House M.D.: “Broken”

September 23, 2009 at 8:12 pm Leave a comment

Gregory House If Gregory House is the wry, crude doctor audiences love to hate, then House M.D. has been the show I hate to love. It exemplifies everything in the postmodern situation and those parts of my own personality that I’m uncomfortably familiar with: a devotion to ridicule over sincerity, to witty observation over constructive dialogue, and to a comfortable distance from other people that allows one to mock without being mocked. Over the years, House M.D. has been a sort of fantasy for people with these inclinations, the eponymous doctor eschewing all sorts of sincere interpersonal connections in favor of clever derision. He is able to do this freely and without consequence: for whatever reason his friends Wilson and Cuddy remain by him and supportive of him despite his often terrible treatment of them, and though the show pays lip service to his character being miserable, he seems perfectly happy in the vast majority of the scenes that we see him in.

The act of television watching lends itself to House’s sort of relationship, allowing viewers to ridicule what they see on the program without fear of those actors or writers coming through the screen to retaliate. It’s a one-way glass that offers the audience the comfortable distance that House enjoys from others at Princeton-Plainsboro. (Try and tell me you don’t enjoy making fun of ridiculous entertainment. There’s a reason we love bad movies and reality television.) House himself takes the place of the postmodern television viewer, not only in his relationships with the other characters, but also in his patronage of a General Hospital-like ripoff which he is often seen watching and poking fun at in the show. The fellows behind House M.D. have created a character that speaks to these parts of us (well, to me at least, though given its ratings I feel fairly confident in my conjecture), and have formulized it to the point at which most episodes over the show’s five-year span are just about interchangable.

Given all of this, imagine my surprise when I sat down to watch the season premiere this week and saw something that attempted to break down these formulaic models and distressing fantasies in what I feel is the show’s best episode in years. (If you haven’t seen it yet, *spoiler alert* and all that jazz) At the end of the fifth season, House is finally forced to admit that he has a problem with Vicodin addiction and is sent to Mayfield Psychiatric Hospital to seek treatment. While this in itself seemed like a big step in the show and in House’s growth, the cynic in me couldn’t help but think that the sixth season would be nothing more than the same song and dance in a different locale: House undermining the authority of the people treating him while solving medical mysteries and giving directions to his former staff from the (dis)comfort of his new abode, the end result being the illusion of novelty draped over the same tired formula.  How edgy!

House_Broken

While the episode did indeed begin in this way, House appearing undeniably superior to his fellow patients, mocking both them and his doctors as he attempts to devise a way to get out of the institution, something happens about halfway through that changes his outlook. Specifically, he almost kills a man. A fellow patient is under the delusion that he is a superhero, and the doctors force him to confront reality. For some reason, House believes this to be cruel, and tricks his way into taking the patient to a carnival in order to get on a ride that gives its patrons the illusion of flight. In a fairly telegraphed turn of events, the patient promptly thanks House and jumps off a building. Not only does this force House to realize that he has some serious problems, but reading between the lines (or viewing between the frames, not sure what the televisual expression would be) it is almost certainly House who drives himself to this point, on however a subconscious level. If House is the genius that we have been led to believe, then surely he should be able to realize what is so immediately apparent to the audience: that reinforcing this man’s dangerous delusions isn’t such a hot idea. Furthermore, his own background of overriding patients’ feelings and prescribing what is “best” for them should have desensitized him to the faux-Superman’s disappointment at not being able to fly. Finally, if he had simply ignored this matter, as would have been wise, he could have continued pretending to comply with the system and would have been out of the institution in a matter of days. On some level, therefore, House knows that he actually needs to change, and forces himself to confront this fact.

The rest of the show portrays House slowly learning to open himself up (beginning with his therapist) and to break down the secure distance he normally creates with others, putting himself at risk of being rejected or ridiculed. At first he is hesitant, deflecting his therapists’ questions and trying to steer the conversation away from himself, but by the end of the episode he is able to come to him for help with personal matters, and puts himself on the social line by doing ridiculous things such as freestyle rap with his annoying roommate in a talent show and plunge his face into a cake for laughs. While some might say that his change is too sudden, and perhaps it is, I was too happy with the issues that the episode was grappling with to care. It completely breaks from the formula of the show (the one mystery of the episode takes up about 5 minutes and is not even medical, its sole purpose seeming to be showing that House has not lost his capacity for deductive reasoning due to his new medications) and replaces the fantasy of sarcastic assholes everywhere with the message that sooner or later, you’re going to have to open up and put yourself at emotional risk in order to establish relationships and be happy. (House even reprises his role as television-audience stand-in near the end of the episode when he professes, “I’m afraid of/to change.”) Changing the character of House in order to accommodate such sincerity is a risk of the part of the writers, but it is one that is necessary, and it pays off marvelously.  Now let’s just hope the writers don’t promptly undercut these changes in the next episode.

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