Media

Why Does the World's Most Popular TV Show Feature a Misanthrope Who Gets Away with Everything?

The TV drama 'House' features a painkiller-addicted loner who offers the fantasy to cure, or at least soothe, the various ills du jour that ail us.

Gregory House is a cantankerous, antisocial misfit riddled with imperfections – physical and otherwise – who is nonetheless successful and loved. Wouldn’t you like to be able to get away with that?

And wouldn’t you like to feel that no matter what ails you, no matter how rare, fatal, mysterious, or terrifying – whether it's your fault or not – someone will save you? That someone will appear, and with calm, methodical, playful, god-like omnipotence, see inside your body and mind, and heal any ill?

Sure you would. Probably now more than ever. And apparently, given that "House" is now the world’s most-watched television show, that’s what millions of people want too.

Of course, "House" is no "Baywatch." That show, broadcast in 142 countries, had an audience north of one billion viewers at its peak. No kind of salvation "House" offers can compete with salvation needed from the dangerous waves of Santa Monica, California, and offered by scantily clothed, dedicated lifeguards. (In case you weren’t one of those billion viewers, "Baywatch" is an ordinary tale about men and women who drive, run and roll around in the sand.)

But "House," watched by 82 million people last year in 66 countries, edged out "CSI" and "Desperate Housewives" to get the top spot, according to Eurodata TV Worldwide. And that’s no small thing in a year that recorded the highest U.S. TV viewership of all time. (Americans now spend an average of four hours and 49 minutes a day in front of the television each, or eight hours and 21 minutes a day on average per household.)

People are spending more of those couch hours on a TV drama featuring a painkiller-addicted loner, because more than anyone right now, the character of Gregory House (played by Hugh Laurie) offers the fantasy of curing, or at least soothing, the various ills du jour that ail us.

The dream of imperfection

No one can argue there’s an increasing focus on physical perfection, an ideal that mutates almost daily, and that diverts our time and energy from things that are actually meaningful and rewarding.

It’s not just that there’s the annoying, annual New Year focus on cleanses and short-lived, guilt-ridden exercise pledges. It’s not just that models are thinner than ever and Photoshopped into near oblivion. Or even that cosmetic surgery and procedures have become so ubiquitous the National Organization of Women has argued that Botox is an economic necessity for women, saying they can’t get or keep jobs without it. It’s that the daily chore of striving for physical perfection has become so mundane, we’ve stopped noticing that it’s taking over. Like white noise or chronic disease, the Sisyphean quest for physical perfection drains our energy and time, yet many of us hardly notice anymore.

Then there’s House. Unlike the more stylish junior doctors, Gregory House doesn’t wear anything special. Physically, let’s just say he’s good-looking, but he wouldn’t have made it onto "Baywatch." He’s an addict. He’s not sucking back wheatgrass juice or arriving late to meetings, fresh from the gym. He’s appropriately wrinkled for his age, rumpled and seemingly indifferent. Oh yeah, and he walks with a limp.

And with all that time on his hands -- time that many people spend trying to be pretty --- he actually saves lives.

Many of the "House" fans I know are women. And for them, House’s side-effect-free resistance to beauty’s pathology carries a special vicarious thrill. Most of us know in our hearts that there couldn’t be a female House, yet we can dream.

In fact, the female characters on the show don’t carry the same resistance to the beauty disease. They are smart and powerful, but they’re perfectly pretty in the makeup, hair and white teeth department. House's boss and love-interest Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), is arguably his peer, age-wise, yet much better maintained, as they say. Would you be surprised if you learned she’d had some cosmetic procedures? Not really, right? I look at her and feel all the anxiety I usually do about aging. Then I look at House and I relax.

It’s pure fantasy that I could get away with being a female equivalent of him – powerful yet disheveled -- but it’s an enjoyable one. And it distracts me from the frustration I feel about how much more time it must take Lisa Edelstein to get through hair and makeup.

The dream of eccentricity

House is often a jerk, and he gets away with it. Sure, it’s partly because he does actually care, is principled, and tends to keep his assaults prejudice-free. But he clearly hasn’t read or absorbed the contents of sensitivity training books, nor does he approach people with the kind of sterile respect that plagues corporate communications. He’s grumpy, he’s sometimes a bully, and he’s annoying.

His abrasiveness makes him more human and appealing than most characters on TV, and more attractive than perfection-seekers in real life. Who wants to watch Horatio on "CSI" (I acknowledge that a lot of people do, but I don’t.)

Characters and people with flaws are more interesting. And I’m not talking about the kind of "individuality" marketed by clothing retailers that actually leaves everyone looking the same. When House is grumpy, I feel relief: could I really just be irascible, I wonder, and somehow get away with it? It’s not that I fantasize about being mean. But I’d love to be irritable, or bluntly honest, and have people find me acceptable or even adorable instead of just bitchy.

The dream of salvation

Despite his flaws, House is god-like. He looks into the cells of ordinary mortals like you and me, and understands things too complicated for our human eyes to see. In this time of large-scale political and economic woes that are beyond the comprehension of most of us, a time when many people have lost faith in authorities to steer the course after too many egregious vices and crimes, House offers the answers of science. If you are one of the lucky ones to end up in his clinic, you can be saved.

"House" fills a similar role in the TV lineup that "Law & Order" once did. That show famously introduced chaos and disorder in the first two minutes, then restored order in the last two. No matter how immoral or amoral, unjust, disorderly, or sinful the crime, those detectives and district attorneys could send you off to bed at 10:59pm knowing that the world was safe, that you could believe in justice and institutions. In this age of swine flu and sub-prime mortgages, "House" provides cures for some ills, and distraction from others.

The dream of fantasy health care

It’s worth pointing out that in this age when not everyone enjoys health care, simply putting a hospital on screen is enough to make audiences salivate. It’s the same reason "General Hospital" is a popular daytime soap (and that characters in other soaps are often hospitalized for extended stays), that "Grey’s Anatomy," "ER," "Scrubs" and even "Nurse Jackie" do well: specialty medical care is aspirational. It’s hard to make a drama about schools popular, for example, because everyone has been through the system and most don’t want to go back. But to be tucked into a bed, surrounded by monitors and visitors and flowers….?

And House’s ward goes far beyond the usual hospital experience. I am Canadian, with access to unlimited taxpayer-funded medical care, and I drool over House’s exclusive enclave. I mean, how do you even access such a place – with its team of world experts focused entirely on you, its dimmed lighting and glass-enclosed offices, its endless supply of tests and machines? My clinic is much more like the one House sometimes works in to please Cuddy: my doctor is knowledgeable, but the waiting room is crowded, and the fluorescent lighting illuminates more worries than those I came in for.

The dream of status

It’s no coincidence that House is a boomer and a doctor. The show wouldn’t work if it was Gregory House, Rock Star. Nor would it work if House was 25 years old.
When those who are now middle-aged were picking career paths in high school (I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) they didn’t tick the box next to celebrity stylist, "American Idol" winner or real estate developer as often as the younger set now does. Doctor and lawyer were the top picks. Sure, there are folks like Simon Cowell, Donald Trump and Mick Jagger. And sure, lots of young people still want to be doctors. But House has the boomer fantasy job.

So until another show comes along that provides balm for our everyday ailments -- anxiety, perfectionism, poverty, confusion, fear, weariness and sickness – "House" will continue to make the most house calls. 

Vanessa Richmond is an AlterNet contributing writer.