing to tolerate from our television characters. It is unafraid to take the stories it explores in a different direction than other medical dramas do when they dare to go there, and that makes it a refreshing entry on the often uniform and predictable primetime lineup.