The Guardian, 2 October 2012

Detectives Blog

The Hippocratic Oath isn’t something Gregory House necessarily agrees with: he’s more than happy to do harm to a patient – physically, mentally and emotionally – if it gets him one step closer to solving a case. His murderers might be microbes, but he’s far more detective than doctor. Healing the sick is a side-perk of House’s career; his real motivation is learning the truth. And even if the disease wins, he doesn’t give up. Working out what killed a patient is no less compelling to House than trying to save a life.

Happily for the patients at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, House usually pre-empts their deaths. He solves the case just in time, often after making the symptoms drastically worse to prove his thesis or rule out a possible cause. It’s the only way he can stay on the hospital payroll, given his rudeness, unprofessionalism and deeply shoddy ethics.

The parallels between House and his quasi-namesake, Sherlock Holmes, are obvious. For a start, House lives in a building numbered 221. Then they’re both drug-users: while Holmes self-medicates with cocaine to alleviate his ennui and depression, House doses up on Vicodin to dull the pain in his damaged leg.

Holmes has his Watson, House has his Wilson. And the show enjoys paying homage to its Victorian inspiration: the pilot episode sees him treat primary schoolteacher, Rebecca Adler (played by Robin Tunney, before she went on to disapprove of Patrick Jane in The Mentalist). The reference to Irene Adler in the first Holmes short story (A Scandal in Bohemia) is no accident. Nor is the fact that House is shot in the Season 2 finale by a former patient: Jack Moriarty.

Finally and please skip this paragraph if you haven’t yet watched the final episode of House but are planning to… Both men fake their own deaths. In the case of Holmes, it’s a necessary security measure. Moriarty may be dead, but his lieutenants are still marauding the underbelly of London, waiting to slaughter our hero with a crossbow. And House fakes his death to avoid jail and spend Wilson’s final few months with him.

House could easily have been a thoroughly pedestrian formula show. The fact that it survived for eight seasons is thanks to Hugh Laurie, who imbues the title role with so much complexity that he can still surprise us after 177 episodes. His misanthropy is legend. His catchphrase is ‘Everybody lies’. Yet he is still capable of astonishing goodness, as Thirteen (Olivia Wilde) discovers in the final season.

Greg House is a man who loves with a great passion: his on-off romance with his boss Lisa Cuddy is a driving force throughout the show, and his meltdown when she leaves him propels him through the final season. He is a man who can marry a prostitute he just met out of pure spite (and her need for a green card), but will then fall in love with her, and never say so.

In the beginning, the main reason to watch the show was to see Laurie being American, and grizzled and modern, and generally the opposite of the Prince Regent in Blackadder The Third. Gradually, the shock of seeing him switch from foppish fool to genius sex-symbol was replaced by the joy of watching him think. Hugh Laurie thinks better than virtually any actor alive. His eyes and creased forehead betray every step of his thought process – having an idea, considering it, finding fault with it, dismissing it, replacing it with a new idea. We see every flash of inspiration, every moment of despair.

The measure of any detective must be that if something happened to you or your loved one, would you want this person to be on the case. If you were murdered, you would surely die hoping Columbo would soon be standing over your still-warm corpse asking difficult questions of your urbane, gin-swilling killer. And with House, that is doubly true: you might not want to buy him a drink, but you definitely want him checking over your medical notes.

Iconic? House is the ultimate doctor-detective. And the show’s flashy production values count for a lot too.

Duffers? I have already blanked out his doctor-assistants from the final series. Also, Amber Tamblyn looks exactly like her dad, yet no-one thought to do a number from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers while she was there? Badly done.

In answer to last week’s quiz, thank you for your heroic attempts to guess the truly obscure detective show in which I appeared as an extra (they filmed a scene at my school). I’m afraid the prize goes unclaimed, as no-one named Kinsey – a show so lame it has a shorter wiki entry than I do. I’m pretty sure Minnie Driver played Kinsey’s daughter in the episode I’m in, but it isn’t on her imdb page, so either I am a crazed fantasist, or it has been removed, Trotsky-like, from the record.

I will be saving my Monk tie-in novel (by Lee Goldberg) for another, easier quiz.