Friday, September 15, 2006

Hard-boiled Greg

To an appropriate soundtrack of Radiohead B-sides and the start of the Asian rainy season, I've been thinking about Dr Gregory House again, and what he represents. It's partly prompted by a thought MA Peel had at the Museum of Television and Radio blog (a blog for people who get paid to watch telly - none cooler, surely?), linking our favourite cantankerous medical genius with Rick Blaine, Bogart's character in Casablanca (still the greatest movie of all time, and no argument will be brooked on this one); and also by something Realdoc (our favourite lovely medical genius) said about most TV doctors being utterly divorced from reality (Green Wing and Cardiac Arrest excepted).

Yay, four sets of brackets in one sentence. This blog ought to get a Parenthetical Advisory sticker. Munch on that, L Brent Bozell III (who, incidentally, looks like the mutant offspring of Chuck Norris and a hairdresser I once knew).

The thing is, House sidesteps the whole issue, by not really being a show about medicine, any more than Fawlty Towers is about the hotel trade, or Casablanca is about Casablanca. Many critics have suggested that it's more of a whodunnit, with House and Wilson a barely disguised Holmes and Watson. (This presumably makes Foreman, Cameron and Chase the Baker Street Irregulars; Cuddy a weird synthesis of Lestrade and Mrs Hudson; Vogler is Moriarty; and Stacy has to be Irene Adler. For the violin and the seven-percent-solution, read the piano and Vicodin.)

A few months ago, I mooted a link between House and David Brent of The Office, suggesting that the difference was self-awareness and desire to be loved. On second thoughts, it's more than this. House is about men.

Dr Gregory House is the alpha male who knows that the chest-beating, knuckle-dragging mundanity of being an alpha male is beneath him. He needs the respect of those around him, but he doesn't want to need it, and certainly doesn't want the others to know he needs it. He's good at his job, but his self-image as a loner means that he's totally unsuited for a senior role within the orthodox hierarchy. And he's faced with a paradox - if he becomes too self-aware, too much in awe of his own limping, baleful majesty, then that persona becomes invalid. It's a similar situation to that in Eliot's Murder In The Cathedral. Becket knows what is right, and knows that the right action will lead to martyrdom. But by consciously seeking martyrdom ("the last temptation"), he risks invalidating that martyrdom. The only person who can't be a House fan is House.

The only way the two conflicting sets of needs can be reconciled - for the hospital to make best use of House's talents, and for House to retain his lone-wolf self-image - is for him to operate a semi-autonomous little gang within the organisation. It's what the management guru Tom Peters (yes, I have a parallel life where I have to read management books) calls a skunkworks. It has its own rules and culture and loyalty, although its ultimate purpose is to serve the overall ends of the organisation. There's no dress code, you can eat pizza at your desk, and throw it at outsiders who enter your territory. There's still a paycheque and a pension plan at the end of the day, but let's not be so crass as to mention that.

It's a classic compromise for the post-punk, post-feminist male. In his head he's Meursault, Holden Caulfield, Raskolnikov. Like Brent, he really wanted to be a rock star, and he would have been a better one, but he'd have walked away from the showbiz bullshit before he made it big. He can't be tempted with a flash car, a shiny desk, golf-club membership or a leggy secretary. (House's attitude to women is fascinating; he's self-consciously laddish and horny when confronted with a nice pair of tits, yet deep down he respects the take-no-shit stance of woman-in-a-man's-world Cuddy.) His outsidery, existentialist pose has to be stroked and stoked to get the best out of him. He needs to exasperate to feel wanted. And he needs a gang around him, who maintain unswerving loyalty (to him, not to the hospital) without ever tipping over into obsequiousness.

Damn. It's Gordon Brown. The departmental autonomy within the bigger structure. The gang of outriders, who are Brownites first, Labour second. The brooding. The fearsome intellect. The unspoken sadness (the dead child) and the disability (the dead eye) for which he will tolerate no pity.

But even those who despair at the surly snarling of Brown/House know that the alternative is worse. Brown is softening, making himself more amenable to Middle England, bigging up Blair's achievements, laying on more of that weird, lopsided smile. House's soft side resurfaced briefly in the second series, with the arrival of Stacy; and there's always the worry that the simmering sexual tension with Cuddy (modelled on Hawkeye and Hotlips?) will boil over and destroy the show (David and Maddie; Niles and Daphne). And if Brown leaves the diagnostic punk skunkworks of the Treasury for a role where he has to kiss babies and be nice to foreigners, the magic will be gone forever.


realdoc said...

I can't get over the medical ridiculousness of House. I like him as a character and would probably watch it if he was a lawyer or something but his patients all have the most astoundingly rare things wrong with them that I got cross. Maybe I'll give it another go.
The House/Gordon allegory is a good one. I think he is beginning to realise that he will never be the boss, at least not on his terms which may prove interesting for us observers.

orange anubis said...

This is really thought-provoking, especially in light of the now-trendy gay management style (concepts clearly stolen from something similar I said on my blog a week or so beforehand), where you get the satisfaction of being a good leader with none of the bollocks of attempting to live up to the dusty-knuckled alpha male paradigm. Are House and Brown examples of straight men trying to bridge that gap?

Love the Murder in the Cathedral comparison. To do the right deed for the wrong reason...

Tim Footman said...

doc: Just ignore the medical detail - it's a McGuffin. Think of it as a whodunnit, and it makes sense.

anubis: Sadly, the only time I had a gay boss, he was a bit hopeless (although a nice enough bloke). I think the whole "gayness" that this guy's trying to plug is more "new man"/"metrosexual" - but we need to create a new adjective for those attributes that doesn't immediately date.

M. A. Peel said...

TF--your post has more cultural/topical references per pica than any I have read. Who knew TV characters could inspire such rich exposition? (okay--we know that at MTR, but there are still doubters.) As for House and Cuddy--there's a growing fear that Shore is going to ship House and Cameron. What a bad idea.

Tim Footman said...

Not good. Dirty old man thing. It's quite clear that House's one true love is Wilson.

I think TV drama is potentially as rich a seam as any fiction for criticism or cultural analysis, however bad or good it is. The problem is that so much writing about it has focused on the medium rather than the content. I still have an aversion to watching too much TV because I'm usually aware that I'm being sold to as I watch (whereas if I buy a book or a DVD, I've already made the transaction). Here in BKK, where I only watch DVDs (even cable is atrocious) I'm always aware that I'm watching the sanitised, ad-free versions of the top 0.1% of TV programming. And sometimes that isn't much good.

MTR sounds a fun place to work, though. Tell me about it.

Drug Abuse said...

Casablanca has that magical combination of constituents which improves on every viewing.

Billy said...

I always thought House and Cuddy had in fact 'done the deed' sometime in the past - promoting post-sexual tension.

Hmm.. I like the sound of post-sexual tension.

Tim Footman said...

Certainly better than during.