Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Box Set Blues: House M.D., Season 7

It seems that a lot of the telly we've been watching recently has been first seasons of things. I suspect this is partly to do with having caught up on a lot recently, and we're not looking for new things to get hooked on, and partly because a few ongoing series have simply finished or gone into hiatus. So settling back into a show we've seen a lot of, and are familiar with, is a bit of comfort viewing, something where we don't need to get to know all the characters, and situations, and just enjoy a show happy in it's own routine. So with that in mind, we approach the seventh series of House M.D.

Most long-running TV shows get caught between two opposite forces. The first is the need to maintain what made them successful in the first place - be it the setting, or the characters, or stories, and the second is a need to avoid stagnation, a need to move forward. Like all tension, this can be intensely creative, or intensely destructive - most soap operas recycle plots with new faces every few years quite successfully, most procedural shows hit the same beats every episode, and your enjoyment of these shows largely depends on your tolerance for that style of repetition.

I use these examples because House has always had an element of soap opera, and an element of procedural, and has always gone back to the same big themes in different guises, throwing up big events in every season that really, ultimately, don't change very much. Early on, House was watchable because underneath the medical procedural drama was a fairly dark and interesting question around the main character - is his bitter cynicism because he's a lonely and broken man or because, actually, is he world view objectively valid? And after a couple of seasons of batting that idea around for a bit, the show eventually came down on the side of the former and House became a sort of lovable roguish Grinch in need of curative hugs.

I think the show lost something back then but its a few seasons ago, and the fact that I'm still watching means that the show it became is still something pretty watchable. Season Seven finds then trying to resolve the long-unresolved House-Cuddy romance "thing" - something I don't think they could have avoided much longer - and the results, both in and out of the show, are mixed. The problem really is that although it's fun for a few episodes it really highlights the worse of both characters - it makes Cuddy look weak and neurotic, and House look self-sabotaging and mean-spirited. Which may be true of both, but isn't fun to watch. It's not to say they don't have some good moments with the concept, which they do, it's just that at times it feels like something the show is doing because it has to, not because it wants to.

I have to go now, the Token Woman slot is being
filled by someone else next week. 
A more troubling oddity this season is the loss of Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) to be replaced by Amber Tamblyn's   Masters - a decent character in her own right, don't get me wrong, but filling the traditionally thankless "House's conscience that isn't Wilson" role. Just as were getting used to her, we get Thirteen back and she's written out, which is troubling because it starts to look like the shows producers are confused by the idea of having more than one woman on the main team. And it's not like the man are that great - as usual they work well as a collective unit but any individual storylines make them feel underwritten. Especially Taub's ex-wife, who is another poster-child for badly-written portrayals of women in this show.

So where does this leave me? Well seven seasons in House isn't going to change and at least in terms of plot the show is recognising that. It has settled into a mostly-fun, entertaining procedural with the odd flash of brilliance and the odd quiver of awfulness, and as a feet-up-on-the-sofa show it's ideal. Hugh Laurie is of course excellent, as is Robert Sean Leonard, and the rest of the case do their best with what is often badly underwritten or inconsistent parts. I know it sounds like I'm damning House with faint praise, and maybe I am, but I enjoy it, I look forward to the next series, I'm just resigned to enjoying the familiarity, not the thrill of anything new.