The Doctor(s) in House: An Analysis of the Evolution of the Television Doctor-Hero

Abstract

The medical drama and its central character, the doctor-hero have been a mainstay of popular television. House M.D. offers a new (and problematic) iteration of the doctor-hero. House eschews the generic conventions of the “television doctor” by being neither the idealized television doctor of the past, nor the more recent competent but often fallible physicians in entertainment texts. Instead, his character is a fragmented text which privileges the biomedical over the personal or emotional with the ultimate goal of scientifically uncovering and resolving instances of disease. This article examines the implicit and explicit messages in House M.D. and critically analyzes both the show and its lead character in relation to the traditional medical drama genre that highlights the “doctor-hero” as the central character. While at first House seems to completely violate narrative and generic norms, ultimately the program provides a new form that reinforces the presence of the doctor-hero, but highlights House’s character as the central figure who is personally and interpersonally problematic but biomedically effective.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    G. Gerbner and L. Gross, “Living With Television: The Violence Profile,” Journal of Communication 26 (1976).

  2. 2.

    G. Gerbner and L. Gross, “Living With Television: The Violence Profile,” and also see G. Gerbner and others, “The Mainstreaming of America: the Violence Profile,” Journal of Communication, 37 (1987).

  3. 3.

    JD. Brown and K. Walsh-Childers, “Effects of Media on Personal and Public Health,” In Media Effects: Advances in Research, ed. J. Bryant and D. Zillman (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).

  4. 4.

    J. Turrow, “Television Entertainment and the U.S. Health Care Debate,” The Lancet, 347 (1996).

  5. 5.

    R. Malmsheimer, Doctors Only: The Evolving Image of the American Physician (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988).

  6. 6.

    Examples of such characters include Dr. Mark Craig from St. Elsewhere and Drs. Peter Benton and Robert “Rocket” Romano from ER.

  7. 7.

    J. Turrow and R. Gans-Borkin, “From Expert in Action to Existential Angst: A Half-Century of Television Doctors.” In Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television, eds. LJ. Reagan, N. Tomes, & PA. Treichler (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007).

  8. 8.

    Ibid.

  9. 9.

    PA. Kalisch and BJ. Kalisch, “Sex Role Stereotyping of Nurses and Physicians on Prime Time Television: A Dichotomy of Occupational Portrayals,” Sex Roles 10 (1984).

  10. 10.

    BL. Quick, “The Effects of Viewing Grey’s Anatomy on Perceptions of Doctors and Patient Satisfaction,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 53 (2009).

  11. 11.

    J. Turrow and R. Gans-Borkin, “From Expert in Action to Existential Angst: A Half-Century of Television Doctors,” 274.

  12. 12.

    M. Pfau and others, “The Influence of Television Viewing on Public Perceptions of Physicians,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 39 (1995).

  13. 13.

    Ibid, 456.

  14. 14.

    RM. Chory-Assad and R. Tamborini, “Television Doctors: An Analysis of Physicians in Fictional and Non-Fictional Television Programs,” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 47, (2001) 514.

  15. 15.

    ML. Vanderford, “Television and Human Values: A Case Study of ‘ER’ and Moral Ambiguity,” In Religious Values at the Threshold of the Third Millennium, ed. FA. Eigo (Villanova, PA: Villanova University Press, 1999) 52.

  16. 16.

    This analysis will focus solely on Seasons 1 and 2 of this program. In Seasons 4 and 5, House’s original team is dissolved and replaced with new team members, with Cameron, Chase, and Foreman taking other positions and Princeton Plainsboro Hospital. House reconstructs a team from a group of candidates whom he numbers (one of the character continues to go by her number as she continues on the team). Despite some supporting character shifts, the overall plot of the program has remained consistent.

  17. 17.

    J. Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (London: Routledge) 6.

  18. 18.

    J. Turrow, Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  19. 19.

    J. Mittell, Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture.

  20. 20.

    C. Corbin, Rhetoric in Postmodern America: Conversations with Michael Calvin McGee (New York: The Guildford Press, 1998).

  21. 21.

    E. Seiter and others, “Introduction,” in Remote Control: Television Audiences and Cultural Power, ed. E. Seiter and others (London: Routledge, 1989) 11.

  22. 22.

    The program has remained true to its major premises from Season 3 to the present. The major shifts involve a new team (with a similar process), and a more open exploration of House’s drug addiction, treatment, and attempts at recovery (which are not self-motivated but imposed from outside forces).

  23. 23.

    See A. Strauss and J. Corbin, Basics of Qualitative Research: Grounded Theory Procedures and Techniques. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1990) and K. Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006).

  24. 24.

    House, M.D., “DNR,” FOX Broadcasting Company, February 1, 2005.

  25. 25.

    House, M.D., “Damned If You Do,” FOX Broadcasting Company, December 14, 2004.

  26. 26.

    K. Montgomery, How Doctors Think: Clinical Judgment and the Practice of Medicine. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

  27. 27.

    House, M.D., “All In,” FOX Broadcasting Company, April 11, 2006.

  28. 28.

    House, M.D., “Hunting,” FOX Broadcasting Company, November 22, 2005.

  29. 29.

    House, M.D., “Need to Know,” FOX Broadcasting Company, February 6, 2006.

  30. 30.

    House, M.D., “Maternity,” FOX Broadcasting Company, December 7, 2004.

  31. 31.

    House, M.D., “Sports Medicine,” FOX Broadcasting Company, February 22, 2005.

  32. 32.

    House, M.D., “Occam’s Razor,” FOX Broadcasting Company, November 30, 2004.

  33. 33.

    House, M.D., “Pilot,” FOX Broadcasting Company, November 16, 2004.

  34. 34.

    House, M.D., “Occam’s Razor.”

  35. 35.

    House, M.D., “Paternity,” FOX Broadcasting Company, November 23, 2004.

  36. 36.

    Ibid.

  37. 37.

    House, M.D., “Occam’s Razor.”

  38. 38.

    Ibid.

  39. 39.

    House, M.D., “Pilot.”

  40. 40.

    Ibid.

  41. 41.

    House, M.D., “Occam’s Razor.”

  42. 42.

    House, M.D., “Damned If You Do.”

  43. 43.

    House, M.D., “House vs. God,” FOX Broadcasting Company, April 25, 2006.

  44. 44.

    House, M.D., “Control,” FOX Broadcasting Company, March 15, 2005.

  45. 45.

    House, M.D., “Safe,” FOX Broadcasting Company, April 4, 2006.

  46. 46.

    House, M.D., “Hunting.”

  47. 47.

    House, M.D., “Distractions,” FOX Broadcasting Company, February 14, 2006.

  48. 48.

    House, M.D., “Maternity.”

  49. 49.

    ML. Vanderford, “Television and Human Values: A Case Study of ‘ER’ and Moral Ambiguity.”

  50. 50.

    See J. Turrow and R. Gans-Borkin, “From Expert in Action to Existential Angst: A Half-Century of Television Doctors” and G. Vanderkieft, “From City Hospital to ER: The Evolution of the Television Physician,” in Cultural Sutures: Medicine and Media, ed. L. Friedman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

  51. 51.

    House, M.D., “Babies and Bathwater,” FOX Broadcasting Company, April 19, 2005.

  52. 52.

    House, M.D., “Sleeping Dogs Lie,” FOX Broadcasting Company, April 18, 2006.

  53. 53.

    House, M.D., “Detox,” FOX Broadcasting Company, February 15, 2005.

  54. 54.

    House, M.D., “Acceptance,” FOX Broadcasting Company, September 13, 2005.

  55. 55.

    This is consistent historically with other medical dramas as noted by G. Annas, “Sex, Money and Bioethics: Watching ER and Chicago Hope,” Hastings Center Report 25 (1995) and G. Vanderkieft, “From City Hospital to ER: The Evolution of the Television Physician,” in Cultural Sutures: Medicine and Media, ed. L. Friedman (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

  56. 56.

    ML. Vanderford, “Television and Human Values: A Case Study of ‘ER’ and Moral Ambiguity.”

  57. 57.

    M. Pfau and others, “The Influence of Television Viewing on Public Perceptions of Physicians.”

  58. 58.

    A. DuPre, Communicating About Health: Current Issues and Perspectives (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company).

  59. 59.

    SJ. Reiser, “The Era of the Patient: Using the Experience of Illness in Shaping the Missions of Health Care” JAMA 269 (1993).

  60. 60.

    H. Abromovitch and E. Schwartz, “Three Stages of Medical Dialogue,” Theoretical Medicine 17 (1996).

  61. 61.

    M. Pfau and others, “The Influence of Television Viewing on Public Perceptions of Physicians.”

  62. 62.

    K. Montgomery, How Doctors Think: Clinical Judgment and the Practice of Medicine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  63. 63.

    K. Burke, Attitudes Toward History (New York: Beacon Press). K. Burke’s work consistently addressed the nature of internal and external form in texts (e.g. Burke, 1931, 1935, 1937, 1939) and the impact that contradictions and dialectical oppositions in terms can impact assessment of meaning and interpretation.

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Correspondence to Elena C. Strauman.

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Strauman, E.C., Goodier, B.C. The Doctor(s) in House: An Analysis of the Evolution of the Television Doctor-Hero. J Med Humanit 32, 31–46 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10912-010-9124-2

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Keywords

  • Genre
  • Television
  • Physician
  • Medical drama