Kesirli: House as Detective Drama

Reading House M.D. as a Detective Drama

Aysegul Kesirli, Dogus University, Istanbul

Spring, 2012

HouseAbstract:  The analogies between the main character of the famous television series House M.D., Gregory House, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary investigator, Sherlock Holmes, are discussed in different academic sources quite often. By getting inspiration from the resemblance between Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes, the main purpose of this review is to explore how House M.D. which is usually classified as a medical drama can be considered as a detective drama as well.  The review begins its exploration by questioning how House M.D. fits in with the generic characteristics of the detective genre. In order to pursue this exploration it relates the analogy between criminal activities and viruses which is frequently expressed in detective dramas with Gregory House’s struggle against bodily infections and tumors. Regarding this struggle, the review claims that despite his evident similarities with Sherlock Holmes, Gregory can be juxtaposed with the hardboiled detective figure even more significantly. Being aware of the fact that what lies at the core of the well known hardboiled detective fictions is a strong detective figure and a criminal investigation that causes the diegetic world to get more and more ambivalent as the narration progresses the review tries to examine the hesitant diegetic environment of House M.D. as well as the correspondence of Gregory House with the hardboiled detective figure by discussing his ambiguous masculinity and his methods of deduction.


The analogies between the main character of the famous television series House M.D., Gregory House, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary investigator, Sherlock Holmes, first occurred to me when I was reading a chapter in Stephen Knight’s Crime Fiction 1800-2000. In this chapter, Knight describes Sherlock Holmes as “a detective who is highly intelligent, essentially moral, somewhat elitist, all-knowing, disciplinary in knowledge and skills, energetic, eccentric, yet also in touch with the ordinary people who populate the stories.”[1] Although Gregory House cannot be considered as an essentially moral character all other features that are listed by Stephen Knight to define Sherlock Holmes, reminded me of his ways.

When I started to research this issue I realized that I was not the only one who has considered it. Jerold J. Abrams wrote a chapter in Henry Jacoby’s edited book, House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies, with the title of “The Logic of Guesswork in Sherlock Holmes and House” where he claims that House is not just based on the character of Holmes. He thinks that in a sense, House actually is Holmes, existing somewhere between the present in Princeton – Plainsboro and the past at No. 221B Baker Street in London which is very ironic as he states because the door number of Gregory House’s apartment is indicated as 221B in the episode named “Hunting” (S2E7). Abrams compares the initials of Sherlock Holmes’s loyal companion, Dr. Watson, and House’s closest thing to a friend, Dr. James Wilson to justify his argument. He also gives examples of the correspondence of Sherlock Holmes’s archenemy, Moriarty, and House’s old patient named Jack Moriarty who tries to get revenge on him in the second season finale. For Abrams, House and Holmes are both “loners, unmarried, unconnected; they care little for others, and can be curt and insulting even to their assistants” and their academic pursuits, their musical interests and their drug habits reveal the analogy between those two as well.[2]

Actually all of those analogies are not surprising because although House’s position with regard to this idea is a bit problematic Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes can be both considered as modernist heroes; their unexplainable deduction skills, which work like a mysterious superpower, their extreme intelligence, which carries them to the fine line between genius and madness, their perception of life as a puzzle or game to be played with, their common boredom with ordinary life and their confidence on the idea that the world would be reshaped by the consequence of their actions are the indications of that.

In Fiction, Crime, and Empire: Clues to Modernity and Postmodernism, Jon Thompson explains the link between modernist literature and detective fiction and states that modernists pride themselves on being master sleuths, diagnosticians of the remoter something which is described as “a hidden truth, a concealed clue to existence, a sense that experience is coded and that beneath or within the code, there is an underlying pattern of meaning that is capable of resolving ‘the nightmare of history’ into an understandable, stable, coherent narrative.”[3] According to Thompson, modernist literature rises from the idea that appearances disguise a deeper truth which corresponds with the essence of detective fiction. Doomed with the urge of revealing this deeper truth, both House and Holmes are hunted and obsessed by the puzzles that surround them.

Although the link between Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes is the most significant link, it is not the only clue in considering House M.D. as a detective drama. But before dealing with that question we have to ask ourselves what we are facing when we encounter a detective fiction. In the simplest terms, a classical detective fiction usually starts with a murder or the suspicion of criminal activity. The detective figure who is assigned to solve the mystery follows the traces of the criminal and tries to build a coherent story by putting the evidence together. In other words, as Slavoj Žižek explains, “it is a story of the detective’s effort to tell the story, i.e., to reconstitute what “really happened” around and before the murder, and the novel is finished not when we get the answer to “Whodunit?” but when the detective is finally able to tell “the real story” in the form of a linear narrative.”[4] In this sense, Žižek asserts that the existence of the detective in crime fiction guarantees the reestablishment of normality and lawfulness which lets him function as a symbolic authority, “the subject supposed to know,” in the narrative.

Every episode of House M.D. starts with a medical emergency.  People who suddenly collapse, have seizures, start to vomit blood or face a near-death situation, are brought to the emergency room of Princeton – Plainsboro Hospital where Gregory House, the famous diagnostician, works. In some cases the patients are brought there by coincidence. When the doctors in the emergency room cannot come up with a solution for their illnesses their cases are transferred to the diagnostics department that is run by House. In some other cases, the patients whose conditions cannot be diagnosed in different hospitals especially ask for Dr. House to find a cure. However, House, who loathes being bored, only accepts cases which are interesting to him.

House’s method of diagnosis is based on trial and error. When he finds a motivating case he brings his team together and lets them make their guesses. He thinks that competition and humiliation make them better doctors. Therefore, he provokes them by assaulting their intelligence or bringing up an issue concerning their personal life because his method works better when they cancel out each other’s ideas under pressure. The clues about the cases are collected through failures. Besides, what makes House the best diagnostician in town is that he does not only follow the path that the medical symptoms open up for him but also focuses on environmental influences. Breaking into the house of a patient is a routine procedure for House’s team because House believes that everybody lies and that searching the houses of the patients can reveal the real truth about them. He pays attention to unnoticeable details such as an unusual gesture, an odd belief, a perfectly normal-looking habit or a sudden change of lifestyle, just like a real detective investigating a crime.

During the episodes, the personal issues of House and his team members are intertwined with the medical procedures that are applied to the patients. The personal lives of the patients get connected with House’s or one of the team member’s private concerns, creating a snowball effect that helps the diagnosis. After every medical attempt fails and the patient’s life is about to come to an end, House experiences a moment of epiphany while he is occupied with a silly errand like messing up with one of the team members, annoying Cuddy or trying to win a bet he made with Wilson. Following this epiphany, everything that causes the illness is explained in a linear structure by House himself. The puzzle is solved and the patient is saved.

The narration of the episodes that follows the occurrence of the mystery, the collection of the clues and the resolution of the puzzle by virtue of Gregory House’s insights corresponds with the course of events in classical detective fiction. House is the one who runs the investigation, decodes the free floating evidence/symptoms and guarantees closure/meaning, or in medical terms diagnosis. In this way, he does everything a detective would do to put the pieces of the puzzle together. However, as Luke Hockley asks in his chapter Doctoring individuation Gregory House: Physician, detective or shaman?, “if Gregory House is a detective this raises the interesting issue of what crime has been committed and who is the criminal? In film noir the crime is nearly always murder but in House there aren’t criminals and murders per se but there are viruses, infection, pathologies all of which attempt to rob the patient of life. The result is that in the narrative of House the crime is the corruption of the body while the disease becomes the criminal.”[5]

The connection that was built by Luke Hockley between crime and the corruption of the body is not that unusual for us. We usually bump into this analogy as we watch crime news on television or read it in newspapers. Drawing a parallel between spreading of the viruses and spreading of criminal acts is a common tendency in crime fiction as well. In Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg quotes from Henri Lefebvre, who explains that “when an institution loses its birthplace, its original space, and feels threatened, it tends to describe itself as ‘organic’. It naturalizes itself looking upon itself as and presenting itself as a body.”[6]

In film noir tradition, city is represented as a living and breathing organism. Metaphorically speaking, while the city grows uncontrollably, it also gets infected, invaded by viruses that are spread from robberies, murders or other kinds of violent acts. It can be said that House M.D. takes this metaphor literally and deals with real infections and viruses, but the meaning stays the same; something corrupted is threatening the system. It does not matter whether the system is a corporeal body or a city. It should be restored by a powerful, all-knowing figure who dares to take the law into his hands.

I have used the word ‘his’ at this point because when we speak of a power figure we usually speak of a phallic representation of the patriarchal system. The presence of such a figure of power and authority may be crucial for the operation of detective fiction to annihilate the menace that threatens the symbolic stability and ‘normalize’ the ambiguous atmosphere in the diegesis.

Gregory House is a complicated character in this sense. He occupies the position of the detective in the diegesis. However, he does not completely fulfill the conventions of a classical detective figure. As a matter of fact although he usually is likened to a classical detective figure such as Sherlock Holmes he acts more like a hardboiled detective in most of the episodes. As he compares the hardboiled detective with the classical detective, Zizek says in the hard-boiled detective novel the detective loses his distance; “he becomes an active hero confronted with a chaotic, corrupt world, the more he intervenes in it, the more involved in its wicked ways he becomes”[7] whereas the classical detective of logic and deduction is not engaged at all; he is there just for the sake of the puzzle.

From the beginning of the series, House is represented as a character who has a dead muscle in his leg. Because of this condition, he cannot walk properly, usually has to use a cane and his leg hurts constantly which makes him look vulnerable, less masculine, even castrated from time to time. In order to make his pain go away House regularly uses Vicodin which turns into an addiction for him after a time. Vicodin also helps him to escape the boredom of ordinary life.  Therefore, House’s physical pain is usually intertwined with the spiritual pain that he feels with regard to life in general.

House, who investigates the symptoms of mysterious illnesses, is also a patient himself. For that reason, as he tries to struggle against the viruses, infections or tumors in his patients’ bodies he is permanently engaged in the same position with them as well. In the episodes like No Reason (S2E24) where House gets shot and operated on, or A Pox on Our House (S7E7), in which he is thought to be infected with smallpox, his position is blurred.  He is both a doctor and a patient. On the other hand, when he starts to steal and to take an untested drug to heal the dead muscle in his leg in the seventh season, the ambivalence of his position increases. After the untested drug causes several tumors in his muscles, House finds himself in his bathtub operating on his severed leg, in the episode named After Hours (S7E22) in which he plays the doctor and the patient at the same time.  This in-between position of House corresponds with the hardboiled detective’s unpreserved distance and unrestrainable involvement in the corrupted body of the criminal world.

While comparing the classical detective with the hardboiled detective, Zizek also mentions their personal attitudes towards financial reward. He claims that “after solving the case, the classical detective accepts with accentuated pleasure payment for the services he has rendered, whereas the hard-boiled detective as a rule disdains money and solves his cases with the personal commitment of somebody fulfilling an ethical mission, although this commitment is often hidden under a mask of cynicism. What is at stake here is not the classical detective’s simple greed or his callousness toward human suffering and injustice-the point is much finer: the payment enables him to avoid getting mixed up in the libidinal circuit of (symbolic) debt and its restitution.”[8]

House’s attitude with regard to money is complicated. First of all, he is a regular employee with a monthly salary but he is always reckless about money. He can spare all his life savings in one night because he feels depressed. He sometimes places a bet with Wilson or one of his team members over money but he never actually cares about the prize. Similar to the attitude of the hardboiled detective, House only values money in appearance. Money is worthy only when it is a piece of the puzzle or a part of the game, as in the episode entitled as Risky Business (S8E4), where House tries to convince a wealthy patient to donate money to the hospital which would enable him to re-recruit Chase and Taub. Money does not work in House M.D. to suggest that House is more engaged in the cases or let him to preserve his distance because House has no borders or limits. Keeping his distance is almost impossible for him.

For that reason, House is a character who jumps from one power position to another. Whereas a classical detective like Sherlock Holmes builds his character on being the one and only patriarchal power figure in the diegesis an ambiguous figure such as Gregory House shifts from position to position. In a Foucauldian sense, one can say that sometimes he occupies the status of the doctor who dominates his assistants and says the last word about everything. However, sometimes he turns into the patient in the mental house who is tied to another doctor’s apron strings, as he is at the beginning of seventh season.

House does not care about ethical rules and challenges other authority figures around him while he is solving the puzzles. He continuously attempts to break the laws to find the right diagnosis and leads his superiors to confront the law suits. House’s problematic relationship with the legal system reaches its climax at the end of the seventh season when he gets arrested and imprisoned for smashing the house of his employer/former lover, Lisa Cuddy, with his car and at the beginning of the eighth season, House adds the title of being a criminal to his identity, next to his attribute of being diagnosed as mentally ill. However, as opposed to Sherlock Holmes and other classical detective figures who disguise themselves as someone else to trick the suspects of their cases, House really occupies all those positions.

House’s representation as an ambivalent power figure can be considered as a consequence of his being a character of the postmodern age. By means of this, he reminds Todd McGowan’s discussion about the changing understanding of the patriarchal father figure with the rise of global capitalism.  In his book, The End of Dissatisfaction?: Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment, McGowan claims that with the rise of the global capitalism, the fantasy of the primal father has replaced the symbolic father who commands the prohibition of enjoyment. McGowan says today society has turned its face into an Imaginary father figure instead of a symbolic one and has submitted itself to the command to enjoy as a social duty to keep the capitalist society breathing.

McGowan explains that the new father figure in the world of global capitalism obsessively interferes in every single detail of the everyday subjects destroying the idea of privacy. The new father controls everything which makes him fully present in every state of life, whereas the symbolic father is an absent ruler. Therefore, McGowan says, “The problem today is not that we can’t find the father, but that we can’t get away from him.”[9]

I believe that detective fiction of the postmodern age is profoundly influenced by this transformation and Gregory House as the detective of medicine is the product of this change. House is a character who is nourished by the hardboiled detective fiction tradition and shaped within the ambivalent social order of the new authority figure who commands to enjoy. He sometimes eats from the same plate with this new father figure, shares his power and spreads it by violating the privacy of the doctors in his team as well as deceiving and oppressing them. On the other hand, he occasionally falls into the same trap by himself, is dominated, punished and forced to act in the way that the traditional, Symbolic father figure commands him. Because of his constant flow between Imaginary and Symbolic, House cannot legitimate any category, position or role he is put into. Therefore, although he appears to be the contemporary reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes, he cannot be fully considered as his true mirror image.



[1] Abrams, Jerold J. “The Logic of Guesswork in Sherlock Holmes and House.” House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies. Ed. Henry Jacoby. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009. p. 56-57.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thompson, Jon. Fiction, Crime and Empire: Clues to Modernity and Postmodernism. University of Illinois Press, 1993. p. 111.

[4] Žižek, Slavoj.”How Real is Reality?.” Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. US: The MIT Press, 1991. p. 58.

[5] Hockley, Luke. “Doctoring individuation Gregory House: Physician, detective or shaman?” House: The Wounded Healer on Television: Jungian and Post-Jungian Reactions. Eds. Luke Hockley and Leslie Gardner. Routledge, 2011. p. 19.

[6] Dimendberg, Edward. Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity. Harvard University Press, 2004. p. 77.

[7] Žižek, Slavoj.”How Real is Reality?.” Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture. US: The MIT Press, 1991. p. 60.

[8] Ibid.

[9] McGowan, Todd. The End of Dissatisfaction?: Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment. US: SUNY Press, 2004. p. 46.

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