Is There a Doctor in. . . ? Paging Dr Gregory House

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A man on crutches knocking on the door of 'Dr Killem'
Dr House: I look for zebras because other doctors have ruled out all the horses.

When we are ill, we hope to find a skilled diagnostician who will do a competent job of identifying and treating our ailments. We secretly wish for a doctor with the brilliant mind of Dr House, the quirky but perspicacious physician of the long-running hit tv series. We also hope that our medical personnel will be kind, caring, and gentle – in other words, completely unlike Dr House.

House (also known as House MD) is an eight-season (172-episode) US medical drama that originally ran on the Fox network from 2004-2012. Filmed largely in Los Angeles, the story supposedly takes place in or around Princeton, New Jersey (on the opposite coast). The centre of the action is the fictional Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, which features among other cutting-edge medical technologies an entire department devoted to finding diagnostic zebras.

Doctors-in-training are taught that 'when you hear hoofbeats, you should think of horses, not zebras.' Princeton Plainsboro is where patients end up when other doctors have ruled out the horses. It is also where actors go to learn to pronounce words like 'sarcoidosis'. You might pray that you never end up in this hospital, but the medical shenanigans are extremely entertaining and provide some thoughtful moments.

Dramatis Personae

Dr. Foreman: I think your argument is specious.

Dr. House: I think your tie is ugly.

House garnered many awards – five Emmys won (many nominations), seven BMI awards (for music), two Golden Globes, three Golden Reel awards (for editing), two Humanitas Prizes (for promoting human dignity, meaning, and freedom), nine People's Choice awards, a Prism Award for accurately portraying addiction, and five Satellite Awards for being entertaining. Individual actors have received many awards. Shows this prestigious attract top talent, too numerous to mention here. Here is a quick rundown of the main characters.

  • Dr Gregory House (Hugh Laurie): House is a misanthrope, grumpy but witty. He insults his patients, other doctors, and generally everyone he runs into. But his medical knowledge, ability to identify patterns, and dogged devotion to getting the right answer are a lifesaving combination for desperate sufferers from obscure ailments. Oh yes: and he's addicted to a prescription opioid which he takes for intractable pain. Expect him to end up tormenting doctors and patients in rehab, the psych ward, and even [MAJOR SPOILER] prison.

    Hugh Laurie is English. Producer Bryan Singer didn't know that when he viewed the audition tape Laurie made in a hotel bathroom in Namibia. This was a good thing: Singer wanted an American actor. The excellence of Laurie's non-localised US accent is often remarked upon. It blends perfectly with that of his costar, Robert Sean Leonard, who is actually from New Jersey.

    House had a rough childhood and is having a rougher adulthood. He has exactly one friend. His acid tongue drives people away. The character is endearing, due to a combination of sharp acting, solid writing, and imaginative production.

    The name House comes from the character's lineage: he is based on Sherlock Holmes, who was in turn based on a real-life doctor. House even lives at 221 Baker Street, apartment B. Like Holmes, he is a musician (Laurie plays keyboards and guitar). Unlike Holmes, House enjoys monster truck rallies.

  • Dr James Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard): Soft-hearted James Wilson plays Watson to House's Holmes. Wilson is a handsome, kindly oncologist. Unlike House's rescue candidates, most of Wilson's patients die. He cares about them – sometimes too much. He cares about his ex-wives and girlfriends, too. All of Wilson's relationships are doomed other than the one he has with House.

  • Dr Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein): For seven seasons, Dr Cuddy runs Princeton Plainsboro as Dean of Medicine while more-or-less fending off House's romantic interest in her. She endures a great deal while trying to balance donors' expectations, patient needs, and bizarre problems created by her most unbalanced staff member.

  • Assorted Members of House's Diagnostic Team: To perform his diagnostic magic, House requires a team of able medical specialists with whom to brainstorm his ideas. The doctors are played by a diversity of accomplished actors, several of whom turned in award-winning performances. Team size varies from twenty at House's most outrageously competitive to one (a janitor disguised in a white coat) during one of the mad doctor's more challenged periods.

    House's assistants (other than the janitor) lob suggestions at him, usually wrong, whereupon he insults them in ways amusing to the audience but not the medical staff. There is heavy use of metaphor, both to aid the non-medical audience's understanding and to give the actors a break from pronouncing words like 'psittacosis' and 'paraneoplastic syndrome'. Numerous disorders will be falsely diagnosed; numerous remedies will be applied, often with drastic results to the patient1. Finally, at an opportune moment, in the midst of an otherwise irrelevant discussion, House will get a flash of inspiration and an odd look on his face – leading him to charge into the patient's room or interrupt surgery with the life-saving solution to the problem of the week.

    Special mention should be made of the fortitude of the actors playing patients. The amount of feigned agony must take its toll, not to mention the hours spent applying prosthetic makeup.


Dr House: Everybody lies.

House isn't really about doctors: no medical drama ever really is. It's about how human beings affect one another. Showrunner David Shore said, 'Anytime you try to summarize a show in one word, you sound like an ass. It's about truth2.' House says, 'Everybody lies.' In order to get at the truth it is often important to be skeptical. But, as the ongoing drama shows, it is also important to be forgiving.

One of the more outrageous tropes in the show is the way in which House teaches his diagnostic disciples to look for clues – by breaking into the patients' houses and apartments. Needless to say, this is not only illegal but something no hospital would ever permit, if only because of the horrendous lawsuits that could result. This 'detective' trope helps to round out an understanding of the patient as a whole person, both for the doctors and for the audience.

The large writing team that created the stories for House obviously combed the medical literature for the most far-fetched diseases. But no one, other than the fictional patient, really cares whether this time, it's really sarcoidosis. Even the most outrageous situation, such as the virtual diagnosis of the Antarctic scientist whose broken toe is literally killing her, contains a core story about human truth. That is what sustains this ridiculously entertaining drama for eight seasons.

Do Your Own Research (Just Don't Tell House)

Dr. House: Reality is almost always wrong.

House is available in DVD sets and streaming video. Numerous clips and interviews can be found on Youtube. For those who want to keep track of everything, there's a well-maintained wiki where you can find background on the characters and actors. Also available in Spanish.

Do you wonder what a real doctor thinks about House? Watch Dr Mike (a licenced physician from the US) react to the goings-on. You might learn something. Or it might be merely entertaining.

For US House fans who haven't heard Hugh Laurie in his native dialect: here's a fine bit of musical fun involving PG Wodehouse 's Jeeves and Wooster.

1Don't watch that clip if you're squeamish.2Godwin, Jennifer (May 21, 2008). 'House Boss David Shore: Everybody Lies, Everybody Dies, Everybody. . .' E! Online.

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