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KICKING TELEVISION: The ‘House, M.D.’ That Love Built

KICKING TELEVISION: The 'House, M.D.' That Love Built

I’m not very good at love. Now, in
the St. Valentine’s season, I’m lucky enough to be in love. She’s very patient.
She tolerates my idiosyncrasies and flaws. We’d like to get a dog. My folks dig
her. I’m not quite sure how many times I’ve been in love before. At least once.
Most likely two-and-a-half times. And once in high school, but that doesn’t
count. I suffer from acute loneliness, which often leads to binge television
watching. At least once every two years I revisit my favorite series: Lost, Friday Night Lights, West
Wing
. They stand in as replacements for love, for companionship. Lately, in
the throes of a new relationship, I have found less of a need to binge on
TV. But a few weeks ago, as I quickly flipped past Gilmore Girls as a Saturday night viewing option on NetFlix, I
stopped briefly on House, M.D. At one
time, it had been in my binge rotation. As an argument for the virtues of Rory
and Lorelai filled my periphery, I wondered how House fit into the mix. In the absence of love, Lost, Friday Night Lights, and West
Wing
all told some sort of love story. Jack and Kate. Small town America
and football. Aaron Sorkin and whimsical banter. But House seemed on the outside, counter to the affections of my
loneliness. And then it occurred to me, in an epiphanic moment of distant
wonder, that House is the greatest
love story television has ever told. The love between Drs. Gregory House and
James Wilson, that is.

I’m not talking about the kind of
love you find in House fan fiction.
And I’m not talking about the kind of love that existed between Cameron
(Jennifer Morrison) and House (Hugh Laurie), a love born of daddy issues and a show’s attempt to create sexual tension. And I’m not talking about the Cuddy
(Lisa Edelstein) and House love, which always seemed contrived and formulaic. What existed between Laurie’s House and Robert Sean Leonard’s Wilson defied
the traditions of television which ran deeper and were more transcendent than Sam and Diane,
Ross and Rachel, Pepé Le Pew and Penelope Pussycat.  

Not unlike the love I have now, I
almost missed out on House. Just as
my partner and I briefly parted ways for superficial and ancillary reasons this
past December, I dismissed House as
typical serialized fare. It was ER with fewer characters. Hugh Laurie was
over-the-top. The guy from Dead Poet’s
Society
(Leonard) seemed under-used. The Australian was too pretty. And I
never liked Edelstein as an actress, particularly her underwhelming performance
as an escort on West Wing in all four
of my viewings of it. But like love, I gave House
a second chance, and I became enamoured by it. Maybe even obsessed. Dare say I
loved House, and all its
idiosyncrasies and flaws.

What drew me most to House was Laurie’s performance, and it
is indeed brilliant. Playing a drug-addicted and gifted diagnostician proved to
be a character for the ages.
His
Holmesian problem solving at first seemed too much in the tradition of Columbo, but Laurie made it feel
genuine, as the solution to the diagnosis fulfilled his character’s need more
so than that of the arc and narrative of the episode, counter to the traditions
of the genre and tropes of the procedural drama.  And Leonard’s Wilson was the Watson
to Laurie’s Holmes. But more than anything else on the show, I was drawn to the
extreme friendship between House and his oncologist conscience. It was the kind
of love between friends that simply isn’t shown on TV or in film, and certainly
not between men. According to the TV and film auteurs of today, all male friendships are
some form of bromance, or homoerotic exercise, or dudebro vehicle. Judd Apatow,
or Lethal Weapon, or Judd Apatow. On House,
we were treated to a love between men that I remember from home, from youth,
that I’ve missed in the transience of my adulthood, a kind of love that is
beyond sex and marriage and poetry and children and Christmas dinner and
minivans and mortgage rates and the new Keurig and Viagra and debt and
infidelity and data plans. This was a love story that aspired to more than what
the medium had ever attempted to offer before.

Every great love story revels in
the mythology of its origins. House and Wilson met as Romeo and Juliet did: at
a medical convention in New Orleans. Wilson started a bar fight in a bar after
Billy Joel’s “Leave A Tender Moment Alone” was played repeatedly by
another patron. Having witnessed the event, House posted Wilson’s bail and an undeniably real love was born.

In early seasons, Wilson enabled
House’s addictions and extremes. He writes, or allows House to forge,
prescriptions for Vicodin. He supports, or excuses, House’s alcoholic
tendencies, his affection for prostitutes, his acerbic wit. He indulges or
celebrates the oddity of House’s genius. Enabling is a form of love, as long as
it does not endanger anyone. Wilson always controlled his affections. He
managed House. He was his conscience, his sponsor, his moral center. And though
at times it bordered on burden, the friendship certainly wasn’t one-sided.

This love can best be seen in an
episode from Season 3, “Son of Coma Guy.” House awakens a man (the
brilliant John Laroquette) from a coma, and he and Wilson take him to Atlantic
City for a last hurrah before the ultimate sleep. House has to euthanize the
man in order to preserve his organs and save his son. While Wilson’s morality
would never allow him to lead such an act, he supports House’s morality in providing an
alibi and advice on methodology. Love is unconditional in this way, and love on
television would rarely aspire to this form, a love so true it is literally
criminal. Joey would never have helped Dawson bury Pacey’s body.

This altruistic love continued
throughout the series. Wilson would manage House’s mania, take him to rehab,
comfort those bruised by his violent pathology. House provided the buttoned-up
Wilson with his freedom, his shy eccentricities, his inner manchild. From
adolescent pranks to monster trucks to binge drinking, House allowed Wilson to
be free to the confinements of his responsibilities. House saved Wilson from bad
relationships, from a life of stasis, and a lack of companionship. He paid a
child actor to pretend to be Wilson’s illegitimate son to provide the tangible
realization that kids are a hassle. Chandler would never do that for Joey.
Hell, he slept with Kathy.

In House’s final season, the roles between House and Wilson are
reversed when the oncologist is diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, it is Wilson
who is embattled and prone to questionable decisions, who is faced with his
mortality the way House’s addictions continually forced him to. After failed
treatments (both traditional and experimental), Wilson is resigned to death,
something that House has never been able to consider as an option for his
patients. At this moment, House realizes he may lose his one true partner, his
one true love.
 

“You don’t have to just accept
this.”

“Yes I do have to accept this. I
have five months to live. And you’re making me go this through this alone. I’m
pissed because I’m dying and it’s not fair and I need I need a friend. I need
to know that you’re there. I need you to tell me that my life was worthwhile
and I need you to tell me that you love me.”

“No, I’m not going to tell you that
unless you fight.”

If there has been a more true and
honest declaration of love on television, I have not seen it. Wilson’s affirmation
is a thesis statement of their relationship, and the essence of true love
itself. House’s inability to do exactly as his friend needs is in and of itself
an act of selflessness and love.

In the series final episode, House
has faked his death to escape jail so that they may spend the rest of Wilson’s
life together. The entire series had been built on the premise that House
needed the puzzle of diagnosis, the Holmesian existence, in order to live. It
was more to him than the Vicodin, or the pain, the Vicodin, or Cuddy,
or family. But in this final act, a final act of absolute love argues that the
series was not about House at all, but rather the long tale of a complicated
platony, and in more universal terms the human need for companionship above all
else.

And fittingly, astride their
motorcycles, leathered up in a wink of homoerotic wit, the two men drive off
into the sunset, to their final moments together, an epic nod to the iconic
fades into sunset.

Love is at its worst on television
and on Valentine’s Day. In these instances it is a caricature of itself. The
difference is that on TV the love portrayed is unattainable. On Valentine’s
it’s unrealistic. An overly sugared candy heart. A sitcom of emotion. Love on
television tends to be superficial, shallow, and simple. It is stained by the
inevitability of reconciliation, the false promise of happiness, and The Bachelor. What Wilson and House
shared eclipsed our hollow idea of love.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
 PLAY
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013).
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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