I don’t watch much TV, but I’m beginning to suspect I have an addiction to House, M.D. This might be appropriate, given that the show’s main character, Dr. Gregory House, is himself recovering from an addiction to painkillers.
House might seem like an unlikely, dare I say even unhealthy, addiction to develop. As a Jesuit friend observed to me, explaining why he couldn’t stand the show, “He’s just so mean.” And, I admit, Dr. House is not a very nice guy.
The character House says whatever he wants because he doesn’t seem to care what anybody else thinks of him. He is a tyrant to his employees, callous toward his patients, and not even particularly happy with himself. But he gets away with it because he’s brilliant, and I enjoy watching him because he’s funny. It doesn’t hurt that Hugh Laurie, the British actor who plays House, is superb in the show; his American accent, his sense of timing, and House’s expressions always seem to be spot-on.
Now, I probably wouldn’t invite House over to the community for dinner, and I don’t try to emulate his witty tactlessness myself (most days), but as a fictional character he’s brilliant. He’s brilliant because he’s so complex, because despite the apparent heartlessness, despite the monstrous arrogance, the manipulation, the meanness, House does care about saving his patients and he occasionally allows glimpses of humanity (and weakness) to show through.
The beginning of this past season, when House was finally broken by his addiction to painkillers, is the most dramatic example of the character showing vulnerability, but it is not the only one. When these moments do come they are all the more poignant because they are so rare and come at such a cost to House. Particularly interesting is House’s relationship to his one friend, the oncologist Dr. James Wilson. House is no less sarcastic toward Wilson than he is toward anyone else, and their friendship is largely marked by House’s game-playing, but it is a real friendship, something they both deeply need.
There’s something a little bit sad about their friendship, but maybe something a bit heroic too, an unspoken determination to care for someone else despite that person’s manifest un-lovability. It’s complex, and, for me, that’s one of the best things fiction can be. I think it was Aristotle who said that the point of drama is to educate the emotions.
Fiction teaches, but in a different way than philosophy teaches, by giving us new experiences and, hopefully, by evoking some sort of a response from those experiences. If those responses pull us in directions in which we are not used to being pulled—mixing sadness and admiration, irritation and amusement—we begin to develop a richer emotional and moral life. Our range of feeling becomes expanded, and hopefully we’re the better for it.
Maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration to suggest that watching House will make you more fully human, and I do understand if he’s just too mean to be sympathetic, but I am amused-repulsed-moved-entertained enough to keep watching.