Dumped: House, M.D.

Posted on September 14, 2011


Let me start by saying that we’re big fans of Hugh Laurie. We loved him in Blackadder. We loved him in Jeeves and Wooster. We loved him in A Bit of Fry and Laurie. We’re also fans of series creator/producer Bryan Singer. As a result we picked up this series from the beginning. I’m a big fan of Lisa Edelstein and Peter Jacobson because of the show.

We Stayed Too Long

House started off functioning like a scientist. A patient came in. House’s team examined the patient and reported their findings. House and his team (but mostly House) formed a hypothesis as to the cause of the symptoms. They tested the hypothesis. Because this is TV drama and you can’t solve everything on your first try, they added the results of the tests to their findings and formed another hypothesis. Repeat until patient is cured.

There were variations. Many of the episodes focused on relationships rather than on medical dramas, which was fine. Sometimes things happened in the hospital – hostage dramas, etc. Again, that’s fine. Variety is the spice of life.

Also, there were times when a patient’s condition became critical. House and his team couldn’t afford lengthy testing and had to act on their experience and training, making a best guess.

And then…

The formula devolved to this: Two unrelated patients arrive at Princeton-Plainsborough Hospital. One requires the “acute diagnostician” Gregory House and his team. The other is thrust on House by Dr. Cuddy, or his clinic hours, or something completely random. House suggests why patient A is sick. No one believes him. House insists on some tests, there’s some relationship stuff, and he spends some time in the clinic. Maybe there’s some Vicodin issues, just to mix things up a bit. House’s treatment doesn’t work, or the tests are inconclusive. House and his team are stumped. Patient A gets worse. Then, while House is doing something completely unrelated to Patient A (possibly even doing his job with Patient B), someone says something that has nothing to do with anything, but that sparks inspiration in Dr. House. Patient A is saved! Usually.

In other words, they dumped all the actual medical practice, scientific procedure, and rational thought. Instead, they brought in miraculous inspirational thinking. They might as well have written in an invisible alien, or an orderly who’s actually an angel, and had them appear to and guide House. Seriously. No matter how much medical mumbo-jumbo dresses up an episode, they’ve abandoned any kind of rational approach to medicine.

We stopped watching at some point in Season 7 (around Episode 12, I think), but the formula had devolved before then. We’re shippers, though, and we hung in for awhile hoping for the return of the medical detective work that made us fall in love with the show in the first place.


Watch any show long enough, and two things happen. First, characters become caricatures. We stopped watching Monk before the last season because Monk had become a collection of eccentricities that only served the plot, instead of being the tragi-comic character he was when the series began. No matter how good your actors are, they can’t elevate the material if they’re playing flat, two-dimensional, characters. Some shows develop character “bibles,” which cover all the quirks and characteristics of each major character. As time goes on, they become checklists. Each episode must check off some number of boxes, even if those things are irrelevant to the plot. This has happened with House. Actors often leave successful series because this happens. Whenever there’s a cast change, look to see if the surviving characters become less interesting.

The reason that this happens is risk. A lot of money goes into a TV series. The investors and the studio need to make their money back. Plus, the network broadcasting the series counts on it for advertising revenue. For that matter, the major advertisers count on it to bring eyeballs to their ads. It’s a big deal. Determining the most popular aspects of characters and focusing on those, without allowing any growth or change, is a way to reduce financial risk. It’s creative death for writers and actors of course, but no one (besides them) cares as long as the cash machine keeps spitting out money.

Second, the show becomes formulaic. I have a tough enough time writing three blog posts a week (one here and two at Forces of Geek). I can’t imagine what it would be like on the writing staff for an hour-long TV drama. You’ve got to crank out finished scripts every week, with lots of “helpful” input from the studio, director, producers, actors, and so on. Formulas give you a skeleton on which you can build episodes. When you’re burned out and your creativity is at low ebb, the formula saves you. It also, as with caricatures instead of characters, reduces risk. Viewers get the same thing every week because that’s what the market research says they want.

Personally, that’s one thing about British television that I prefer over American television. British programs are more like American mini-series. They tell a story and stop. If the series does well, they might come back and do another. Five years passed between Season 1 and Season 2 of Lovejoy, for example. Characters are allowed to change. Creatives get time off to recharge their batteries. Original ideas aren’t crushed by the hammer of risk mitigation.


If you disagree with me about House, I understand. If it’s returned to its roots, let us know. We can check out an episode or two.

What really interests me is what you think of this format. Is it interesting to you? Would you like to see more? Am I being hypocritical? I suppose you can’t answer that until you see more columns, but do let me know what you think.

Posted in: television