Amid the vast wasteland of contemporary television, one of the few features that bears watching is House, a weekly medical drama originating with the Fox Television Network. The series stands out for the intelligence of the scripts, the brilliance of the actors, and, most remarkable of all, occasional flashes of genuine moral insight.
Until House became a popular hit, the star of the show, Hugh Laurie, was best known for his portrayal of Bertie Wooster in television adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse’s hilarious Jeeves and Wooster novels. In House, Laurie plays Dr Gregory House, a brilliant and cynical medical diagnostician modelled on Sherlock Holmes, who presides over a team of young medical residents at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey. In each episode, House and his colleagues are presented with a patient whose symptoms have baffled other medical experts. The plots are intricate and intriguing. And the scripts have been commended by medical experts for their accurate portrayal of diagnostic dilemmas.
Correspondingly, the sordid private lives and moral outlooks of the physicians depicted in the series are all too plausible. In one episode, we learn that two of House’s young residents, Dr Allison Cameron and Dr Robert Chase, have taken part in some recreational sex. There is, of course, nothing unusual about such occurrences on television. What’s different about House is that in this instance, as so often in life, the indulgence in casual sex has painful consequences. Chase falls in unrequited love with Cameron. For weeks thereafter, he is a miserable and forlorn lover, while she is annoyed by his discrete but persistent invitations for another date.
The most arresting episode in the House series, entitled "Fetal Position", was first broadcast on April 3. In this case, the patient, Emma Sloan, is a pregnant woman and a famous celebrity photographer. While on a photo shoot, she suffers a stroke. After extensive investigation and several false leads, House and his team conclude that Emma is suffering from a rare condition, Maternal Mirror Syndrome, which designates an illness in the mother that is caused by an abnormality in the foetus. After having established that some undiagnosed problem with the foetus is causing Emma’s liver to fail, House advises her that the only way to save her life is to terminate the pregnancy.
Emma rejects this advice. She is single, 42 years old and childless. Having had several miscarriages and gone through the rigours of in vitro fertilisation, she fears that she might never again have another chance to give birth. Now in the 21st week of pregnancy, she urges House to find some way to keep her and the baby alive for at least another two weeks so the baby can reach the point of viability outside the womb. In exasperation, House warns Emma that she has only two days to live. Still, Emma resolutely refuses to consider an abortion.
In the face of this impasse, Dr Lisa Cuddy, House’s boss, takes over the case. As a single woman who has also been trying to conceive a child, Cuddy empathises with Emma. After further investigation, Cuddy recommends exploratory surgery on the baby in the womb despite the risk that Emma, in her fragile medical condition, might not survive the operation. Nonetheless, Emma readily agrees to the surgery and Cuddy persuades House to perform the dangerous operation. In the middle of the procedure, Emma suffers a serious heart attack. With House poised to cut the umbilical cord with surgical scissors, a measure that is sure to kill the baby and might save the mother, Cuddy quickly intervenes, grabs a defibrillator, warns House to step aside or be electrocuted, and tries to shock Emma’s heart back into a normal rhythm. Emma’s heart responds to the treatment and House continues with the operation.
Then, in one of the most dramatic scenes in contemporary television, the baby reaches a tiny hand up through the open womb and grasps House by the finger. House is momentarily stunned. He continues the operation, finds lesions in the baby’s lungs and removes them. The result is a happy ending: Emma and her baby live. And in the final scene, House, the arch-cynic and proponent of abortion, is depicted later that evening sitting at home in the privacy of his den, staring meditatively at his finger.
This episode in House is based on an actual incident that occurred in 1999 at the Vanderbilt Medical Centre in Nashville, Tennessee — one of the leading teaching hospitals and medical research centres in the United States. The patient in this case was Samuel Armas, a 21-week-old baby undergoing corrective surgery for spinal bifida. In a famous photograph taken for USA Today, the tiny hand of Baby Samuel is seen reaching out of the womb and grasping a finger of one of the surgeons.
In mimicking this event, as in so many other ways, House reflects contemporary reality. With a content rating in the United States of TV-14 (suitable for older children), the series is one of the most popular television dramas in North America. While hardened cynics and amoral liberals find a soul-mate in House, others cherish the show as a rare example of intelligent television that occasionally dares to explore the continuing relevance of the universal moral truths revealed in Sacred Scripture and affirmed by reason.
Rory Leishman is a freelance journalist in Canada. He is the author of Against Judicial Activism: The Decline of Freedom and Democracy in Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).