Friday, May 1, 2009

House: Whodunit? Who Cares?

Occasionally, I am forced to endure the peculiar feeling of being wrong. It doesn't happen often, of course, but when it does, there's usually nothing to do but deny it. This time, however, I will admit my error and try to understand it.

I first watched House, M.D., the current popular medical drama, some time during its first year. I enjoyed it, but I said, "I don't think I'll like watching it for very long." I rarely make predictions as bold as what will last or what millions of other people will think, but I figured it was safe enough to predict what I myself would think. My thinking was thus: The show was suspenseful because it was structured as a mystery. There was a victim, a quirky detective, a group of earnest but inferior associates, and an unknown villain. The detective and his associates spent the hour gathering clues from the victim and at the scene of the crime, trying to eliminate possibilities and zero in on the right evildoer. At the end of each act, there was a twist, showing that our heroes were on the wrong track and time was running out, until, in the last act, a look of comprehension crosses the detective's face, and he confronts the offender, explaining what happened and how he figured it out. The only trick here was that the villain was a disease, not a criminal. Everything else about the show followed the conventions of a well-made mystery show.

My prediction sprang from the belief that part of the fun of a mystery is trying to solve it. I am a stickler for fairness in mysteries. The clues have to be available to us as we read or watch, allowing us the chance to solve the crime at the same time, or before, the detective. On Ellery Queen, Jim Hutton actually addressed the camera before the last scene, telling the audience we now had enough information to solve the mystery. If he had turned to the camera and said the mystery was solved, but we sure couldn't have known it, who would watch? House, by making the "murderers" medical conditions, and generally obscure ones, absolutely guarantees that no audience member who is not a practicing physician can ever solve the mystery. It's not that they hide information--they tell you what you need to know, but they fail to give you the three-year infectious disease residency required to interpret what they tell you. So, again, I enjoyed the episode, and figured the show would soon get on my nerves, as a mystery that I had no chance of solving.

Nope. Now finishing its fifth season, House is still a frequent staple of my television viewing. It turns out that I can be engaged in enough other ways that I don't need a crack at solving the case. Certainly, House has its over-the-top gimmicks, such as showing the inner workings of blood vessels every so often and the absolutely guaranteed blood spewing from an orifice before the end of every show (watch for it--it really happens in nearly every one). But by keeping the characters interesting enough, not just in the soap operatic ongoing plotlines, but in their reactions to the medical mysteries and to each other, the story somehow holds me just long enough for me to forgive and forget their total denial of my chance to figure out what happened.

House may look like a mystery, but it is actually a magic trick. While you are watching the medical mystery in this hand, the show is entertaining you with the drama in the other hand. So I can be wrong, too.