The Demise of Dr. Gregory House MD.

For a long time House has been hailed as the Sherlock Holmes of medicine and the show enjoyed not only exceptionally healthy viewing figures, but the respect of health workers and viewers alike. It had a great reputation based on light hearted humour and intriguing medical problems, and each episode offered intrigue, if not excitement. Unfortunately, House is dying, and unless something major is done about it, he won’t be saved.

Where did it all go wrong?

Let’s start with the shameless recycling of story lines and themes:

  • House & Cuddy
  • House & Vicodin
  • House & Happiness
  • Trust vs Cynicism
  • Science vs Faith
  • Foreman vs Ambition
  • Foreman vs Relationships (remember Thirteen)
  • Taub vs Relationships (wife and adultery)
  • Chase vs Relationships (cameron and girls in general)
  • Wilson vs Relationships (wait…I’m seeing a trend here…)

Every episode these days thinly disguises one of the above themes with an emotional or moral dilemma, but House isn’t didactic. Nothing is learned. The episodes conclude with more or less the same resolution every week: House is selfish, but has his character developed? The answer is always the same: no.

Further, House epitomises the classic and somewhat misogynistic stereotyping of men as ‘the head’ (rationale, logic), women as ‘the heart’ (love, honesty). We began with Cameron, then we had Amber (the only woman whose focus was logic and they branded her “psycho-bitch”, killed her off within a season and then brought her back as an irritating hallucination). Now we’ve got Masters, who is basically Cameron – I even saw a hint of love interest from Chase towards her back in episode fourteen (just prior to Cuddy’s award ceremony).

Recently they attempted to mix up the standard formula (which they’ve used for seven seasons) – patient falls ill, House and team try and fail to diagnose, in the final few minutes they work out what was wrong, treat it, and inevitably learn some cheesy moral lesson in the process (which they take nothing from and repeat the following week). But instead of true novelty, the unorthodox episodes we’ve been offered have been gimmicks. A couple of episodes scattered here and there as a brief respite from the usual slog, but the flights of fantasy, be they hallucinations, music videos, computer games, film references or 1950s dreams aren’t enough to convince this viewer that he’s watching something new, different and worth his continued time.

There have been plenty of chances for the writing team to spark some fresh story lines. Take for example what could have been a terrific ending or at least a fantastic twist to the story: House going in to the mental hospital at the end of season five. Within two episodes, season six was back to the traditional formula.

In this season alone there has been tonnes of room for potential new story arcs and development:

When Cuddy’s mother is admitted there was a definite chance to throw a spanner in the works between House and Cuddy. What if she had died?

When Cuddy falls ill, there was the opportunity to cause a major controversy and stir and take the season in a new direction by killing her off (or somewhat less drastically, leaving her incapable of running the hospital for a while). Instead, they used it as an opportunity to take things back to square one, House returns to Vicodin (apparently sourced from the same bathroom supply he’s had since ever) and the two separate, leaving the writing team with lots more emotional tension to regurgitate. After all, it’s not like they haven’t covered all this ground before…

Aside from all of the above problems, the script itself has deteriorated significantly since the early seasons. The wit has dried up, replaced by a dry sarcasm that is much less droll and ergo much less entertaining than before. If they are to continue this series, they really need an imaginative innovator on their writing staff, or at least someone who is prepared to move away from the same cast, story lines and episode structure. Failing that, not even House and his team of emotionally stunted caricatures will be able to save the show from a gruelling death.

In the spotlight: Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine loversNormally when writing a review, I have the Napalm guidelines niggling at the back of my mind; the format, the structure, the word count. I’m grateful for this film to be writing totally independently, as Blue Valentine is a film that invites much more intimacy from the viewer.

I’m going to kick off with a quick note about the direction and the creative team behind the film as Blue Valentine is a piece of perfectly constructed on-screen theatre. It was directed by Derek Cianfrance and it’s his first feature film in over a decade, and only his second ever. His thoughtful style of direction gives a lot of credibility to the film’s subjects, and his handling of the more carnal scenes in particular stands out as honest rather than racy or erotic. Special kudos should also go to the fantastic costume designers and make-up artists. The changes in era, both through fashion and emotionally are very clear. Gosling’s diminished/ receding hairline is somewhat distracting, but only because I kept asking myself how they’d succeeded in changing him so drastically scene to scene.  Following the brawl he has with Michelle’s ex (and the father of his child), one could swear that his nose is actually out of joint!

Anyway, I digress. Blue Valentine is about a married couple who are struggling to sustain their relationship. More specifically, they are failing to sustain their relationship, and there’s a sad inevitability to the depressing outcome. It’s not abundantly clear exactly why their relationship is suffering but that’s largely irrelevant, and instead the focus flits between their history (their beautiful love story), and their present unhappiness.

Many movies expect you to suspend your disbelief to some degree (if not entirely), but Blue Valentine doesn’t require the same. On the contrary, it is the reality of the circumstances within the film that make it so poignant. In fact, it would be safe to say the only suspension of disbelief required is to take for granted that Ryan Gosling could be so forward almost to the point of being sinister, and yet remain utterly charming. (A feat he has achieved for the second time here, the first being in another heartbreaker, The Notebook).

Ryan Gosling as Dean
Imagine having the class to pull off that suit

Speaking of The Notebook, there are definite comparisons to be made between the two films. Gosling’s character in both is forthcoming, confident and intensely passionate. In both films his characters almost force their love upon their counterparts through persistence and straight up challenge. For instance, in The Notebook Noah hangs by one arm from a ferris wheel, saying he’ll let go unless Allie (Rachel McAdams) concedes to a date with him. In Blue Valentine, upon intuitively sensing that Cindy is concealing something from him, Dean threatens to jump off a bridge unless she is honest and open with him. Both films play with the idea of actual madness as a result of love, that to be ‘crazy’ in love is to the untrained eye still just crazy. Both Noah and Dean definitely have their ‘unhinged’ moments and share the passion that is polluting their sanity.

The controversy in America over the NC-17 rating Blue Valentine was initially cursed with was over the sexual content of the film. It was eventually overruled, and the certificate reduced to an R, but it’s an interesting issue, because it struck me that the sex scenes aren’t sex scenes in the conventional sense, they’re love scenes, which is perhaps exactly why the MPAA found cause for alarm. People are uncomfortable watching emotionally charged, lifelike love scenes, particularly when they’re not shot with soppy lovestruck smiles on the characters’ faces. As Gosling himself said in interview:

“I just think that 10 people that live in the valley, representing parents across America is… how is that possible? They just make these decisions and they decide for these parents what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. So, their tolerance of violence is so different to their tolerance of sexuality, and if there’s violence involved in the sexuality, it’s somehow perceived as entertainment, but if there’s love involved with sexuality it’s seen as pornographic, and therefore not acceptable.”

It’s a curious paradox, but I think he’s right.

Throughout the film it is hard not to sympathise with Gosling’s character Dean, as it is very much Cindy who has fallen out of love with him. The efforts he goes to to maintain and then reignite their flare are desperate, but clearly romantic, and he is evidently very much in love with her despite the uncomfortable rough patch they find themselves in. Cleverly, both characters are likeable in their own way, which leaves the viewer in somewhat of a quandary as to whose side to take. Gosling seems rational; his arguments are sound, his logic irrefutable, but there is no overcoming raw feelings, and Cindy is unhappy, which kind of takes precedent over other considerations, of which there are many. Take for example their child, Frankie (Faith Wladyka – a perfect piece of casting), where does their relationship leave her? On the one hand it would be unpleasant and unfair to raise her between two parents who are sick of one another, and on the other hand it is also questionable whether an all out separation would be equally damaging. These are real dilemmas facing real people day in and day out, and one of the reasons Blue Valentine is such an effective film. It relates to you directly.

Personally I did find the film distressing, with many parallels to my own relationship (which is thankfully still in it’s youthful and love smitten days – long may they live), but Gosling’s wife shares a similar name to my girlfriend, a similar ambition (both desire(d) to be doctors), and I would parallel myself with Dean in some ways too, unfortunately in some negative lights: arrogant, pedantic, occasionally self-righteous, but on the flipside, romantic and deeply caring. It’s easy for a film as convincingly portrayed as this one to get under your skin and I don’t think it’s unhealthy to seriously think about the troubling issues it raises.

It would be dangerous to say much more about Blue Valentine without ruining it through spoilers, or in the very least over analysing it (as an excellent English teacher once described to me – “cutting a canary’s throat to see what makes it sing”).

It is evident that both lead actors have tremendous talent. Michelle Williams was essentially unknown to me prior to this film. Sure, I’d seen Brokeback Mountain, but it didn’t make much of an impression (that’s another story for another time), whereas I’ll definitely remember her face after this one. Gosling, of course, one of my favourite actors, can apparently do no wrong, and here he brings another very human character to life with incredible conviction. While there are talents like these on display, I look forward to the future of film.

LoveSpeaking of which, Ryan Gosling has been confirmed to star in a remake of Logan’s Run and will also be hitting screens again soon in Crazy, Stupid, Love. and Drive, both due later this year, following which he’ll appear in George Clooney’s The Ides of March alongside George Clooney, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Clearly a man moving up in the world. I’m more than happy to watch him climb.