Fox’s House and the Thrill of Useless Information

There are lots of reasons to watch a medical drama. Most of them are the same as other television shows: interest in the lives of the characters, who just happen to be beautiful doctors and nurses instead of beautiful lawyers and cops; the suspense of watching lives hang in the balance; or even a morbid attraction to blood and gore. All medical shows strike a different balance between these categories, and succeed or fail in the process.

There’s one group of viewers, though, to which I am proud to belong, that watches for a different reason: the thrill of useless knowledge. ER , I think, was the first show that realized that this appeal even existed. Most shows try to make sure that nothing escapes the notice of viewer. Anything hard to understand is left out, and in case some viewer didn’t get the plot twist, or had to get up to the go to the bathroom, the show will make sure to take a breather to explain it to them a few times.

ER , however, realized that many of us enjoy being thrown into a world of information that we know little about and can barely understand, picking up occasional bits of knowledge along the way. So I now know what a tracheotomy is, even though it’s unlikely that anyone’s ever going to ask me to perform one.

The problem with ER – from a useless knowledge standpoint – is that the patients usually whiz by so quickly, with the doctors shouting instructions so fast, that it usually takes several episodes to learn anything at all. Also, much like a real emergency room, the cases are fairly similar from week to week – car accidents, heart attacks – so once you’ve figured something out, it’ll probably be a while before you pick up something new.

Finally, there’s a show that has brought useless knowledge to the forefront: House . Every week you can be sure to learn something bizarre that there is absolutely no reason for you to know. By almost any standard but this one, House is far inferior to ER , which in the early seasons was by a long measure the best-written medical series in the history of television. But could ER ever have taught you that accidentally taking gout medication for a cough, because of a pharmacy mix-up, can create serious heart complications? Unlikely.

Every week, Dr. House faces a baffling case. Someone is near death and no one is sure why. House and his team try various treatments, can’t quite figure out what’s going on, and then gradually zero in on the solution. The illness is sure to be something you’ve never heard of, and are probably as likely to get as a winning Powerball ticket: African sleeping sickness, or complications from a rare pesticide absorbed through the skin.

At some point during the show, the camera usually takes a trip inside the patient’s body-zooming in through the nose, or the ear, until we’re suddenly in a computer generated world of blood cells and mucus and brain matter. (If this all sounds rather gross, then House is not the show for you.) While we’re inside the body, occasionally we catch a glimpse of what’s wrong with the patient; but almost no one will actually be able to tell what exactly that is. It’ll just seem like an intricate swirl of fluid and weird shapes.

But eventually you get at least some description of what was happening in that computer-generated sequence. Since House always ends with an explanation of what was misfiring in the patient’s body, each show will teach you a little more about what’s going on in the incredible cosmos that we all carry around with us. The wonder is that most of the time this astonishingly complicated system actually functions without a problem.

This feeling of wonder is the thrill that comes with all useless knowledge, a sense of how large our world is, how much is going on all the time, and how much has already happened: the diversity, the scale, the complexity of everything, no matter how small or apparently insignificant.

Things that are “useful” always bring us back to ourselves, and our daily life; the useless points us back to the world, and how incredible it is, if we take the time to think about it.

There are a few other reasons to watch House , but I think other shows do them better. The show is always trying to create human interest, with various conflicts between Dr. House and the administration, because he doesn’t “play by the rules”-romantic entanglements between members of House’s team, none of whom are all that interesting-and various patient subplots that are supposedly to be funny, or add a little sex appeal to each episode, and rarely succeed.

The structure of each show, being led from a mystery to its solution, with various red herrings along the way, duplicates the formula that makes Law & Order (the original) so hard to stop watching once you’ve started, without being as gripping.

The acting, I suppose, is consistently good, and House is occasionally engaging with his prickly cynicism and sarcastic jabs, but the show always gets less interesting for me when they move away from the patients, and the variety of weird diseases they have.

Someone might say that you can get the same information from a documentary or an anatomy textbook, but House usually goes into cases that are more obscure than anything that could be found in a book or on The Learning Channel. The information in such places might actually be relevant to your health – in a word, useful.

The cases in House are probably buried somewhere in the back of old medical journals. The fact that the show is doing so well indicates that more people than usually thought are interested in such obscure bits of trivia. Either that or a lot of people just leave the TV on after American Idol.

But I am convinced that there are plenty of people that like knowing stuff for no particular reason. And House is probably the only place on network TV where every week you can learn something unlikely to do you any good, just for the fun of it, and experience the thrill that comes with useless knowledge.

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