House Plots

House, M.D. is going off the air after eight seasons.

It’s one of the few shows I watch consistently.  Like most network shows, it has a very formulaic structure:

  1. Someone has some interesting medical event happen to him before the opening credits.
  2. House’s team makes their initial diagnoses, which are invariably wrong.
  3. Some kind of workplace or personal subplot starts taking place in conjunction with the main save-the-patient plot. We also delve into the patient’s life–and generally we discover that the patient is lying about something, and his personal life is much more complicated than we expected.
  4. An exciting medical event happens about mid-way through the show–a seizure, blood leaking out of the eyeballs, etc.  Can this patient be saved?
  5. The patient keeps getting worse.  Finally, House makes some connection between the workplace subplot and the patient’s disease and comes up with the correct diagnosis in the nick of time.

Here’s what I find interesting: The plot is structured as a standard mystery story, but it’s missing a key element of standard mysteries–namely, the viewer has no way of guessing the outcome, because we’re not doctors.  Furthermore, we couldn’t care less whether the patient actually has typhus or lupus or a brain tumor or some rare genetic disease that only affects people who have been to Ethiopia in the past decade.  We’re just along for the ride.  It’s a tribute to the acting and the writing that House works as well as it does.

Two more points about House:

  • House is portrayed as a jerk, and part of his jerkness is that he’s a thoroughgoing atheist.  But throughout the entire series his skepticism always turns out to be justified: there are no miracles; there are no sentimental endings where someone’s prayers are answered.
  • Anyone who can portray both House and Bertie Wooster has got to be some kind of great actor.  Let’s hope Hugh Laurie gets more great roles.  After the money he made on House, he can afford to be choosy.