What can be said about a series that must certainly be ranked as one of the most compelling to have ever appeared on television? It is easy to view the slew of awards that "House, M.D." has been nominated for (and won), to recall the litany of accolades the show has garnered from news, entertainment, and magazine critics, and even to review the endless series of online postings concerning the show (like this very one, here, on Amazon), and conclude that, "Yes, "House, M.D." is probably a good show." But in fact, "House, M.D." is more than a good show. For many viewers, the series is easily one of the most fascinating and unusual to have ever been aired on television. Moreover, and dare I say it, the series will likely eventually be ranked amongst the top television shows ever produced on network television.
But before I say any more about "House, M.D.," let me briefly for the reader summarize the show. "House, M.D." is a medical drama that takes place at a fictional teaching hospital ("Princeton-Plainsborough Hospital"). The story revolves around a particular doctor, Dr. Gregory House, an individual who has established himself as a medical genius able to solve difficult medical mysteries that other doctors have been unable to solve. Dr. House works with a small group of internists who are serving in residence under him, and who, despite their much less experience, actively work with House to solve medical problems through a technique called a "Differential Diagnosis," a kind of group-based brainstorming session where diagnostic ideas are presented, written on a white board, and systematically eliminated by comparing each hypothesis with the ongoing list of patient symptoms. But Dr. House is more than just a diagnostic genius: he possesses a debilitating leg injury that keeps him in perpetual pain, and he regularly uses powerful prescription painkillers to the point where there is genuine concern that he may, in fact, be a pain medicine addict. But there's more. Along with his genius, House has an incredibly insensitive and offensive demeanor, and seemingly has no concern for social norms, courtesies, or sometimes, even common decency. His unparalleled genius at helping patients is probably what keeps him employed in spite of his incredibly ongoing offensive behavior.
What makes this show so compelling, so unique, and so interesting? There is probably no one answer to this question. At the core of it is likely House himself, a character who is fundamentally a contradiction, a walking incongruity, a person that we desperately and increasingly wish to understand, and perhaps, even wish to control to correct his unacceptable behavior. We find ourselves watching this man and so strongly wishing that we can figure him out, to come to a true understanding and belief about him, to solve the mystery of who he really is, and by that knowledge, settle the manifold open questions surrounding him and his relationships to others that each episode more fully presents.
Unfortunately, or should I rather say, "fortunately," such an understanding is not easily developed. The complexities, ambiguities, and open questions surrounding the character of House come tantalizingly close to being solved time after time, only to be later shown that what we thought was the answer to this man was really just another false lead, another misunderstanding, another fact to add into this increasingly difficult puzzle. Part of the show's allure is this ongoing dissonance, not only between House and his coworkers, but deeply within House himself. Is he truly an uncaring person? Is he truly a person who views his entire medical career as simply a series of puzzles to be solved, and where people who recover are simply a side effect of the solved puzzle? Does he really look at every social, religious, or ethnic factor as a legitimate target of derision? Is he truly hostile to people's religious convictions? Does he truly believe that his drug addiction is an irrelevant issue to his work? Each episode faces us with House's reaction to these questions to varying degrees, and over time, we may find that we build an increasing understanding of this man, but we often find those understandings torn apart in a later episode, where new observations on House make us rethink what we think we knew.
In spite of House's problems and deficiencies, we often find him an imminently likeable character, and we often see hints of goodness in him that he desperately tries to keep hidden from others. Often, it is hinted in the subtilest of ways that House himself wishes to hide from others the fact that he truly does care, but this hint is just as quickly dashed as we witness his next immature toy kicking. (It can sometimes seem that House is more of a four year old in a nursery who is testing his fellow nursery members for territorial markers. In other cases, he is the genius child who seeks to use others as fodder for his most recent theories on human and animal behavior.)
"House, M.D.," if the truth be known, does not start out in Season One as a soap opera, but by Season Five for the series run, I think a defensible case can be made that the show takes on many of the trappings of a soap opera, curiously and ironically enough, mirroring the very soap operas that the character House in the show is seen so frequently watching (often, on an old, 1990's style portable television located in his office). This morphing into the arena of the soap opera doesn't really matter, though, for the viewer who has gone through the entire set of previous episodes in order. With no attempt to defend this shift in style, the show uses its first three seasons to genuinely establish itself as a puzzle solving, medical mystery show, with House serving as a medical Sherlock Holmes (sans the hat and the pipe, but plus the strange personality and temperament issues), and the stories are easily carried with each individual episode standing as a mental gymnastic exercise that keeps the viewer wanting more. But strewn through these episodes are myriads of strange, and often, very awkward character interactions that are left unfinished and unexplored, tantalizing us with seeming keys to unlock the mystery of House. It is perhaps inevitable that a show lasting so many years (now in its sixth season) and having such strong characters and unusual trappings would be inevitably drawn to revisit and examine such unfinished business. These "explorations" begin to occur more repeatedly in Season Four, and by Season Five, we see the exaggeration of much of this at the expense of series' original, focal point of medical mysteries to be resolved, which by this point in the series often take back seat to the ever growing personal dramas. But even this doesn't matter. The issues and themes explored in Season Five, while taking on the feeling of a soap opera, are still handled with great expertise and generally fascinating ways, so that we still find ourselves focused on each event, all the time still (unconsciously at times, I must admit) wishing that we can figure House out, get the mystery of House solved, and have some type of a resolution that fits our conception of the real world. By the end of Season Five, we still do not have an answer for this dilemma, and the show uses this dilemma to hold the audience's attention in a powerful manner.
The basic premise of the show is so startling unique and fascinating in its own right that the show does not need to rely on cheap "shock" tricks to maintain attention. It is true that there are a number of "shocking" events to occur through the series, and there can be no doubt that the show, being first and foremost a network based television format production, employs "cliffhangers" to hold the viewer through the regular commercial breaks, but it is amazing to see how the show is regularly worked into individual episodes that are artfully crafted into stories that flow, and work, from beginning to end.
Quite some time ago, I wrote a long review for "The Rockford Files," a television show in the 1970's that, in my own thinking, achieved the status as being one of the best television shows ever produced. I had written my review at a time when the first "Rockford Files" DVD's were being released, and the opportunity to re-watch these shows reminded me again of the superior writing, the acting, and the impressive interworking of the cast which made this show, not just a cut above the average television show, but a true classic, one that could almost not be challenged in the realm of television. I still feel that way about The Rockford Files, and, truth be known, another very different show from a decade earlier, "The Dick Van Dyke Show," had many of these same characteristics, all coalescing to make what eventual became in both cases a classic production. "The Rockford Files" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" reached such pinnacles of performance that they remain examples of the very best television ever made, and even the ravages of 30 and 40 years of time have done little but solidify that achievement.
"House, M.D." is, in my opinion, is likely destined for that same level of accolade. In the show, we find that same coalescing of features - a truly unique character creation, excellent writing, and a cast that works well together - that will argue for the show's inclusion in that highest level of ranking. But whether that specific claim turns out to be true or not, the fact remains that House, M.D. is one of the most fascinating, intriguing, and enjoyable shows to watch. We witness medical problems and the difficult procedure in diagnosing and treating those problems; we witness the struggles, oddities, and offensiveness (and yes, there are many parts of the show that are incredibly offensive) of a main character who remains both a genius and an enigma, an inscrutable person who is endlessly fascinating to behold; we witness a cast of actors who must earn to interact with the powerful character of House while establishing their own credibility; and finally, but not least of all, we enjoy Hugh Laurie's incredible rendition of the House character. Add these factors up, and you end up with one heck of a fascinating show. I'll say it in conclusion again, that this is one of the best television shows to have appeared in years, and Hugh Laurie is superb in his role as House. You can enjoy it even more on DVD, where there are no commercial interruptions. I rate this as five stars, but the real truth is that it is one BIG star (House) with four other stars with him. Well, make that seven or eight other stars, depending on the season you are currently watching.