My mother and I once got into an argument about what constituted a good parent. At the time, I’d been in the parent business for the better part of a decade, and neither child had died or started torturing small animals in the basement, so I was feeling pretty cocky. My mother, on the other hand, saw flaws everywhere, in the children of course, but mostly in me and what were, in her eyes, my slovenly attempts at fatherhood. Hence the fight. Finally, exasperated, I asked just whom we knew who possessed the Christlike qualities that she so plainly believed every good father should have.
She didn’t even have to think about it. “Ben Cartwright,” she replied evenly. “Just look at how he raised those boys—Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. And all without a mother.”
That ended that argument. What never ended, though, was my mother’s habit of talking about television characters as if they were real, and not only real but friends of hers with whom she hung out once a week. That went on for years, as I listened to her describe the good deeds done recently by Matt Dillon, Perry Mason, Matlock, Ironside, and all those people crowded into that little house on the prairie. It made my skin crawl, and I think it single-handedly kept me out of the TV habit for years.
If I ever challenged her by saying something like, “It’s just television,” she would come back with, “Oh, honey, no,” as if I had just confessed to killing Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
I did learn to shut up, but it never stopped annoying me. I was cool with her crushes on Andy Griffith and Raymond Burr (and boy, was I a good son—I never brought up the cross-dressing rumors, not once), and even Jack Lord. But Michael Landon? Really?
If I sound smug, it’s because I was. But smugness is one of those things that have a way of biting you when you’re least ready for it. I should know. I just got my comeuppance last week.
I was watching the next-to-last installment of House, M.D., and feeling a little sad that after Monday night the irascible diagnostician played by Hugh Laurie will no longer stalk the halls of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital. The show, like all shows that have enjoyed long runs, is milking the final-days stuff to a faretheewell. Chase left a couple of episodes ago. Wilson has been dying of cancer for several episodes, and now we find out that House is facing more jail time. And that’s just what the show itself is perpetrating in the run-up to the grand finale (about which, I assure you, I know nothing). Fox, the host network, has a countdown-to-the-end campaign running that bludgeons you with such ferocity and lack of subtlety that any temptation you might have been entertaining in the direction of sentimentality is squashed like a bug.
That said, I will miss Dr. Gregory House. I may have missed an episode or three over the eight-season life of the series, but not many. Week in and week out, I was there on the couch for whatever snarling smartass eviscerations House might direct at the fodder the show supplied as his targets—stupid patients, dumb doctors, blithering administrators. Sure, House could be cruel, he could go over the top, but most of the time he said things you wished you were smart enough to say in arguments. Hey, I’m not even smart enough to think that stuff up after the fight is over. The really cool thing about House as hero was that the smart guy won every time, and doing that, he struck a blow against sentimentality, cant, and what Flannery O’Connor—a House soulmate if ever there was one—once called “slobberheartedness.” He quite literally thought his way out of trouble.
Plus House had incredibly cool toys—guitars and a grand piano that he could actually play, and a turntable in his office that costs more than my car. He wasn’t much good at sustaining human relationships, but believe it or not, it’s almost comforting to see a guy like that on the tube. Of course, TV being what it is—an art form that demands answers, logic, and explanations for everything—House’s dark personality had to be explained. But at least the show’s creators gave him a classy, almost mythic backstory—the strange and painful wound in his leg that left him limping and addictively popping Vicodin for eight years.
I never understood the medical explanation for House’s bum leg, any more than I could follow the mumbo-jumbo explanations for the various illnesses and diseases that afflicted so many for so long. I’m not sure anyone on the show really thought we would. Certainly they were more than willing to torpedo their own rationale from time to time; at one point someone in the hospital asks someone who’s known House for ages, even before his leg wound, how the wound changed him. It didn’t, was the reply, he’s always been like this. But then you learned not to trust anything the show’s producers and writers said for publication. Someone once asked David Shore, one of the show’s creators, about the parallels between House and Sherlock Holmes, and Shore blithely said he never made much of the comparison and that no one connected with the show ever thought much about it. Which doesn’t really explain why House’s apartment number is 221B, does it?
I thought the House-Holmes stuff was pretty clever, but what I liked most was House talking to people, especially his friend Wilson. Partly this was because Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard are wonderful actors, and watching those two play off each other was some of the better television I’ve ever seen. But thinking about that was something you did after the fact, once the show was over. While you watched, you watched two men, two friends who enjoyed each other and yet drove each other crazy—and not wacky TV Felix and Oscar crazy, but crazy the way people you can’t quit really do drive you bats. It was mighty good TV.
I have this little theory about television shows, mostly about those cable series, such as The Sopranos or Mad Men, that are done in by their success. That is, they become successful and the success means they get to keep going, which winds up wrecking the show. It becomes not a story stretched over a year or two, where anything can happen, but a series where certain characters were never going to be hurt. You knew Tony Soprano wasn’t going to die. When you know things like that, the show has become a series just like Gunsmoke.
House, M.D., was a series from the get go, so no worries about pretentiousness. You knew the plot before you watched. So that wasn’t why you watched, unless you were keeping score at home on how often the diagnostic team could wonder if someone had lupus. No, you watched for House himself, House and Wilson, House and Cuddy, any show that 13 (Olivia Wilde) appeared in, and then that wonderful season where David Morse, as Detective Tritter, stalked House like Inspector Javert. I even got a kick out of trying to figure out House’s taste in music based on what he played on the guitar or the piano (Oscar Peterson, and beyond that, good luck). But it was the weekliness of it that appealed, the repetition, the recycled plot structure, all that boring familiarity showcasing those wonderful characters, led by my favorite TV character of all time, Dr. Gregory House.
And so, wallowing in just such a sentiment last week while watching the series wind down, I had my omigod moment. I am, I understood at last, on the verge of thinking like my mother. I am treating these people as if they are real. And just because my favorite character is snarly and rude while hers were kind and helpful, well, that’s hardly more than a matter of degree, is it? I think this show is ending in the nick of time—for me at least.
Never underestimate the insidious power of TV to turn your life upside down.
The only straw I have to cling to is the conviction that Dr. House would be a terrible parent.