Looking back at House, M.D.

Now we've said our final goodbyes to House, Caroline looks back fondly over the ups and downs of the long-running US medical drama series...

When FOX’s astonishingly successful and influential medical drama, House M.D., drew to a close a couple of weeks ago, the TV landscape got just a little bit gloomier. Though the announcement that the show would be ending after its then-airing eighth season inspired no great furore or campaigning to keep it on air, there was still a quiet mourning apparent amongst long-time fans who are all too aware how rarely a show like House emerges from the yearly crop of procedurals and workplace dramas. Veterans of the genre David Shore and Paul Attanasio took the police procedural schedule saturated with countless different versions of CSI and lit a fire under it, a rarely taken risk that paid off spectacularly for everyone involved.

But the lack of retort to news of its departure may also have had something to do with the decreasing quality, freshness, and fan favour the show had adopted over the final few seasons (when it happened depends on which group of viewers you speak to), and it’s an unfortunate legacy for Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) and his various fellows to leave behind. We can argue that the show should never have been allowed to run for so many seasons, but people were still watching in their droves, and there’ll always be viewers who want their favourite show to carry on indefinitely. An average procedural can do just that, but House was no ordinary mystery show, and its commitment to character development and pushing television boundaries inadvertently gave it a limited shelf-life.

Now we have come to the end, with the finale episode, Everybody Dies, giving us House’s final puzzle to solve, it’s incredibly rewarding, frustrating and fascinating to look back at the journey it has gone down over eight years. The kicker of the series’ final moments was the central character’s realisation that he could change, and the revelation was one that the show had been building to since day one. A protagonist like House was (and probably still is) a complete no-go for US network television, with his drug dependency and narcissistic nature only complimented by the racist and sexist slurs frequently directed at co-workers and patients alike. The only reason it was probably allowed were its obvious roots in Sherlock Holmes, which might have given it a certain air of legitimacy.

But audiences responded to the character as he was written for the show, and the success of House should probably have taught the television industry a couple of things about taking risks with interesting concepts and complex characters. There were similarities with Holmes, of course, but the tales of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective have become so deeply embedded into our culture that you don’t have to go far to find an influence in film, television or literature. House wore these influences on its sleeve throughout, but it was the vital differences that led the characters on different paths; House in particular descending deeper and deeper into his own darkness as the show progressed. It may have become too dark for its own good at various points, the character sabotaging his own happiness whenever it presented itself, but his journey was always oddly compelling.

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His relationship with best friend Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) was one of the more explicit references to Sherlock Holmes, mirroring that of Holmes and his partner, John Watson, and the relationship was one the writers paid most attention to. House’s emotional wellbeing was almost completely dependent on his relationship with Wilson, but the show made him at times just as co-dependent as his less well-adjusted friend. The dynamic changed over the years, as it would have to in order to retain interest, but was more or less the only constant the show ever managed to hold on to. As storylines got darker, their relationship lost its reasoning, but frequent re-evaluations (mostly from a hurt Wilson) managed to drive it forward to a finale all about their bond.

While Wilson occupied the best friend and confidant role for House, the job of helping him solve the weekly mysteries fell to a handy group of young doctors under his command. In the first three seasons, this consisted of Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), Alison Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) and Eric Foreman (Omar Epps), three doctors with traits useful to their boss in variously twisted ways. House had hired Foreman for his street smarts, Cameron for her attractiveness (assuming it meant she had to work harder to be taken seriously), and Chase because his father had paid his way in. Only two remained regular cast members until the end, and only Chase stayed in more or less the same position he had started in.

But by the time the third season had come to a close, things had grown a little stale. Cameron had expressed an unrequited crush on House during the first season, she and Chase had instigated a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement after a particularly traumatic case in the second, and writers seemed to be having trouble defining any sort of appealing personality for Foreman. It was definitely time for a change, and the show made the relatively unheard of decision to change up its entire cast. The effect was a completely new line-up, even if the original trio were sneakily brought back in during the fourth season. It might be more common now, what with British shows like Misfits, Skins and Being Human recasting every couple of years, but no one was really expecting the new diagnostics team to stick.

But the change was pretty much permanent, and the fourth run of episodes (shortened due to the writers’ strike) was almost solely dedicated to House’s warped recruitment methods. Possibly regretting the largely accidental alienation of his former team, we saw the character draw out the Survivor-style selection process for most of the season. To say it freshened up the format is a vast understatement, as the addition of Taub (Peter Jacobson), Kutner (Kal Penn) and Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) added to, rather than replaced the familiar and comforting dynamic of the show. The old trio were brought back in at various stages, with Foreman acting as a senior member of the team from season four onwards, but the writers had learnt never to let the same group stay for too long.

Of the second casting call, Wilde’s Thirteen (named after her number in House’s initial game) was by far the most interesting. The character added to the already brilliantly-realised female population of the hospital and provided House with a distinctly different adversary to Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) and Cameron. Where Cameron had been steadfastly moral and over-emotional, Thirteen was closed-off, mysterious, and more than a match for her boss. We had seen House bully personal information and painful revelations from his original team for years, but with a new team came new histories and motivations, none richer than Remy Hadley’s. The character’s Huntington’s diagnosis was granted an inordinate amount of attention during season five, making her a little unpopular with viewers, but her illness granted the character a special bond with House.

And the show, though it’s a little depressing to say in 2012, was always a shining example of how to deal with female characters within an ensemble cast. With Lisa Cuddy, Dean of Medicine and someone who could immediately put House in his place, we saw a strong, feminist figure who was afforded a satisfying arc completely independent of any male character’s influence. Over seven years (her character’s story was cut short for murky reasons), she was the show’s rule-maker, single mother to baby Rachel, and a believable love interest for House, despite what the low-cut tops and tight skirts would have you believe. Cuddy, Cameron, Thirteen, Adams (Odette Annable), Park (Charlyne Yi), Amber (Anne Dudek) and Masters (Amber Tamblyn) were all fully-rounded characters in their own right, and that’s sadly still rare on mainstream television.

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You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the various medical matter the show dealt with week-in, week-out, no doubt the main attraction for a large portion of fans, but that aspect has been well documented, and I believe the show has always been about the characters first and foremost. It was the success story it became because of the stunning realisation of its central protagonist. As mentioned, House was conceived as a thoroughly unpleasant but brilliant man, but was somehow made likeable and sympathetic through brilliant writing and performance. There isn’t really enough praise for what Hugh Laurie has done with the character and, when the show became cluttered with characters or lost in its own premise, it was the central character that held everything together.

It’s a vast undertaking for a series of its kind, which usually deals with a big group of equally-billed stars, but it’s exactly this weird mixture of medical drama, crime procedural and character study that made House M.D. stand out from the crowd. It was a series plagued by various flaws its traditionally static format carried with it, but its innate quality in the face of Grey’s Anatomy and other similar hospital-based series managed to shine through. Let’s remember the things that made it great, and not the mistakes it made along the way. With various House-like characters littering the 2012-13 line-up and a resurgence in popularity for Sherlock Holmes across various formats, it’s clear that the show’s legacy will be felt for a long time to come, even if its ideas are never executed to the same excellent standard.

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