Work and life have been hectic - including some good writing news, as the previous post will attest - so I've spent a lot of time vegging out with television, and I've taken advantage of Amazon Prime's collection to binge House.

Now, House is not high theater.  It's formulaic, though the dialogue is often snappy and clever, and the overall series arc is relatively predictable.  However, there are two elements that are particularly well done, and I think there's lessons to be learned for writers.

First, the way the show handles filling in the backgrounds of the characters.  Every actor has to be well versed in rattling off arcane (medical) information, so it would be relatively easy to give them an excuse to infodump their personal history and leave it at that.  Instead, the characters make casual remarks that fill in bits and pieces - Chase has a rich dad; Cameron was married - sometimes approaching the same information from a different direction.  In their behavior, in their speech, in the ways they react, we feel the iceberg under the surface ... so when the story finally comes out, the audience feels they've earned it.

This cycle flows seamlessly through the first seasons with Cameron, Chase and Foreman, and then repeats with the new crop of residents added thereafter.  How the show handles the huge number of new characters is worth a look, too.  There's no possible way for the audience to remember, or even want to remember, such a cast, but for the audience to care about the process of elimination, the characters have to be memorable.  So the show puts shorthand right in House's mouth.  Through the excuse that he can't possibly remember everyone's names, he gives them all descriptive nicknames, drawing attention to their key attributes.  The names we need to know flow naturally in the background until we start to pick them out.

The second element that House handles well is making the medical "mystery" work.  It's the reason for that tight formula:  a major dramatic case; a secondary, minor case - often humorous; and one or two personal storylines.  The latter provide an unrelated dialogue that spark an "aha!" moment for House to solve the primary case.  This particular beat is overused in most mainstream television shows, from medical mysteries to cop shows to courtroom dramas, but I forgive it in House because it provides an important hook for the audience amongst a sea of the incomprehensible.

Because I put "mystery" in quotation marks for a reason.  A true mystery follows the rules of fair play, giving the reader all the clues they need to solve the mystery before the detective (in this case, doctor) does.  In the case of House, this is impossible unless the viewer has a medical degree, and possibly even then.  In fact, the average person has limited ability to follow the cause and effect of the medical aspects of the plot, which means that the elements have to make sense on a deeper level.  We have all internalized the basic shape of plot arc, so we instinctively respond to those beats, even if we don't totally understand the logical connection between B and C.

And the show does an excellent job of this, signaling to us where we are in the story progression with plot symbols.  The audience recognizes when the mystery isn't solved yet, and not just by looking at the clock.  Arguably, this is why House has to be so formulaic, and while Chase, Cameron and Foreman grow and change, the character of House himself has to be static.  Any major alteration to the way House works would jeopardize the plot signposts.

Or I'm simply justifying binge-watching as writing research.  Take your pick.