The TV Serial As a Literary Kind
The TV Serial As a Literary Kind:
An Exercise through Analysis of House, M.D.
The Question: Can an American television serial be interpreted on a literary level?
I have reflected on television before, though House is the only non-cartoon show I like. In fact, most of the television I enjoy consists of not just cartoons but children’s cartoons—but most of these are not Western. Western television is so different from what I’m used to because it seemingly never ends. Japanese cartoons tend to be between twelve and fifty episodes total and tend to build up to some sort of ending, whereas American serials feature story arc after arc with no ending in sight. Admittedly, this is something I hate about American television. I think it completely misses out on the opportunity to create a beautifully-crafted story and exchanges that for ratings and money-making potential.
I like House a lot but have difficulty accepting something with no end in sight as a literary kind. The episodes are well-written, but they are written because the show is popular enough to continue for six series, and there will likely be more to come. The characters have developed a lot over these six seasons, but where their character development goes doesn’t really matter. For one thing, there are ways in which the characters cannot change. House can’t stop being a jerk, obviously. Also, many of the relationship dynamics are what keep the show going. So character development functions not to lead to a finale in which the way the characters have changed matters; it functions to keep the characters where they are without letting them be too stagnant to be interesting.
In a story with an ending that is foreseen, main characters can undergo major changes of heart for the purpose of the plot. Were the story to continue, the dynamics would be greatly changed. However, in a serial, viewers expect a certain formula. The creators could only break this formula if the show were going to end. But as long as it is popular, the story is not going to end.
So what are the creators putting into the show? How are they creating an art form when all they are doing is thinking of arcs that will keep the audience engaged and maintain the formula? Where are the overarching themes? Certainly, character development can be completely lost in creating a serial because there is a chance the characters could get twisted around to suit the latest plotline without much consistency, and the overall story wouldn’t matter because the overall story barely exists.
In other words: there is no frame beyond “keep this formula and these dynamics.” There is no plot or story as a framing device.
Interpretation is one frame that can be imposed on a work by those who engage with it. What the writers intended may not affect the individual experiences of the audience. So, while an interpretation could be the complete opposite of what the creator meant to say, knowing the creator’s intentions could also color an interpretation. There are also circumstances under which the creator’s intentions will never be revealed and even some where a work was created with no intended value. But discussion, engagement, and personal reflection are capable of giving it value.
My hypothesis: I can give House value through interpretation even though the storyline frame is lacking.
Plenty of fans have taken it upon themselves to blog about House, to write elaborate fanfictions about House, and to have engaging conversations amongst their friends about House. Yet most, when asked, would likely not think of House as a “literary” work. I myself am a bit of a skeptic due to my lack of faith in the ongoing television serial as a vessel for telling a literary story.
Through this experiment, I intend to exercise my mind by performing serious (or not so serious?) analysis where I would not normally analyze through writing. I intend to force myself to think about this show I have been watching for nearly five years now. And this project will be posted online, so others who have not even thought to analyze House may reconsider what a literary form is. I see the value of this experiment but hope that through performing it, that value can become more fully realized.
The Experiment: Select scenes from House that seem meaningful and write about them. How I write about them will be extremely layered.
There are several layers to every literary work (and every creation in general). For House, I have picked out several:
There is the intended effect of the scene. One may be able to “prove” through direct quotes what the author intended.
However, another layer can be the viewer/reader’s perception of what the intent was, and he or she may interpret that accordingly.
There also exists a “universe” in which the work exists, in which the characters are truly real. This is a layer in itself.
But only through the layer of interpretation of their actions can we fully understand this universe. This is where fanfiction is an interesting tool of analysis.
And then there is the layer of how the work makes us feel. This may be a combination of our own analysis of the factors listed above with our own perception that is “holy” and not necessarily analyzed. [Side note: what is “holy” may also be connected to the universe mentioned above, as this is a pure world without interpretation.]
I cannot easily analyze the pure emotions I feel separate from my analysis. I likely feel these emotions because of a subconscious analysis which is what I can sit down and write about when I enter a deeper state of reflection.
However, there is the possibility that some moments are “holy,” as described in Waking Life. My personal opinion is that there is always an element of analysis, but there may very well still be a layer of “holiness” which is what drives me to be captivated by certain scenes and certain characters. I think I will be able to prove that these “holy moments” are analyzable, which may ruin their “holiness,” but I still believe it is an important layer in this process—
And now the layers I am describing are starting to feed into one another and loop around again. I believe there are infinite layers (perhaps the layers are layered in themselves), and also that others may not see the layers I see, but for my own purposes, I am using these (rather loosely) as a frame. When I analyze, I may not always clearly identify all of these layers, but they will most likely be present.
The Specifics: I will use the layers of the universe of House combined with moments I unconsciously deem “holy” to select specific episodes/scenes/quotes. Once these moments are selected, I will analyze them on as many layers as I can, through both plain analysis as well as creative writing—or fanfiction. I may incorporate concepts from other episodes besides the ones I choose but will always have a specific episode as a starting point.
I will first identify the episode or “moment(s)” which inspired me. This may be through a summary, a quote, or a combination of those.
Then, I may write a fanfiction. Let’s explore that for a moment.
“If you think of [Fanfiction] purely as a training ground, you're missing the point of the genre. You write fan fiction to follow up interesting characters and premises, and to do things creatively that you can't do very well in the pro world. Again, I'd have to write at too great a length to really explain what I mean, so I'll simply point out that it's much easier to write a deeper, more intense, and more realistic story in fan fiction than it is on a TV show, where the characters all have to be put back in the box exactly the same at the end. The joint mythmaking aspects of fan fiction as a whole is one of the things I get a big personal jolt out of.” –Doris Egan, House Writer
Fanfiction has a bad reputation. It is seen as the past time of pathetic, lonely people for their own personal pleasure. It is also often described as good writing practice and nothing more. Those who write long fanfictions are often told they should be using their talents to write original fiction that could be published. I used to share some negative views of fanfiction even though I have written it, but I have changed my mind.
Doris Egan’s quote exemplifies exactly what I am trying to say: the form of the television serial is too constricting in terms of character development. Doris Egan writes for House and is very popular among fans, partly because she is friendly to the fandom. There is a lot of potential for analysis through fanfiction, and even more potential to explore characters than there is through the original work alone. That is why I will be attempting to write a couple drabbles based on House.
Finally, whether or not I wrote a fanfiction, I will certainly write a section of interpretation. This could be about why I wrote what I wrote, how I feel about the scene, what I think the writers intended, or what the writers actually intended and whether I agree or disagree.
[the test subjects]
Test Subject I
"House, you're right. Why not? Why not date you? It's brilliant. We've known each other for years We've put up with all kinds of crap from each other. And we keep coming back. We're a couple."
-Wilson in Season Four, Episode 12, “Don’t Ever Change”
“Don’t Ever Change” is an episode in the fourth season written by Doris Egan & Leonard Dick. The patient of the week is a woman who has converted to Orthodox Judaism for her husband and collapses at their wedding. However, that has nothing to do with why this episode is popular. It features a side story about Wilson’s relationship with his new girl friend Amber, who has an abrasive personality similar to House’s. House can’t help but try to interfere with that relationship. The episode is known mainly for the many jokes about House and Wilson having a relationship. For instance, when House and Wilson discuss how Amber has a lot in common with House, House exclaims, “Oh my God. You're sleeping with me.”
Wilson knew House better than anyone, and that was a fact. At least, that’s what Wilson tried to tell himself. He knew how to make House feel guilty about taking his money. He knew how to make House jealous. When House wasn’t his usual self, Wilson could usually tell what had damaged his enormous ego. And more than that, Wilson usually was the one to damage House’s ego, as he knew House was full of as much self-loathing as self-love.
Wilson also knew that there was little point in censoring yourself around House, because House could almost always put together the pieces and figure out what was going on, so you would always fail if you tried to hide something.
Despite this, Wilson was hiding something. And because of it, he was even more nervous.
Knowing House, he’d already figured out Wilson’s secret. He was probably savoring it, waiting to use it to his advantage—but Wilson couldn’t tell. There were many things he didn’t understand about House. Knowing House best didn’t mean knowing everything about him. But that had not become so blatantly obvious until now.
He did not know how to tell House that he liked him—maybe even loved him. He did not know how House would even take such information, how he would react, and most importantly, if he loved Wilson back.
He tried to hint at it constantly, failing miserably each time. He complimented House’s five-o-clock shadow. He paid for House’s food when they had lunch together, just like a boyfriend would. He felt used; House was probably just taking advantage of him to get his money by now. Maybe they did have an unhealthy friendship that would lead to an unhealthy love affair.
But Wilson kept trying. He didn’t know why it was so hard for him to say three simple words to someone who was so blunt himself. And they were already living together! Well, actually, that was one of the things that made it harder, since people already assumed they were lovers. House might just shrug off Wilson’s advances as a joke.
So he knew he had to be subtle, but perhaps he had been a bit too subtle. He couldn’t decide what to do. He tried to think about things that could bring two people closer.
For some reason, babies popped into his mind. He tried to push that thought away on the grounds of it being completely absurd. After all, having a baby implied sex, and they weren’t even close to having sex, nor would they even be capable of making a baby together. So why was he thinking about babies? Was he turning into Cuddy? There was no way House could deal with a baby. That was a terrible idea on so many levels.
And yet, it led him to another idea. What if he gave House a kitten? That would be perfect! It would be a blatant show of his affection, and since they lived together, it would be their pet, which they would take care of together.
That’s how he ended up going to the pet store and buying an adorable grey tabby cat. It was only after he stepped through the door that he realized how absurd all this had been.
“House, I’m home!” he said. “And I have a surprise.”
House looked at the kitten, and he looked at Wilson, and he got that look in his eyes and said, “The cat! You have been trying to hit on me. Suddenly, all the symptoms make sense. You like me! How cute.”
Wilson was stunned. But suddenly, everything made sense for him as well. House had been trying to diagnose his strange behavior, and it wasn’t until this moment that the two doctors were able to fully understand each other.
“Don’t make fun of me,” he said. “For this once, please don’t be an ass.”
“Are you kidding? Of course I’m going to be an ass.”
Wilson felt like crawling under the covers, preferably with the new kitten. And then House added,
“— But that doesn’t mean I’m going to deny you treatment.”
“I like their rhythm. I like a relationship with rhythm. I like Tracy and Hepburn. I like some of the old TV shows of the golden age that had rhythm, like Bill Cosby and Robert Culp, I Spy, The Wild Wild West, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. You throw in a couple of people, give them some good dialogue, and it almost doesn't matter what they're doing.” – Doris Egan on House and Wilson’s friendship.
I share Doris Egan’s opinion that the House and Wilson relationship – have a quote about that above – is extremely interesting. When I say “relationship,” I am referring to the dynamic of their friendship. I can see that Wilson is attracted to those with personalities that are the opposite of (or maybe complement?) his personality—as shown through his relationship with Amber. However, one thing that is different with the House and Wilson relationship is that Wilson’s role is, in my opinion, taking care of House.
I can tell that for the purposes of the show, House and Wilson are straight. They’ve never been shown to have any real relationships with other men, and if either character were to become interested in men, this would be a significant story arc. It would change the show from a medical drama to a series about middle aged men coming to terms with their sexualities. I am of the opinion that sexuality is fluid but still understand that it would be a big deal for a middle aged man who identified as straight his entire life to start falling for his male best friend.
But despite this, I see their potential for a romantic relationship, even if it would have to happen in an alternate universe. Doris Egan seems to agree; she has expressed her opinion that in a perfect world, there would exist a show about House and Wilson having a relationship in addition to the original House:
“There would be on Egan Network One: House Classic. On Egan Network Two, we could have House/Wilson. And on Egan Network Three, hmm, I'll have to think about that one. But in the perfect Egan world, there would be no limits.”
Since I like the House/Wilson relationship but don’t really need to see them in a relationship for the purposes of the show, I am able to settle for the sexual tension that I find in their interactions. And even if one of the writers did not intend for some of the sexual tension to be present, I know that I would still find it somewhere.
Test Subject II
Edward Vogler: Are you sleeping with House?
Dr. Cuddy: What? No.
Edward Vogler: But you did. Right? A long time ago?
Dr. Cuddy: That's an incredibly inappropriate question.
Edward Vogler: If your judgment is compromised by a prior or current relationship, that is my business.
Dr. Cuddy: I respect him. That is all you need to know.
-Season One, Episode Fourteen, “Control”
While Cuddy does not say she had a relationship with House, she also did not deny it. These quotes are commonly used in support of a (past or future) House/Cuddy relationship and certainly support the fact that they may have feelings for each other at present.
The quote that was my inspiration was from an earlier episode, and “Known Unknowns,” from season six provides a lot more backstory. Apparently Cuddy and House did have a one-night stand, but House never called Cuddy back—because he was expelled from medical school. There is the implication that their relationship could have gone somewhere from there.
However, that does not mean that for five whole seasons, people were not speculating about what House and Cuddy’s past relationship could have been. I certainly think it is more fun to speculate than it is to actually know. Yet even though I know, I can still easily come up with different scenarios.
I like the House/Cuddy relationship in general, because like House and Wilson, they have an excellent dynamic, in my opinion. Cuddy’s job is to keep House in line, because there needs to be someone above House to stop him from doing anything too insane. Yet Cuddy has trouble saying “no” to House. Episode after episode, she gives him permission to perform ridiculous procedures even though she tells him no at first. She has a position of power over him but only exerts this power with his permission, turning herself into the submissive one in their relationship.
Their potential past relationship/one night stand adds a very unprofessional dynamic to their roles as the boss and the employee. We as viewers accept this because the show might not be quite so interesting if House had a strictly professional relationship with his boss.
Test Subject III
“Three Stories” is the twenty-first episode of the first season, written by David Shore. It breaks the formula of a typical House episode somewhat in that it shows House giving a lecture about diagnosing patients instead of simply diagnosing a patient. He uses three test cases (just as I have) to tell his story, and the third is himself.
Thus, this episode reveals to the viewer what led to House’s leg pain and by extension his Vicodin addiction.
“The patient was technically dead for over a minute,” House informs the class. He has gotten far too involved with this story; this has been a more emotional experience than he expected. Never mind the lowered clinic hours; Cuddy had better pay him back in sexual favors.
He takes a moment to recall what he saw in that moment, almost forgetting he must explain to the class. The images are still vivid in his mind.
“The patient saw the farmer walking on his prosthetic leg with a new dog, Cujo completely forgotten. And he saw the volleyball player, playing a game despite her prosthetic leg. Both of them had moved on and were happy again.” Only House isn’t happy. “And then the patient was back.”
Wilson, Cameron, and Foreman are listening in, standing in the back of the room. Of course Cameron’s here, House thinks, because she would want to know my secrets. She thinks my damage is sexy.
“Do you think he was dead? Do you think those experiences were real?” says Wilson.
That jerk. But House doesn’t miss a beat. He doesn’t care if his answer is offensive. “Define real,” he says. “They were real experiences. What they meant… Personally, I choose to believe that the white light people sometimes see when they have visions, this patient saw. They’re all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down.”
“You choose to believe that?” says Foreman. Idiot. Who wouldn’t?
“There’s no conclusive science,” House says. “My choice has no practical relevance to my life, I choose the outcome I find more comforting.”
And Cameron can’t help herself. “You find it more comforting to believe that this is it?” she says. She would believe in silly fairytales. It’s Cameron after all.
“I find it more comforting to believe that this simply isn’t a test.”
House lets the students absorb those words and then continues his story. He remembers his conversation with Stacy, when she told him his leg needed to be amputated. He refused. He insisted he would give his patients a choice.
“Not a chance!” she said, and she was right. He knew this and didn’t care. “You’d browbeat them until they made the choice you knew was right. You’d shove it in their face that it’s just a damn leg! You don’t think you deserve to live? You don’t think you deserve to be happy?”
House doesn’t tell this to the class, of course. They do not need to know that he, who saves lives for a living, was so apathetic toward saving his own. That he really would have rather risked death than have his leg amputated. But it’s the truth.
He instead talks about how Stacy and Cuddy conspired to remove the dead muscle from his leg while he was in the coma. He wanted the blood flow to be restored so he could gain full use of his leg, as he believed was a possibility, or he wanted to die. He still cringes at the thought of others overriding the treatment he prescribed for himself.
“Because of the extent of the muscle removed, utility of the patient’s leg was severely compromised. Because of the time delay in making the diagnosis, patient continues to experience chronic pain,” he concludes.
When one student remarks that the patient was an idiot, House agrees. He has gone way over his time limit. And he is not going to do this again.
I chose to write about this episode exactly as it happened, word-for-word, to the point that I actually copied from an online script I found. It is one of my favorite episodes, partly due to the scene which I attempted to write out. What really strikes me is when House sees the farmer and the volleyball player living happy lives with their prosthetic legs when he is technically dead. There is perhaps a chance that while House experienced the coma, if they had not performed this treatment, his leg really would have healed—but we all know that is not the case. Still, when he has this vision, he does not know Cuddy and Stacy are conspiring against him and will remove the muscle while he is in the coma he wants induced.
What he sees in that vision is the other patients with leg problems moving on and living happy lives whereas he is still miserable. In the episode, we see the visions themselves but do not hear how he describes them to the class, which I wanted to explore. There is the implication that no matter what happened with House’s leg—even if he weren’t in pain and a Vicodin addict—he would still be miserable. Other information revealed throughout the show, such as that his father was abusive, proves that other factors in his life led him to become the bitter person he is.
When he asks to be put into the coma, and Stacy tries to talk reason into him, he seems as though he does not care whether he lives or dies. He does not value his own life or happiness. His self-loathing is evident and draws me to his character, and stays with me even as I view other episodes that do not touch on these themes. This episode defines House for me. There is a chance that the reason he refused to have his leg amputated was simply because he was so overconfident in his own method and really believed it would work. I can believe this to an extent but still like to entertain my own explanation.
I also find his line, “I find it more comforting to believe that this simply isn’t a test” to be personally inspiring. House is an atheist but does not take the view that life has no meaning or point. He doesn’t believe in an afterlife because he wants to believe that the life he is living really is meaningful, that it is the only life.
I would agree with House, that the visions he saw were really just a dream with no meaning—that they can only be given meaning through interpretation.
I still do not prefer the genre that is the American television serial. However, I think that if I put as much time and thought into another show as I have now put into House, I would come to enjoy it the same way. This exercise has been interesting and fulfilling and has led me to find out a lot of new information about House. Most of what I discussed while framing this exercise has been proven to be true—yes, television serials can be interpreted like works of literature.
However, my eyes have also been opened even wider to the limits of the television serial. In fact, I have realized that novels, movies, anime—anything with a coherent plot is limited by its own form to an extent. Luckily, my eyes have also been opened to the vast potential of the viewers, who create nuanced universes in their heads whenever they view an episode. Archives of fanfictions function as a database of these universes, and I believe that any literary form deserves an expansive database of its own, as these are more varied and literary than the original works on their own.
I am not sure I treated my test subjects as nicely as they deserved to be treated, partly due to limits on my time as well as my talents. However, I hope this project can inspire anyone who finds it to run similar tests, perhaps with greater success. Seeing as I enjoyed this process and learned a lot, I know it was useful. Like House, I prefer to believe this is not just a test and that it will come to have some value on its own.