The End of 2004-5

The significance of House going off the air is that this is going to be the end of a television era, one that started in the 2004-5 season. That is generally considered one of the best seasons for TV drama, and maybe the last great season for broadcast network TV drama. House started that season, so did Desperate Housewives, so did Lost, and so did Grey’s Anatomy. Along with cult favourites like Veronica Mars and flawed-but-fun new shows like Boston Legal, it was a very strong season, which seemed to prove that broadcast networks were going to be fine up against the onslaught of cable. It completely turned around the ABC network, and gave Fox a new flagship scripted drama in House (which they followed up the year after with Bones, also created by a Canadian). Since then, basic cable has become a bigger player in drama, the broadcast networks have had trouble developing new drama hits, and the explosion of 2004-5 seems less like a new golden age and more like the last flowering of a previous era: the last big burst of big hit mass-audience drama. We may never see its like again.

Update: I forgot to add that many of the shows from 2004-5 were not only traditional network dramas – in the sense of being broadly-appealing shows that had a point of view within the limitations of a 22-episode season and a major network – they were built into hits in traditional ways. The ABC shows were mostly explosive out-of-the box hits, shows that opened much bigger than anyone (including network executives) expected. House wasn’t as big a hit from the beginning, but Fox built it into a hit through the power of a lead-in, American Idol. Most of these were also shows that were considered risky propositions when they began; Desperate Housewives was famously turned down by a lot of networks, and NBC, which produces House, could probably have had it for its own network. The era of the surprise drama hit is not over: arguably Once Upon a Time qualifies. But the magic moments described in Bill Carter’s book Desperate Networks, where executives wake up to discover that a drama has gotten bigger than it was ever supposed to be, seem to happen more often with reality (think The Voice) or cable drama (think The Walking Dead). It may simply be that there are so many hour-long dramas now that it’s hard for any broadcast network drama to create a sense of being an event.

Of this batch of shows, House was arguably the most conventional in form, a medical mystery show that famously hit a lot of the same notes from week to week, and the most successful attempt by another network to emulate CBS’s success with the CSI franchise. In its prime, though, it was an intelligent and gripping show that worked the way good mystery drama is supposed to – using the formula, and our knowledge of it, as a given, it then tried to deal with interesting ideas or give us a deeper look into the title character. The show ran out of gas in recent years, but at its peak it was pretty much an ideal example of what a procedural can be.

Not a lot needs to be said about why the show worked in its good years, because the reasons it worked – as with many shows – are fairly simple: interesting, well-executed premise, interesting, well-cast character. (Exploitable premise + good casting is almost the baseline formula for a workable television series.) The show demonstrated something about the concept of relatability: is shows do need to be relatable, but not necessarily by presenting situations and lives that resemble our own. House was a relatable character not because he reminded us of us, but because he gets away with things we might sometimes like to do (but don’t, because we’re not geniuses and/or sociopaths). And the whole show was built on a very relatable idea: when you get sick and go to the hospital, your secrets are stripped away. The vulnerability of a person in hospital has to do with more than illness; it has to do with the fact that the doctor has to know everything about you – anything you’ve ever done might suddenly turn out to be relevant.

Most medical shows play on this idea sometimes, but House put it right at the centre a lot of the time. This led to a lot of jokes about the formula of the show (“A patient has a secret” is House‘s version of “Gilligan screws up”). But it helped to make the guest characters interesting, something that a lot of procedurals have trouble with. And I felt like that was at the centre of the show’s relatability. If you’ve ever been embarrassed answering a doctor’s questions, or if you’ve just been placed in a position where you have to answer questions about your life to a total stranger, then the typical House episode had some meaning.

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