House’s legacy and the Sherlock archetype

As we prepare to wave a final goodbye to House, Gem asks whether the series blazed a trail for the BBC's Sherlock...

 

This article contains spoilers.

There was a little sadness, but not much surprise, when Fox announced the decision to cancel House after its eighth season this year. Most would agree that the show’s pretty much exhausted the limits of its format, after eight seasons of life-threatening incidents, death-defying scenarios and pivotal, last-minute decisions. And that’s just a summary of the eponymous doctor’s love life…

The real heart of the show’s always been its weird and wonderful cases, and the medical mysteries Gregory House, M.D. found himself investigating from the show’s launch in November 2004 were always a little out of the ordinary. Over the years, we’ve seen debilitating memory problems, terrifying tropical diseases, smallpox caught from an eighteenth-century slave ship (don’t ask) and parasites in the brain. And no matter how many times lupus was suggested as the cause for some horrendous set of symptoms or other, the running joke was that nobody ever actually had it…until eventually, someone finally did. If House achieved anything in its lengthy run, it was to ensure that hypochondriacs had a whole new set of terrors to keep them awake at night.

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Criticised by many for its adherence to its own peculiar formula, each episode of House saw the good doctor…okay, the really rather snide doctor faced with a medical case so bizarre that only he, armed with his powers of deduction, bitter sense of humour and industrial quantities of prescription drugs, could fathom. Surrounded by his team of hapless interns and berated by his disapproving peers – his only friend Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) and his boss/sometime lust interest, Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) – House rejected all manner of suggestions and tried all kinds of incredibly dangerous remedies before hitting on the right solution, just seconds before the patient finally exploded/evaporated/hit him from sheer fury (whichever came first).  

After the departure of his original team at the end of season three, when, in typical House fashion, one was sacked and the other two resigned in protest, House subjected a brand new set of luckless hopefuls to his own set of diagnostic tests, eliminating one per week. This gimmick worked remarkably well – for the audience, at least – although life for the chosen few would, inevitably, prove difficult. A suicide, a hereditary illness and all sorts of romantic strife would plague the team at Princeton-Plainsboro as the seasons progressed. House would go to jail (at last!), Wilson would lose more than one lover and the hospital would, somehow, remain intact. Unlike Cuddy’s house after House drove into it, which was no doubt intended as a deep commentary on his own desire for self-destruction, but actually just took the show to a whole new level of crazy. 

However, the series leaves behind another legacy, one a little more obscure than its lurid case files or the frankly bizarre romantic complications faced by its characters. David Shore and co’s attempt to refresh the medical drama, following the Fox network’s brief to avoid the genre’s white-coated, stethoscope-wielding clichés, was a much-needed shot in the arm for the stagnant, post-ER world of the medical procedural. Like all the most successful dramas, though, it wasn’t entirely original. 

House is a particular kind of antihero: attractive – in a vaguely sociopathic sort of way – driven, obsessive, and awfully good at getting results. Sound familiar? Those of you who’ve been lapping up the adventures of a certain consulting detective should be nodding in recognition at this point. And there’s a very specific reason for that. The Sherlock Holmes reworked by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss is, unsurprisingly enough, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary creation. He’s been tinkered with, of course. The Victorian sleuth’s non-existent sex life has been, ahem, probed, while his drug addiction, interestingly, has been pushed into the background, reflecting the changing concerns of a different age. Rather than merely clothing the nineteenth-century icon in a swish coat and adding some complementary brooding, the character has been reworked to give a modern slant on the traits we’ve come to love. But the modern Sherlock, as written by pop-culture mavens such as Moffat and Gatiss, was never going to exist in a vacuum. Sometimes, the series has acknowledged this. Watson’s even called him Spock after one too many bouts of cold logic, in a sly nod to the influence of Sherlock’s analytical nature on Star Trek’s ultra-cool Vulcan pin-up (sorry, Kirk fans, I’m with Dax on this one). 

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So why are we talking about Star Trek and Sherlock, again? Don’t worry, I’m getting there. Doyle took his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes from Dr Joseph Bell, who he’d come across while working as a clerk at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Bell was a pioneer in the field of forensic science, in its infancy at the close of the nineteenth century, and seems to have assisted in several high-profile murder cases in his native Scotland. His technique was to take tiny details of a person’s appearance, dress or actions and extrapolate from those to form a larger picture of his or her character and habits. Doyle had the beginnings of his Sherlock right there, and was never slow to acknowledge his debt. David Shore and his team weren’t just paying an amusing homage to Doyle’s own creation when they launched House – they were actually going right back to the Holmes character’s real-life origins in medical school. We finally got an official acknowledgement of this in season five, when House was seen consulting one of Bell’s books (as well as the cheeky touch that House’s favourite reading material was none other than The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes). The Bell tome was a gift from the long-suffering Wilson, with the dedication ‘Greg, made me think of you.’ Just to underline the point, the patient Wilson got the book from was one Irene Adler… 

Think about it. Instead of Holmes, we have House. Say them out loud, if it helps. Yes, that noise reverberating around the planet is the sound of several million palms striking several million faces. House’s long-suffering pal Wilson is strikingly similar to Holmes’ boon companion, Watson, who is – of course – also a doctor. Does that make Cuddy Lestrade’s counterpart, then? A promising new avenue for the Sherlock shippers, perhaps… House even has his very own equivalent of the Baker Street Irregulars (the brigade of street kids Holmes employs to run errands and uncover useful snippets of information) in the guise of his oppressed underlings, scurrying to test all the madcap theories he’s too lazy to disprove himself.

He also has a serious drug addiction, downing Vicodin to numb the pain of his injured leg just as Holmes injects a cocaine solution to ‘sharpen his thinking’ (curiously, an aspect of the Sherlock character that Moffat and co have been slow to explore). A couple of Moriarty-style nemeses have tested House’s patience over the years – the officious Vogler, a pharmaceuticals magnate with a financial stranglehold over the hospital, and Tritter, a policeman with a burning hatred of a certain drug-dependent medic – but none have lasted the course. Oh, and the name of the gunman who shot House at the end of season two? Take a wild guess. 

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At a time when Steven Moffat’s questioning the need for an American version of the Holmes myth, it’s important to remember the cyclical nature of these pop culture trends. Moffat and Gatiss’ Sherlock exists in a post-House world. The character as written by Doyle is rarely as snide or cold as the TV Sherlock can be at his worst, so why do we accept these traits as canonical in the face of all the evidence? The simple answer is that the character has been diffused through a prism of so many other similar figures over the years. It’s difficult to remember now, when Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on the character is so widely accepted and admired, but when Sherlock was first announced, there was a certain amount of scepticism that an updated version would bring anything new to the table. Did House, with its moody, waspish medic/detective hybrid, prime us all to accept the new Sherlock as something more than a gimmick? 

It certainly seems oddly appropriate that House should be ending just as the newest interpretation of Doyle’s character is taking centre stage. The doctor’s pop cultural work is done. 

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