When good TV goes bad: why House's self-medication got the better of him

Hugh Laurie’s chronically ill sociopath paved the way for the ‘antihero savant’ genre. After season four, though, it was the viewers who suffered

When Dr Gregory House – played with sardonic relish by Hugh Laurie – first limped on to our screens in 2004, he was the fulcrum of a fresh, inventive medical drama. The sharp-tongued sociopath lodged into brains like a tapeworm (which actually happened in the pilot). The show’s simple formula made for a thrilling watch: a patient with bizarre symptoms – hearing colours, for example – seeks help. They are insulted by a macabre doctor with wit and verve until a genius deduction occurs in the last act and they are cured. House paved the way for procedural dramas with unlikable savant main characters, including Sherlock, Elementary, Psych and The Mentalist.

Left with a limp and in constant pain due to a misdiagnosis earlier in life, House only cares about two things: getting the diagnosis right, and where his next fix of pain-numbing drugs will come from. He cares not for the human beyond the mystery. At first it’s easy to forgive his cruelty because of his ability to say the things we all would like to (although he’s more than a little extreme in his narcissistic thoughts). Unfortunately, however, as the limits of plausibility are strained after the show’s season-four peak, it’s the viewer who wants to pop a handful of Vicodins to take the pain away.

In season five, House doesn’t so much jump the shark as hallucinate one that’s rainbow-coloured and speaking in tongues. Due to his constant grazing on mind-altering drugs, our antihero develops visions of his best friend’s dead girlfriend, whose advice leads to House setting fire to a corpse, performing surgery on an unwilling patient, and poisoning a colleague via a stripper’s strawberry body butter. Mental illness is played here for uncomfortable laughs, and the season ends with House being taken to a mental institution.

Where once we could depend on an exploding testicle to propel episodes forward, we were now privy to more information than we wanted about House’s personal life. Would House give up medicine for cookery? Would House and his boss Dr Lisa Cuddy date? Would House find a house? All these non-questions and more are explored in exhaustive detail.

One later episode also revolves around a now apparently sane House’s attempt to win a potato-launching competition against a teenager. In previous series, he would do extraordinarily dangerous things to save a patient, but now he did them for shock, such as hiring a child actor to pretend to be his best friend’s long-lost son. When his relationship with Cuddy fails he drives a car into her apartment. Nearly slaughtering a dinner party because of a broken heart fits nowhere into what we had thought we knew about the ultra-logical misog.

In an episode long after the show’s prime, we are teased with images of House leaping from a hotel balcony. The viewer is hoping for an appropriately dramatic end to our once-proud font of brutal honesty. Instead, it’s a classic anticlimax from a show that used to never pull its punches. House plunges into a swimming pool to the applause of a crowd of six-packed jocks at a college party. Jump the shark or dive into the pool? In the end it amounted to the same thing, really.


Ben Gazur

The GuardianTramp

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