Tonal transition: Why House is having a creative resurgence in its seventh season

In its seventh season, the general consensus on FOX’s House is that it is a series way past its prime, one that’s a shell of its former self and one that’s basically no longer interesting on a week-to-week basis. If you would have asked me, a long-time fan of the series, my opinion on House just last season, I would have said exactly the same thing. In fact, I’ve voice my frustrations with the series multiple times over the past few years, most notably in a my former podcast and this post near the end of season six last spring. I don’t think I was as critical as some of the major critics have been, but I could definitely see where their frustrations stemmed from.

However, as the title of this post suggests — and if you’ve kept up, most of my S7 reviews have noted — I’ve changed my tune on House this season. With this post, I hope to sketch out some of the issues I’ve had with the series in recent seasons and examine why a number of those issues have been expunged throughout the first half-dozen episodes of season seven. Most of these points have been scattered across the aforementioned podcast, blog posts and reviews, but I felt it necessary to compile them all into one overarching argument for your reading pleasure.

Anyway, let’s talk about House.

The way I see it, the series has had three main periods in its six-plus year life-cycle, each of which have seen the series transition in tone. We all know and love the first period, those first three seasons. At that point, House was an intelligent medical mystery with an extremely strong lead character at its center. It was a procedural in sheep’s clothing in a lot of ways, as Hugh Laurie’s performance as House helped raise the series above the normal medical procedural fare, giving it a presumed air of quality that it rightfully deserved. At that point, House was the glowing beacon for why procedurals weren’t the scourge of television; bad procedurals were the scourge of television. In those first three seasons, the series was sharp, witty and also willing to explore interesting philosophical issues — or at least do so on the surface.

If we go back to the end of the third season, the original team was dismantled, a decision that probably still haunts the creative team to this day. At the time and honestly, now, I still find it to be a daring and partially genius move by David Shore and company. The production team was well aware that House was a procedural with one awesome character, but to continue on at the same rate of success, it needed to present the idea of freshness, the idea of newness. A new team, especially a new team brought together in a reality show-like fashion, was a genius way to keep the series humming along with new characters who could bounce off of House, which is really the most important element of the series. At that point, the series tended to tie its generally interesting patient stories with the team’s lives, to varying results of success. And because of those varying degrees of success, perhaps it made sense to Shore and company to bring in new people to thematically tie to patient stories. In short, of all it was done out of fear of stagnation, and I get that.

Season four served as a transition point between what my self-appointed first and second periods of House‘s life cycle, and in my opinion, is still the most enjoyable to watch back on DVD because of how House reveled in the reality competition for the fellowships. It probably also benefited from being shortened by the WGA strike too, but that’s another matter.

Anyway, season four’s two-part finale, “House’s Head, Wilson’s Heart” is absolutely the series’ best moment, but it also served as the catalyst for the second period in the series’ life cycle and the number of problems that came with that new life cycle. The emotional effectiveness of that finale stemmed from the fact that it destroyed the lives of people we actually cared about in House, Wilson and Amber, but also apparently gave the writers ideas for how to transition the series past just reconfiguring the team.

Thus, when season five arrived, House was much more interested in telling character-centric stories about the members of the team, which then pushed the medical mysteries to the background in a lot of ways. Again, that seems like a smart approach because viewers are eventually going to be bored by the formula because, well, it’s a formula.

However, a few important things were lost in this second era of House. First of all, because the series’ writers had been primarily writing medical mystery procedural stories with occasional beats of character focus, they weren’t really sure how to smoothly transition to an opposite approach. Secondly and similarly, the writers were so used to writing twist-heavy episodes that they began to apply that kind of approach to their character-centric episodes as well, leading to a number of “shocking” moments that existed only to shock and lacked any build-up or much analysis in the aftermath (see: the lack of follow-through on the House-Wilson complications in season five, Chase and Cameron getting married, Chase killing a guy for Cameron, Kutner’s suicide, House’s imagination making up his relationship with Cuddy). And finally, just as the writers decided it was time to focus on the characters, they sidelined the characters they were already familiar with and could write for and replaced them with characters they couldn’t really figure out, so they just applied base tropes to them (One’s a lesbian! One’s a nerd! One’s a cheater!).

Thus, in the second cycle of the series’ life, the writers seemed to think that the only way to tell “character” stories is to make all the people miserable. If you look back at the stories from seasons five and six, things are particularly dark, both in content and even in visual style. The cinematography from S5 and S6 are especially dark, bleak and cold, replacing the generally bright and sleek look from early seasons.

To survive, the writers of House tried to turn the series into a makeshift version of Grey’s Anatomy, but they kept only the pretentious and insufferable parts of the ABC’s formula and forgot to add in the charming, sometimes witty parts. And despite a mostly solid arc for House in S6, the series was generally lost. It had mostly abandoned the idea of telling an interesting medical mystery in favor of melodramatic nonsense between the team-members, but the writers never figured out exactly how to do that either. It was a series without a storytelling identity aside from “Let’s let Hugh Laurie do his thing” and at that point, I don’t blame anyone for jumping ship.

At the end of last season, it didn’t really look like this version of the series was ever going to change. Sure, I really liked the finale “Help Me” and wanted to see House and Cuddy together, but the way in which the series put them together? Ridiculous. The way in which Cameron and Chase got separated? Ridiculous. And the way in which Thirteen left? Out of nowhere, in traditional House fashion.

And yet, as the first six episodes of this season has proved, those decisions ended up changing the series for the better, leading to the third era in House‘s run.

In a lot of ways, this House is a lot like the House we have seen in the past two years, but in a lot of ways, it’s like the House we saw in the first four years as well. The medical mysteries are only slightly better this season, but an improvement is an improvement. But more importantly, something has happened with the writers’ ability to craft nice character stories this season and that’s the primary reason why the series is having a creative resurgence.

I’ve been trying to figure out the reasoning for this change, and I think there are a few. First of all, for whatever reason, this batch of characters really works for the writers. I do think it says something about the staff that they’ve always struggled with writing interesting women and not that there’s really only one woman on the cast, they’ve figured some things out, but stripped of their melodramatic relationships, Chase and Foreman have come alive in a way that reminds me of the earlier seasons. Throw in Taub and there’s this playful, almost frat boy atmosphere between the three of them where the patented House psychoanalysis is mostly playful and harmless. It might make the series feel more like a general procedural where we don’t really discuss these characters’ personal lives, but if the writers can’t figure out how to do those stories, I’m absolutely fine with this approach.

Secondly, I’ll give the writers more credit than that: I think they figured out how to write for their characters more this season, particularly House and Cuddy. If we disregard some of the frustrating things that led to House and Cuddy getting together and just look at how their relationship has been handled this season, it’s been fantastic. From the premiere onward, the series has been serious in its intent to explore how these two screwed up people would make a relationship work, both at home and at the hospital, and the writers have worked in small, but realistic issues into each episode without it seeming too overwhelmingly to the plots of individual episodes. This series has never been interested in exploring long-term relationships aside from the one between House and Wilson, but even when they had problems in S5, the writers got bored with that pretty quickly.

But with House and Cuddy, they’re nailing it. The characters are still acting like themselves, but with slightly different shadings and motivations, just how they would act in the various situations that have come up. House hasn’t been completely neutered and Cuddy hasn’t turned into a ridiculous lovesick idiot either. It’s been both emotionally successful and oftentimes funny to watch these two people figure out a mature relationship when neither of them has really handled it in the past.

Therefore, it feels like a lot of melodramatic weight has been lifted from House. There’s no one on the team or at the hospital that’s particularly miserable — except for Foreman, but he’s always like that — there’s no overly dramatic issues between any of them and thus, things feel breezier and more fun to watch. The medical mysteries are never going to be consistently good again, but they’re fine this year and at least serving some purpose for House, Cuddy and the other team-members. There’s still a focus on the characters, but just in a fun way that emphasizes how they interact with one another, not their melodramatic problems at home.

Listen, I understand why people don’t want to keep watching House after the last two messy seasons and especially if they’re big fans of the medical mysteries. I don’t particularly think the series is as good right now as it was during season two, but House has evolved to something different that is ultimately enjoyable again on a week-to-week basis in a way that it hasn’t been over the past few seasons. If the series is still going to be around, this is the version of it I want to watch and enjoy.

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7 thoughts on “Tonal transition: Why House is having a creative resurgence in its seventh season

  1. Fantastic article and I couldn´t agree more. We all know the show will never be as good as it was but this season is a big improvement over season 5 and 6 (don´t let me start on season 6). I´m enjoying the show again this season and that´s a lot.
    About House and Cuddy, I always thought that i´d hate to see House in a relationship and the first episodes of the season kept me on the fence but right now, i think the relationship is one of the highlights of the season. Plus hiring the lovely Amber Tamblyn has been a fantastic idea.

  2. After last year fiasco i must say that season 7 is really welcome. But i think the show should end this year because the writers are running out of ideas and it´s better to finish something when it´s still great.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. Season 5 wasn’t great and 6 was an utter fiasco, aside from certain episodes i.e. Broken, Help Me. I think Season 7 they’ve found the right way to bring everything together; the cases, the team and the House/Cuddy relationship. I do still miss Cameron and am looking forward to 13 coming back. However, I do like Masters and I think she’s an excellent addition to the team. To me she’s a mix of Cameron, Cuddy and House and that’s what the team needed in the absence of 13.

  4. This article is so bittersweet a year later. Look how they messed up something that had the premise to be extraordinary considering the potential of these two characters. Shame this shiw crashed along with House’s car into Cuddy’s house.

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