Thursday, July 28, 2011

Shylock Holmes on Greg House vs Sherlock Holmes

File this in the category of 'Things that lots of people have figured out before me, but I still thought of independently'.

I'm a fan of the TV show 'House'. The character Greg House is one of the more compelling and interesting to grace TV screens in recent memory - brilliant at diagnosing medical ailments, socially distant, sarcastic to all around him, but deeply appealing.

It took me a while to realise exactly what it was about the show that made it so enjoyable. And I finally figured it out - they've essentially re-written the Sherlock Holmes series as a medical show.

The plot twists are those of a mystery novel - diseases are not what they seem, people are hiding their true motivations and lying, the doctors need to dig around to find out what's going on. And in the same way, the true diagnosis is only ever revealed at the end, requiring ingenuity to decipher.

There are also lots of references to the Sherlock Holmes series. For a start, the character names are an homage: House is Holmes (a pun on house/home, since 'House' is an otherwise very odd surname). House, like Holmes, also takes narcotics - Holmes takes heroin when he is bored from not having a case, and House (because the former seemed a little unpalatable for TV) is addicted to Vicodin for his crippling leg pain. Wilson is his sidekick, playing the role of Watson.

And the show works, because they copied enough of a truly brilliant series to capture the appeal in a TV setting. But there are differences.

One difference is that House is much more character driven than Sherlock Holmes. This is partly necessary for TV. House himself is much more funny and sarcastic than Holmes, with the latter being generally portrayed as brilliant but somewhat cold and monomaniacal in his pursuit of crime. House also has more people around him - the supporting cast of doctors to riff on, and Cuddy as his boss/love interest. The last point is a distinct departure, as Holmes showed no interest in women at all. House, they compromise by making his relationships destructive. It's no surprise that the episodes that sucked the most were when House was happily dating Cuddy, as they rang false.

But perhaps the most important difference (related to the first) is that Sherlock Holmes was fundamentally about the mystery. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said that his big departure from previous mystery writers was that Holmes didn't have any special magic intuition - everything he deduced, the reader could have conceivably deduced too, if only they had been sharp enough. As such, the stories were appealing because of the challenge of trying (and in my case, usually failing) to figure out who the culprit would be.

House, of course, can't do this. Even if the medical insights are all correct (and given it's TV, that may well be questionable), the reader can't be expected to figure it out himself. And that, in the end, is why it has to be a character-based show - we can live vicariously through House's genius insights, but they have to fall into the magical intuition that Sir Conan Doyle sought to avoid. And that is why, at the end of it, Sherlock Holmes is about the brilliance of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but House is about the brilliance of Hugh Laurie. Give the same show with a less compelling actor, and it wouldn't work.

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