I like a complicated protagonist as much as the next obsessive media consumer. In fact, I’ll take my protagonists like I take my coffee: Overcooked from sitting on the burner with way too much cream and sugar. Okay, never mind, not at all like that. I will, however, take my protagonists intelligent, hilarious, and slightly evil, and Dr. House seems to fit the bill.
Except, as I discovered my 37th time watching House seasons 1-3, Dr. House is just a straight-up asshole.
Starting with the pilot, which aired in 2004, we know exactly what we’re getting into with Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie): Bluster, insults, acting like an entitled douche, misogyny, racism…he hits all his marks right away. In the Real World, Dr. Foreman (Omar Epps) would’ve filed multiple workplace harassment claims against House, and Dr. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) would’ve immediately quit his team (because she probably wouldn’t even bother to file sexual harassment claims with HR, especially since House’s boss, Dr. Cuddy, hired House with the full knowledge of what a gross jagwagon he is). And Dr. Chase (Jesse Spencer)? Who cares what he would do? Chase’s hairdo and Australian accent made him immune to character development until the fourth season of House, I guess? Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) would probably still be friends with House because, hey. We all know that guy, right?
“But the cane and the leg injury! He can’t help it! He’s in constant pain! Wouldn’t you be an asshole, too, if you were in pain all the time?” This is a point that’s addressed consistently throughout the series, and in House S3, it’s brought into a stark light thanks to the appearance of season three’s Big Bad, Detective Tritter (David Morse), who reacts to being treated poorly by House by investigating House’s use of Vicodin. Honestly, the first couple of times I watched House S3, I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be hating on more: House, for leaving Tritter in an exam room with a thermometer up his poop chute and flaunting his drug addiction after Tritter reveals he’s a police detective? Tritter, who is every bit as big of an asshole as House? He’s one big crooked cop cliche complete with low, threatening vocal intonation, the annoyoing nicotine gum chewing, the power-hungry look in his eye, the willingness to throw all of House’s colleagues and single friend under the bus in order to take House down for humiliating him…this is TV Cop 101 stuff. Of course, I always end up rooting for House. After all, House is the evil we know and “love,” whereas the whole point of Tritter’s appearance is to hold House responsible for being a major jerk regardless of his cane. There are no winners here.
Samesies with House S1. Remember the donor, Edward Vogler (Chi McBride) who gave Princeton Plainsboro a huge amount of money, which bought him his position as the hospital’s chairman of the board? Yeah, I know. Everyone hated Vogler, including the show’s viewership. Vogler threatened to revoke House’s tenure, but when the board of directors refused, Vogler took back his $100 billion, which Cuddy laments for quite some time (kudos for accuracy!!! Usually in TV, problems resolve and then go away forever, but Cuddy’s frustration over losing all that money lasts for a while, adding a layer of verisimilitude to a show that, for the most part, is hilariously implausible). Vogler, like Tritter, exists for the sole purpose of being the one person in House’s orbit that is an even bigger asshole than House.
I will resist the urge to recap all of season three, but suffice it to say, Tritter gets his comeuppance, House gets away with his crime and learns nothing in the process (even after going through the trouble of detox/rehab as part of his scheme), and Wilson is there at the end to pick up the pieces…or, more specifically, hand House Vicodin through the bars of his cell. Poor Wilson. Will he ever learn? Spoiler alert: No. During the season finale, they ride off together on motorcycles into the sunset. I don’t know which was a worse fate for Wilson: His cancer diagnosis, or his Stockholm Syndrome. Either way, Wilson really gets the shitty end of the stick when it comes to his friendship with House.
The real question here isn’t why House continues to enjoy employment. We know the conceit and we accept it because Television: He’s a brilliant and funny White Dude. The End. Really, the more interesting aspect of House S1-3 is the evolution of the show. At first, the writers clearly needed to set up House as sympathetic character, so they had to find Big Bads for him that were even bigger assholes than he is. That’s a tough line to balance, because once you engage in the game of Asshole One-Upmanship, the viewers no longer have anyone to root for. We’re left with two assholes fighting, and we start to feel like we want a teen slasher villain to show off and just kill everyone because THESE PEOPLE ARE AWFUL. Thankfully, once S4 rolled around, the writers of the show had jettisoned Asshole One-Upmanship in favor of refining House’s character, as well as some impressive side characters that ended up being some of my favorite characters in the show. As is customary for fans of House, I refuse to acknowledge S7, AKA, the season in which House and Cuddy Finally Do It. My hatred for this plot knows no bounds.
What House S1-3 does achieve is making Dr. Cuddy (Linda Edelstein), the true stand-out character in these problematic seasons. I love that she tortured House after she perjured herself on the stand in order to keep House from going to jail in S3. I love that she auditioned Wilson for sperm donorship, same season. And, it’s a good thing PPTH has a Burn Unit because of responses like this:
House: After that look, I’m feeling frisky. Looks like you’re up.
Cuddy: I’m ovulating. Let’s go.
(imitating House’s ex-wife Stacy [Sela Ward], who works as the hospital attorney in S2) Here’s what I think she’s gonna say, ‘Oh I love Greg, but if he goes against a patient’s wishes, you’re calling her a liar and if something goes wrong, I end up in court having to defend the big, mean doctor albeit with dreamy eyes who wouldn’t believe the nice suburban mom and even though his cane makes me melt, do the damn surgery.'”
And, of course, the scathing retort in the screen shot at the top, in response to House telling her that a new hospital patient is a friend. “I thought I’d met all your friend.”
Sure, Cuddy was complicated. She was far too forgiving toward House, but she had to be, or there would be no House for us to loathe/love. Cuddy wanted to be a mother but proved that she might be a questionable one when she told a young patient that her parents might get back together. She made a lot of bad choices. She was practically made of bad choices. However, if we’re willing to forgive House his poor choices and undiluted spitefulness in favor of his smarts and sense of humor, we owe the same to a non-asshole like Dr. Cuddy. My favorite characters will continue to be complicated, flawed, stupid, misguided, fucked-up, and addicted to something, and they will always be brilliant and funny.
Consider this foreshadowing to a future post about my favorite comedic anti-hero, Larry David, who, like House, refuses to do the stop and chat.