I discovered two weeks ago that Netflix had added House, MD to its instant streaming library. Able to resist for a few days, I finally caved and am now guilty of “binge-watching,” a newish term for cramming hours of television episodes into a short span of time (thanks to the absence of commercials).
Part of revisiting the series has been nostalgic. The show premiered my junior year of high school. By freshman year of college it was one of the most popular and talked about network shows. Watching the series in its Netflix manifestation has brought me back to memories of more carefree days with friends and places with whom I have long since lost contact; but that is a story for another day.
I do not normally enjoy television. The abbreviated medium normally kills my sense of suspense and my ability to assimilate a narrative in a meaningful away. Unlike a film, which is a more coherent presentation (without ads, weeklong breaks, or “season finales”), television has always seemed to put me at an arm’s length. But House has long been an exception.
Watching the series once again, I was reminded of two things: Why I loved the show, and why I was able to give it up rather easily.
House represents nearly everything I love about dramatic cinema. Hugh Laurie’s misanthropic genius is a character that many introvert-leaning people can relate to. He fixes people brilliantly, while showing open disdain for the banal and hypocritical lives most of his patients live. Being able to revisit season 1 has especially been helpful in understanding House from a motivation perspective. House lives in constant pain, in need of a cane and (at least psychologically speaking) in need of Vicodin. The cane is a physical reminder of what House can no longer do; the Vicodin is a symbol for what House has henceforth received permission to do.
House’s character speaks to people who are sensitive to the inherent unfairness of the world. House is bitter, yes; but he is also flabbergasted why anyone else wouldn’t be. He takes it for granted that people lie, cheat, defraud, and generally don’t give a rip for anything beyond person gain. House is a graphic illustration of how defensive and manipulative people project their own problems onto the world around them. If those around House are not addicted to medication or angry or selfish, it is simply because they can afford to hide it.
House’s character is a powerful testimony to the way selfishness can destroy a human soul. Laurie’s performance in the lead is flawless. To keep selling his character after literally 170+ episodes is an astonishing accomplishment. The production values of the show are top shelf all the way around. The supporting cast is superb and the writing and direction are on par with any major Hollywood production.
Nevertheless, I’ve also been struck anew with the reasons I stopped watching. To say that House, MD is a dark television show would be an insult to dark things. I perhaps didn’t realize this until getting into the much later seasons, but House is undisputedly nihilistic. The series finale is definitive in refuting any who would disagree with this (I will not spoil the endings).
The show is clearly presented from House’s perspective, and as the storylines progress it becomes clear that House’s perspective on life is justified. It is when House attempts personal reform the hardest that the worst situations befall him. The characters around him end up compromising their few moral stances, thus proving House’s searing indictment, “Everybody lies.”
But where a redemptive story would speak to why people and the world are the way they are, House’s final answer is simply: Nothing. In the end of the series, House is faced with his friend’s terminal illness and his own irreversible choices that will destroy his life. I’ve heard it said of House that it has a “muddy moral center.” That’s far too kind; there is no moral center here to speak of. Russell’s dictum that life is merely “triviality for a moment, then nothing” is doctrine in the world of House.
For the Christian, cancer or failure or even personal sin never has the last word. The world is dying, yes, but it will be raised back to life, just as Christ was. Our own mortal bodies will be made new and we will be made perfect, in the image of the perfect Creator of everything. I do not expect House to share the biblical worldview; but let us not suppose the show is philosophically neutral. This is absolutely a story about the fleetness and meaninglessness of existence.
Which brings me to my last thought. It is a stroke of writing brilliance that the plot of the show rests on a massive irony: A man who saves lives does not care about them. As many characters point out, House simply loves puzzles, not people. He lies to patients, insults them, experiments on them and even extorts them as they lie on the hospital bed. Scrooge would have blushed at Gregory House.
The irony is that the medical profession supposedly begins with the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm.” For House, as long as the job is done in the end and the puzzle solved, he is blameless. This is, I think, an important point for those of us who call ourselves “pro-life.” There is a distinction, a crucial one, that must be made: Between being pro-life and being pro existence.
Being pro-life will mean being pro existence in virtually every instance. But it is possible to be pro existence without truly being pro-life. Human life is valuable because it comes from, looks like and is the property of an infinitely valuable God. For those who reject (like Dr. House does) theism, the value of life is ultimately functional. Christians know that the reason God came into the world as a Man is to give abundant life out of his abandoned life. “Existence” is difficult to celebrate when it is headed towards hell.
For me, pro-life means that I view people the way that God does. This refers to everyone, from the unborn to the homeless to the orphan to the LGBT to the Wall Street executive. Dr. House is consistent: There is no God, therefore life is what you create out of it. But the meaning of “pro-life” is deeper than supporting existence. It means good news: That God is pro life, and that a universe of death is temporary. This is hope. This is change, and it is real.
Dr. House does not realize this by series’ end. But for the many real people, doctors and otherwise, who share his despondency at life, the Gospel holds out hope. Nihilism is not good enough. We need a fix. We need a skilled Healer to heal us. Dr. House is not that healer, but his stories might help us to recognize where we can find that One.