When a network television show enters its sixth season, it’s easy for the writers to simply flip the show over to autopilot. If your series has made it that long, you’ve clearly found a formula that works, so why not keep writing the same stories over and over again, freeing your mind up to instead focus on all the things you’ll buy with your fat syndication checks?
That’s what makes last season of House so fascinating. While it would have been so easy for the writers of that show to stick to their tried and true formula (“Patient collapses during the show’s opening, no one can figure out what it is, House and his team run some tests and mistakenly think it’s a few things it isn’t, then ultimately a mundane conversation with Wilson or Cuddy clues House in to the real disease, which is something obscure that no one has ever heard of”), they didn’t. Instead, they decided to branch out and focus more on Dr. House’s personal life and his struggle to overcome his inner demons.
I’ve always enjoyed House, but the medical mystery stuff was always secondary to me. When House solves a case at the end of an episode, it always ends up sounding like complete gibberish to me. I have no medical background. For all I know, the writers are simply making up diseases every week. Five minutes after most episodes end, I completely forget whatever the diagnosis was.
But I keep coming back because I love watching Hugh Laurie play House. It’s a brilliant character (one I like so much that I ranked Dr. Gregory House number 10 on my “25 Most Memorable TV Characters of the Decade” list back in January). What makes the character so fascinating is that he is incredibly brilliant, but it comes at a huge personal cost – he feels isolated from society, unable to make personal connections. Add to that an addiction to pain killers and House becomes a troubled character constantly teetering on the edge.
The writers started to shake up the show in season four, when House fired his original diagnostic team and had a season-long contest to find their replacements. (Which turned out to be a brilliant move since it brought Olivia Wilde to the show as a bisexual loose cannon – a move so great that I’m even willing to overlook her incredibly forced and unconvincing romantic storyline with Foreman.) Also to spice things up, they started doing gimmicky episodes like having House diagnose a patient living in the South Pole who he can only communicate with via webcam or having House kidnap the star of his favorite soap opera after becoming convinced he was sick while watching the show. House’s biggest weakness as a show has always been its tendency to go for an over-the-top “shock factor” in order to drum up interest and to provide the PR people with flashy content to stick in their weekly promos. (ESPN columnist Bill Simmons hilariously mocked the promos for the pilot of House incessantly, which featured Wilson telling house in the most dramatic way possible: “You’re risking a patient’s life!”)
Last season on the show, the writers took a completely different approach to mixing things up – they decided to finally have House seek help for his drug addiction. In previous seasons, his Vicodin addiction was always downplayed as not that big a deal. Cuddy, Wilson and everyone else looked the other way. There was a season-long story arc in 2007 where a police officer played by David Morse discovered House’s addiction and made it his quest to bust the good doctor. The storyline ended with House faking his way through rehab, secretly taking Vicodin the whole time he was in recovery, meaning he got off with absolutely no consequences. From there, his addiction was put on the backburner so that status quo could be restored and the show could revert back to its tried and true formula.
So to have House finally hit a breaking point and check himself into rehab for real in the beginning of season six was a huge departure for the show. The two-part season premiere “Broke” completely abandoned the show’s formula – House was a patient in rehab, the rest of the regular cast was not seen (except for a brief cameo by Wilson) and there was no medical mystery for House to solve. Instead, the episodes had House at a crossroads in his life where he ultimately chose to give up the drugs and to try to grow as a person. His great fear in doing so was that he would lose his ability to diagnose medical cases, but he knew that in the long run he had to change if he was ever going to be happy and healthy.
Since that episode, the entire dynamic of the character has changed. As part of his recovery, House is actually making an effort to connect to people. Season six had him going out to karaoke and speed dating with Chase and Foreman, which never would have happened in the old days. For the first time in the show’s history, he is attempting to make lasting connections with people he cares about, putting himself at risk of being hurt. He’s actively trying to be a better person, which flies in the face of everything the audience has come to know and expect from the character. We like House because he is surly and closed off, but deep down we know he’s miserable. Last season, he officially began his quest to be happy, which has presented a whole new set of obstacles for him to overcome.
It’s a big risk for a successful network show to completely abandon what works. To have a character grow and actually overcome his emotional issues could be the kiss of death. As I mentioned in a column earlier this year, deep down we don’t want to see flawed characters heal. Their inner struggles are reassuring to use and make us feel better about our own lives. To have House start to get better could potentially turn off viewers who enjoy the schadenfreude.
But I love every minute of it. Hugh Laurie’s acting last season was amazing (for the record, he should have beaten Brian Cranston for the Emmy) and this new take on the show has completely re-energized it. I’d rather see House struggling with himself this season than some wacky “shocking” plotline like having House and his team trying to heal the pilot of Air Force One before the plane crashes with the President on board any day. (Seriously, if they end up doing that episode, I better get royalty checks.)
What’s most amazing about this shift in the show is that I’m now actually interested in seeing House and Cuddy be together. I’m typically the guy who rolls his eyes at TV show’s mandatory “star-crossed lovers” plotlines, but at this point in the show, having House truly put himself out there by trying to date Cuddy again makes complete sense. It’s a natural progression. Plus, I love how this year’s pilot was able to convey a range of emotions – House and Cuddy getting to be cute and happy together, House taking control and secretly dealing with a crisis at the hospital so that she could relax and take a leisurely bath and ultimately House getting scared and convincing himself their relationship is doomed to fail again, even though it’s just beginning.
Monday’s episode was entitled “Now What?” I think ultimately that’s the question for this show. Will they continue to take risks and shake things up by continuing to have House evolve and change or will they take the easy way out and revert back to the show’s old tried and true formula?
Here’s hoping that, like House himself, they decide to do the right thing, no matter how scary it may be.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.