Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When House messed with the formula, it showed its addictive side

Illustration for article titled When House messed with the formula, it showed its addictive side

House, “Three Stories” (season one, episode 21; originally aired 5/17/2005)

In which we learn the secret origin of Dr. Gregory House…

Phil Dyess-Nugent: Most of the TV shows that I really got into during the post-Sopranos, pre-My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic era—I guess we’re stuck calling it “the aughts” until someone comes up with anything better—were shows that I conscientiously latched onto from the first episode, either because they were made by people whose work I found interesting or because I’d heard something about them that made them sound promising. House is a show that I discovered the old-fashioned way: I staggered home from work one night and just happened to get caught up in an episode while flipping channels. This was between the first and second seasons, when the show was in reruns. I came to it cold, kinda enjoyed it, made a mental note to watch another when I got the chance, and became addicted. This is fitting, because House is a very old-fashioned show, in terms of its appeal. It’s a star vehicle, whose charm is based on the fantasy element of the romantic central character.


It presents itself as a rebuttal of all those TV shows about doctors—series like Ben CaseyMarcus Welby, M.D., M*A*S*H, and ERwho were engaged in a constant, white-knuckle struggle with Death itself, pulling their patients out of his icy grip because they care so much. Dr. Gregory House, the Sherlock Holmes of diagnosticians, is a selfish, cynical misanthrope who selects his cases not on the basis of how badly his talents are needed, but on whether the case itself—the puzzle—tickles his curiosity enough to help him stave off boredom for a few days.

What got me and other fans hooked is Hugh Laurie’s performance as House. In interviews, Laurie has said that he shot his audition without seeing a full script, and based on his lines, he just assumed that this acerbic, wisecracking cynic was a supporting role, a funny, truth-telling sidekick to some more conventionally likable hero. Most of us have probably seen an actor give a picture-stealing performance in a role like this and thought, “Why couldn’t the movie be about that guy!?” House is a show that really is about that guy. And Laurie’s performance is a rare example of a clown making good on his fantasy of playing Hamlet, to cheers: The actor had previously been best known for his very unsexy, face-pulling performances in various British comedies.

“Three Stories,” the penultimate episode of the first season, is a break in the show’s usual case-of-the-week formula, intended to address the question: Who is House, and how did he get that way? It’s also a giant fishhook, intended to snag the audience and keep them panting for the show’s return in the fall. House’s boss Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) begs him to fill in for a sick doctor who’s supposed to lecture some med students on the diagnostician’s art, and House agrees to do it in order to get off clinic duty for a couple of hours. He then regales the students with what amounts to three mini-episodes of House, which we see acted out in flashback. In one, a middle-aged farmer with some kind of injury that’s eating the flesh off his leg claims to have been bitten by a rattlesnake. House, however, deduces that the patient is really trying to take a bullet for the dog he loves. In the second, a teenage girl who’s a star volleyball player also has a mysterious leg ailment, and in the third, a man arrives in the hospital complaining of leg pain, but is taken for a junkie just trawling for narcotics.

The episode is at its most playful during the flashbacks; in his mind, House amuses himself with how the patients are cast and costumed, and the students seem to be able to see what he’s imagining, because, what the hell. Eventually, it develops that the third patient is actually in serious trouble. The series regulars have been gradually filing into the lecture room, and now one of them turns to another and says, “You were right. It’s House.” And with the revelation that we’re becoming privy to the story of how House became a cripple—that’s the word the show uses, obsessively, to describe his condition—everything turns very serious.

Although it’s not clear until the midpoint, House has been pointed in the direction of this particular trip down memory lane by the reappearance of his old girlfriend, Stacy (Sela Ward), who has just turned up, begging him to diagnose whatever’s wrong with her shiny new husband. In the flashbacks that follow the first shot of Laurie himself in the hospital bed, we get to see that, after House was consigned to physical agony by the incompetent physicians who misdiagnosed his “muscle death,” Stacy authorized the surgery that saved his life, thereby going against his stated wishes and destroying their relationship. The discussion of the ethics involved gives each of the regulars—including the invaluable Robert Sean Leonard as House’s only friend, Wilson—and the smartest of the students plenty of time to look impressed at just how much pain this brilliant, show-stopping, romantically thwarted man is carrying. In the end, House leaves to tell Stacy that he’ll torture himself some more by helping whatever fuckwitted dullard she’s married. (And just for good measure, he informs Cuddy that, based on a swig of a borrowed coffee mug, he’s diagnosed the ailing lecturer with lead poisoning.)

At its best—which is mostly to say when the writers did a solid job of showcasing a firing-on-all-cylinders Laurie—House could be potent. It’s worth pointing out that neither the pain in his leg nor the loss of the love of his life turned House snarky and alienated. Both Wilson and Cuddy were constantly telling people who asked what had turned House into a sourpuss that he’d always been like that, but the show prided itself on taking a more sophisticated view of human psychology. Yet Laurie’s face took to the camera so insanely well that the show could string an audience along with the implied promise of offering the key to the mystery of House’s personality even as it was insisting that there was no key and no mystery. The self-aware playfulness of House’s own diagnostic storytelling in “Three Stories” is as creatively meta as the show ever got.


So I guess I’m saying that I always found House to be a bit of a con job, and that for more seasons that I’m proud to remember, I found it so entertaining that I was not just happy but grateful to be conned by these people. What I want to know is, did you all succumb, or am I the only sucker in the house?

Ryan McGee: I’ll confess to not being that big a fan of House—or, more accurately, not that big a viewer of House. But had I known about this episode at the time around which it originally aired, I would have almost certainly watched at least a good chunk of the subsequent season to see if the show could match the highs of this one. As you note, Phil, House was the Sherlock Holmes show we had here in the States long before the importing of Sherlock or the premiere of Elementary. So when contrasted with that, the storytelling techniques deployed here don’t seem all that outlandish. David Shore is no Steven Moffat, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing in this case. Whereas many of the puzzles in Sherlock are puzzles for puzzles’ sake, here the puzzle is intensely based on character. So even if we don’t get the full answers, we get a lot of insight into the cover-up.


In some way, the students arguing over the three cases were definitely meta, although not quite meta in the way the episode fully articulates. While House is telling his own story in plain sight with only a few actually “seeing” the real meaning, those debating the merits of his past actions play to me like the type of analysis certain roundtables on certain websites conduct. The lack of answers in Sherlock’s season-three premiere, “The Empty Hearse,” feels like a cheat, an admission by that show’s writers that they didn’t have a damn clue how Sherlock faked his death. But Shore seems to understand in “Three Stories” that definitive answers to House’s desire to keep full use of his leg and the psychological impact of his subsequent chronic pain would be reductive, not instructive. Each student gets close to the truth; none achieve true insight. But that assumption of true insight is itself a falsehood. House tells the class that there is in fact a black and white when it comes to diagnoses. But there’s little black and white when it comes to human impulses.

That doesn’t make discussion invalid or inappropriate. But it does force one to think about the goals of such discourse. House delivers his three stories as a lecture, as an academic test, and ultimately as a Rorschach test. What the students see inside their collective mind palace is somewhat placed there by House’s trickery, but also their preconceptions. “Three Stories” is all about the ways in which those preconceptions keep us from hearing what’s truly being said, and how lonely that can make the storyteller. So you could say I succumbed, Phil, at least for one episode. What about the others gathered here?

Erik Adams: I didn’t get into House until the point in the series at which the main character was purging new associates with each passing season. So not the “House drives a car into Cuddy’s living room” stage, but not the baby-picture version we see in “Three Rooms,” where there’s still novelty left to burn. So much novelty, in fact, that this episode can squeeze a lot of fun out three concurrent diagnoses with the lead-paint identification tacked on for kicks.


The problem with House is tied up in the “long con” Phil mentions above: The formula of watching the doctors take stab after stab after stab at an unsolvable case is thrilling for the first 22 episodes or so, but it grows predictable. (The patient doesn’t have lupus. It’s never lupus.) After all that, it’s thrilling to revisit “Three Stories.” It relies on the framework of the 20 episodes that came before it, but it exposes that framework in a way that’s newly illuminating of the principal players. Wilson and Cameron and the rest don’t show up in the lecture hall to see an explanation of a process that’s part of their daily lives—they’re there to get an unprecedented glimpse at the man who devised that maddening process in the first place. This kind of breakthrough is part and parcel with the House formula: The patient will be saved. The patient will die. The patient, surprise of surprises, has lupus. In “Three Stories,” the patient is House, and though the “addict” material gives that reveal away, it still made me gasp this time around.

The other unique elements of “Three Stories” are the three students who get the most into House’s tales, identified merely as Caring Student (Nicole Bilderback), Rebellious Student (Andrew Keegan), and Keen Student (Josh Zuckerman). With descriptive, archetypal tags like that, their function within the episode is open to interpretation; the immediate conclusion is that they’re different sides of House and his team, but I see them more as the basic impulses to pursue a medical career. To provide care for those in need, to break with convention and push into the future, to put your cognitive skills toward a greater purpose. But no matter how caring, rebellious, or keen, all physicians eventually confront the fact that not every puzzle will be solved. “Three Stories” ends on a note of ambiguity, and while that’s part of its cliffhanger structure, it’s also an acknowledgement of the most important lesson House imparts during his stint as guest lecturer: Sometimes, the correct answer eludes us.


What did you think of our three young friends, Molly?

Molly Eichel: Other than the fact that I was totally distracted by consummate 1990s Tiger Beat centerfold Keegan? (We’ll always have Camp Nowhere!) I have little history with House, so it was difficult to relate the three students to House's protégés. Most of my House viewing happened while catching random episodes at the gym, and my experience hewed closer to “I just have to run for another five minutes because that’s about the time in every episode when the diagnosis is revealed. Then I can get off this infernal machine.” So I was surprised by “Three Rooms.” Overall, the emotional resonance caught me off guard, and, as Phil points out, that’s a testament to Laurie, whom I knew primarily from the aforementioned British comedies.


But it was really the structure that I was not expecting. The episode undergoes a sweeping change from the beginning of the episode to the flashback into House’s own experience. It felt jarring, but that may certainly be due to my conception of House as the formulaic procedural that Erik describes above. While Ward’s appearance signaled otherwise, the tone goes from bouncy and light—House has a boner for Carmen Electra, ha ha, jokes—to veering into decidedly more serious territory. As soon as House’s unreliability is revealed, the stakes skyrocket, even if we as an audience know the outcome. The abrupt change in tone certainly felt strange as a first-time viewer of the episode, although no doubt it was intentional.

To circle back a bit, House is an unreliable narrator, although his unreliability is justified. He can’t identify any of the patients, hence the recurring Carmen Electra gag that both firmly planted the episode in 2005 and gave Electra one of the more suitable parts of her career. House presented a twist on medical-genre tropes, but his position as a teacher allowed things to twist even further. Unreliable narrators are usually caught in the act by an omniscient viewer (see: True Detective’s “The Secret Fate of All Life” as an excellent recent example), but House’s position as a teacher works as a perfect red herring, only highlighting how he keeps everyone at arm’s length. The audience gathers clues at the same rate as House’s trusty companions, a further justification of his surliness. I love that House’s personality traits are not explained away by this trauma—that’s just how he is, making him the Man With No Name of assholes.


PDN: I am totally adding “the Man With No Name of assholes” to the biography section of my CV.

I find the tonal shifts exciting, and it’s especially exciting to see them brought off by a show that, as we keep saying, was so often happy to snuggle into its cozy narrative rut. I worry that it sounds as if we’re all bashing House a little, and I did come here to praise the show, not bury it. But in terms of adherence to a predictable formula, it did have a way of making Law & Order look like The Singing Detective. A typical episode of House would begin with a couple of people we’d never seen before, one of whom might look pale, hungover, and out of breath, as if he’d just spent hours mining coal without a shovel. The other person would look as if they ought to be standing on an Olympic podium. These two would exchange a few words, and then the healthy-looking one would grunt and collapse in a heap. Case of the week! The great House would proceed to “diagnose” the hell out of the case by throwing out one treatment after another, in what looked a lot like a game of trial-and-error played at a hospital that was having a three-for-one sale on expensive test procedures. At some point, it would be announced that the patient’s kidneys had shut down, which would be Chase’s cue to break out the coffin-lining sample swatches.


I probably have a greater tolerance of this sort of thing than I should. Maybe Im more comfortable with TV than real life because I understand it better. But I also have a special interest in those episodes of formulaic shows that break away from the usual routine, not for the sake of some stunt of the kind that House became more reliant on in its later seasons, but in a way that sheds new light on the working elements of the series. (I also have much love for the episode of Law & Order in which the regulars all spend the day wandering around Manhattan, trying to decide how they feel about the death penalty.) For all the cleverness of this episode, at the end of the day, the big takeaway from it is that, unsurprisingly, it’s not The Hogan Family—or, for that matter, Law & Order, where the fine-tuned machinery was able to accommodate a revolving-door policy concerning the regular cast. Its great strength is in Laurie’s sarcastic smoldering act, which was so irreplaceable that the show gradually replaced almost everyone around him, as if to make this very point. Is this as remarkable as I think it is, or can everyone else think of scads of examples of recent, better-than-decent shows where the star was the show to such a degree?

RM: When Scandal first premiered, I enjoyed it almost exclusively due to Kerry Washington’s star-making performance. Washington had done plenty of good work before, but she was so towering so early that I took notice. Unfortunately, she was so good in comparison to everything at that point that she overshadowed the entire show. It wasn’t until the end of that first, seven-episode season that the balance started to shift at all. Once the ensemble got more finely tuned in the second season, that show took off like a rocket. (You could probably make the same argument about shows like Breaking Bad.)


All of this is a way of saying that while I can appreciate Laurie’s centrality in  House, I’m not sure such a singular presence is good for a show in the long run. That doesn’t take away from Laurie’s talents in the slightest. But if everything around him is in fact interchangeable, why should the audience give a hoot about anyone that doesn’t look like Hugh Laurie? There’s always a tension between appreciating a TV show in the moment versus after the fact. When I’m watching an episode, I want to suspend disbelief as much as possible. If I spend the hour thinking, “Man, this one actor is really killing it this week!”, well, that’s not actually a real compliment. Either that means the supporting cast is so weak the central figure rises to default prominence, or the show is promoting a star vehicle rather than a television program.

For some, “star vehicles” are why they watch TV shows in the first place. But in an ever-fractured media age, we have fewer and fewer “stars” around which a reliable audience can be corralled. (The Michael J. Fox Show, anyone?) Laurie broke through thanks to talent rather than name recognition, but House also debuted in the dying days of network dominance. So people had the chance to recognize that talent and respond accordingly. Relying on just one actor to bring in an audience seems not only like a bad creative decision, but a bad business strategy. (If you don’t like House, you don’t like House. Period.) A strong ensemble doesn’t just share the workload; it opens up the possibility for audience members to sink their hooks into a show.


Erik, does a show like  True Detective, already mentioned by Molly, validate the use of star vehicles as a way to draw audience members? Or is that just the exception that proves the rule?  

EA: I’ll argue that True Detective justifies this continued practice, Ryan—and the earlier seasons of House do, too. It all comes down to a term that gets tossed around a lot when we’re surveying a new TV season’s offerings: point of view. Is the show offering a fresh take or a unique perspective to back up the ultimately hollow allure of a known quantity? This is part of the reason that star vehicles flourished during the stand-up boom of the late 1980s and early ’90s: Shows like Roseanne or Home Improvement bundled singular POV (the best way to stake a claim on the comedy-club circuit) with name recognition. Compare that to something like Rake, which is withering on the vine at Fox because the legal drama doesn’t go much deeper than “What if Greg Kinnear was House, but a lawyer?”


We may have already passed the point where “House, but a [insert high-stakes occupation here]” holds the same sway within TV development as Die Hard on a X” once had in filmmaking circles. That particular formula has proven difficult to reproduce for a number of reasons, beginning with Laurie and the character he plays. But “Three Stories” demonstrates that House didn’t start out as the revolving door it later became. Laurie is the marquee attraction, but the vulnerability he exposes in the flashbacks would mean nothing without a sounding board like Wilson, and his maverick methods require a stern authority figure in the form of Cuddy. House was House’s show, told from House’s perspective, but Robert Sean Leonard and Lisa Edelstein put in a lot of hard, sadly under-acknowledged work to reinforce the House-ness of it all. Part of me wishes we were discussing an episode with meatier material for Leonard and Edelstein, but nothing demonstrates the addictive qualities of this show like the addict at its center gabbing away for 42 minutes.

Molly, what’s your final diagnosis on “Three Stories”?

ME: Erik, I’m interested in what you have to say about the supporting cast reinforcing “the House-ness of it all.” We’re talking about a revolving door of a supporting cast as a weakness, and I agree with Ryan’s points, but is there something to be said for the transparency of a supporting cast? A mark of a good character is being able to make the star shine brighter, so could the same not be said for a supporting cast? Erik talks about unique point of view separating a good show from the rest of the soon-to-be-canceled muck, but I wonder if underdeveloped supporting cast that could revolve out when they got tiresome is a another function of House’s ultimate narcissism. No one else matters but House, so why as an audience should we develop feelings for the ones who eventually leave?


Final diagnosis you ask? “Three Stories” was compelling in that it bucked my perception of what House was, just like those aforementioned episodes of Law & Order where everyone wanders around talking about a larger political issue. It may be the specific cases I remember about Law & Order so well, but it was those episodes that eschewed their traditional structure that always impressed me. Point of view may be important to an attract an audience, but a kick in the pants never hurts, either.

Next week: Brandon Nowalk takes his group way back to the days of The Rifleman.