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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Messing With House's Head

Regular visitors to this blog [which reaches its 150th post with this entry] know that I am quite the fan of the TV series House M.D. [as opposed to Doogie Howser, MD]. House being the kind of show it is, it frequently explores life-and-death issues in dramatic and unexpected ways. This past week, death came in an unexpected way to the doctors' side of the equation, with the unexpected suicide of series regular "Dr. Lawrence Kutner" [Kai Penn].


Well, first of all, there had been clues. As someone cagily pointed out in a "Comments" section on one of many blogs to discuss the event, "Kutner" was the only member of "House"'s new team not to have his private life examined. Through most of this season, Hugh Laurie has spoken in interviews of a "cataclysmic" event that would change the show's direction [indeed, in an article in last Sunday's Parade Magazine, he discussed his own struggle with depression, and mentioned the show's association with the National Alliance on Mental Illness]. Further, Kai Penn's exit isn't for one of the typical reasons that cause TV death [money issues, going on to movies, "creative differences"]. No, he's decided to take a medium-level job in the Obama Administration, working on liaisons between the White House and the entertainment community; Penn has been interested in politics for some time, and worked on the Obama election team, when time allowed. He says his stay in DC is of "uncertain" length, but plans an eventual return to acting.

Such unexpected changes on a TV series are sometimes called "jumping the shark" [from an episode of "Happy Days" where Fonzie did just that]; I think it's a bit premature to call Kutner's suicide another jump. First of all, foreshadowed or not, a suicide is always an unexpected, tragic event. Sadly, I would guess most of you reading this have an experience with a friend's or relative's suicide [I had a friend from high school kill himself the summer after graduation; one of my uncles also took his own life]. Certainly, it was a dramatic bombshell; such unexpected events were part of the myths and legends of every culture, and remain so to this day. Was the House audience emotionally exploited by it? Of course. By the act of suspending disbelief, we set ourselves up for such shocks. It's part of getting involved in an on-going story, caring about the people whose fictional lives we follow.
For what it's worth, I think the real "shark jumping" moment this season is yet to come; the widely-rumored consummation of the House - Cuddy relationship. Such relieving of sexual tension never works out; anybody old enough to remember Moonlighting, a show that was more consistently "out there" than House [or just about any other TV series ever aired on American broadcast TV, for that matter] will tell you they could have struck the sets after "Addie" and "Maddie" did The Big Nasty.

The Good Development from all this [and there is one] is the potential for character growth on the part of Dr House: yes, he will no doubt remain the "Sherlock Holmes" of medicine, solving the unsolvable cases. But even Holmes failed on a few occasions [so has House, but not so much lately]. Now he'll be confronted with resolving an act that, most likely, is unresolvable. The man with all the answers has a pounding question in the back of his head, and, unless and until he can find an answer, he won't be able to make it stop. We await future developments...
A final point; after Fonzie jumped that shark on water skis [Fonzie, not the shark], Happy Days went on to a further 100 episodes. Whether they were as good as what preceded them is a matter of opinion, but, if memory serves me right, it remained a top 10 - rated show for most of that time. Will House hold its position as one of TV's most fascinating hours? Time will tell.
-Mike Riley













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