House premiered November 16, 2004. It ran for eight seasons, 177 episodes all told, and if you wanted to go for an epitaph, you could do worse than, “It was often interesting.” Eight seasons is an impressive run for any series, whatever its creative merits, and the fact that this one was popular enough to stay on the air so long, and even to earn the dignity of a proper finale, is nothing to be sneezed at. Whatever else he does as a performer, odds are Hugh Laurie’s obituary is going to start with, “Best known as the cynical medical genius Gregory House...” and he did some amazing work in the role, holding together scripts and inconsistencies where a lesser actor might have faltered. You’ll notice I’m speaking in non-judgmental terms for as long as I can, because this is the dead we’re talking about, and there should be at least a little respect allowed the corpse. So, this was a TV show, and it wasn’t bad enough to be terrible, and it wasn’t consistently good enough to be great, and I’m sure there are people out there upset that it’s over. I’m not one of them, but hey, maybe I’m just really excited to have my Monday nights back.
It’s odd, reviewing the end. I’m not sure I serve much point here; this write-up (even more than usual) exists largely to remind you of various points throughout the episode, and give you a space to discuss what you liked or didn’t like. There’s no possible way for me to believably summarize eight years worth of television, and, to be honest, House doesn’t really deserve that level of scrutiny. It was a popular hit that helped anchor the Fox Monday night lineup for a while, and then it wasn’t anymore, so now it’s being cancelled. Not because it finally reached the end of everything it wanted to say, or because of some creative decision to get out while the getting is good; the show is over because it was no longer profitable to have around. It’ll run in syndication for years, most likely, and the first four years will make for especially good reruns; there was a time in my life when I watched an episode of House nearly every day, and I never thought I’d get sick of it. But then something happened. I’ve been thinking it over the past weekend, and if I had to pinpoint the last time the show was truly creatively viable, I’d go with the end of the fourth season. I’ve enjoyed episodes since then, but “House’s Head”/“Wilson’s Heart” was the high-water mark, because it was the last time the show could suggest House had reached some sort of epiphany or life-changing moment, and have that still mean something. Everything after that was just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Once House failed to learn anything after Amber’s death, the strings were too obvious. We could tart it up with trips to the asylum, or an ill-advised relationship with a superior, or a brief stint in prison, but the fact is, the show gazed straight into the abyss of change, blinked, and then looked away.
In that respect, I feel a bit foolish for how disappointed I was with “Everybody Dies.” Of course it was going to be facile and heavy-handed, and of course it was going to use guest stars and fake shocks. These are tricks the series has pulled out so often they deserve slots in the opening credits. House wakes up in a burning building next to a corpse. Turns out the corpse is someone House met earlier at Plainsboro during clinic hours, and it’s all part of an elaborate ruse for House to fake his own death and avoid jail-time. But now that he’s in the burning building, he’s apparently having second thoughts, or else he took a hit off of the dead guy’s smack, because he starts hallucinating. This is an excuse to bring back Kutner, Amber, and, oddly enough, Stacy (bringing back a character who hasn’t appeared since the second season) and Cameron, neither of whom are actually dead, but both of whom are pleasant enough so it’s nice to see them bopping around. This is, if not exactly fresh, at least suggestive of the appearance of drama. There’s a conflict—House might die!—and there’s a mystery—what the hell is going on?—and there are figments of a man’s imagination lecturing him on his life choices. No one’s breaking any new ground here, but at least it’s indicative of effort.
And yet it’s all even more meaningless than usual. While the episode goes out of its way to suggest some deep, dark secret for why House is behaving in his usual ridiculous fashion, when the answer arrives, it offers little illumination, just an illusion of drama combined with what might charitably described as a “Greatest Hits” collection of guest stars. Hey, remember how Andre Braugher is a great actor? Well, enjoy him for these three lines. Hey, remember Masters? Have fun with her sentence. Remember Cuddy? Er, actually, maybe you shouldn’t remember her. These faces flit by as though their presence alone is enough to be satisfactory, and who knows, maybe the shock of recognition will be enough for fans. (I had no idea Sela Ward was going to make an appearance, so that was a fun moment.) As an hour of television, though, it was pure nonsense. Once you strip away all the meaningless shouting and dorm-level philosophizing, “Everybody Dies” was just a whole lot of smug back-patting and unfunny jokes. If I’d wanted that, I would’ve just watched the “Swan Song” retrospective that preceded the finale; at least then, some of the jokes might have had a shot at making me laugh.
The problem isn’t that House didn’t actually die. The problem is, had House been the corpse in the coffin, the episode would have been just as bad, would, in fact, have been slightly worse, because at least in this version of the story, we get to see Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard ride off on motorcycles at the end. This is what happens when storytellers chicken out; once you start ignoring the direction your characters are heading, once the reset button becomes an accepted and even welcome narrative conclusion, the vitality is gone. For the best part of its run, House, while still often clumsy and melodramatic and nowhere near as clever as it wanted to be, had a soul. Then at some point, the soul floated away, and the writers were forced to push harder and harder to make us feel anything at all. I suppose we can be grateful for the fact that “Everybody Dies” barely bothers to try. There are no revelations here, and considering last season ended with House driving a car through an ex-lover’s living room, the idea that he’d finally burn his bridges at Plainsboro isn’t exactly blowing anyone’s mind. The pacing is absurd, the emotional palate is, at best, insultingly manipulative, and the dialogue continues the trend established in the past few weeks of spelling out everything in the flattest way possible, all in the service of a story with the barest of justifications for existence. There’s no effective drama, beyond those few moments when House’s life appears in danger; House barely talks with his team, and, apart from him and Wilson, everyone in the episode exists purely to move the plot along, or to remind us that hey, that character existed.
If I sound irritated, well, I’m doing my job. After four years writing about this show (the longest I’ve covered anything for The A.V. Club), I wanted to go out on something like a high note. I was hoping to find some inspiration that would let me close out these reviews in an honest, but still admiring, fashion. But instead, we got this, which, to be fair, is only a slightly worse conclusion than the last few seasons of the show deserve. Finales are a chance to shoot the moon, to make up for lost time, to, I dunno, not suck. “Everybody Dies” is a failure of ambition, a frustratingly slapdash affair that tries to hide its lack of ideas behind the usual forced theatrics, reeking of a fan-fiction-like conviction in its own awesomeness. And it sucked. Hard.
- I watched maybe five minutes of “Swan Song” before giving up for fear it would turn me hostile against the actual finale. Glad I dodged that bullet!
- I give them a few points for House’s “Nobody cares about the medicine.” One of the few accurate meta moments in the entire hour, really.
- Basically, House had already set up his entire plan before the start of the episode. All the conversations with dead (or absent) people were, I guess, to talk him out of a brief dalliance with suicidal thoughts? Did he shoot up after setting the fire? Unless I fell asleep, we never got a final scene between the doctor and his dying patient just to put together the last few pieces. And yet while this raises some questions, they aren’t particularly interesting ones. Gah, the more you try and parse it out, the more awful it becomes.
- Thanks for reading, folks.