The accused: House, “Simple Explanation” (Season 5, Episode 20)
The crime: Presenting a terribly manipulative version of the “Very Special Episode” gimmick.
Television’s failures are supposed to be obvious. From the overhyped non-starters that flop from the very beginning (hello, FlashForward, Lone Star) to the much-discussed clumsy conclusions of series we were convinced had it all planned out (nice to see you again, Battlestar Galactica), the medium’s big busts are right there in front of us. Whether because of low Nielsen ratings, terrible critical and fan response or something else entirely, the reaction to one episode often defines a series’ long-term legacy. But while we are often left wondering what it all means for the medium and for the industry when a series like Lone Star stumbles out of the gate or a series like Battlestar Galactica presents a controversial ending, those discourses tend to focus on disastrous beginnings and ill-conceived endings. But what about those mishaps that are not so obvious, the catastrophes that happen somewhere in the middle? How much impact, both positive and negative, can one bad episode have on an entire series? How do long-running series continue onward in the aftermath of an episodic failure? Is it possible that individual, episodic failures of television’s most respected series tell us more than the failings of a much-hyped about pilot or series finale? And how do we really define “failure” anyway?
These are just a few of the questions that I hope to answer with TV Surveillance’s new bi-weekly feature, #TVFail. In each entry, I will be taking a look at an individual episode of television that is considered a disappointment in some way. Maybe it was panned by critics and audiences, maybe it was lowly rated or maybe it was initially neither but has retroactively lost its more positive reputation. No matter the reason, this is a place where I will talk about the quiet failures of some of television’s best series. Here, I will talk about how and why these individual episodes came to represent “failure” and also discuss whether or not those definitions still apply today. The hope is that this feature will weave textual analysis and contextual and intertextual discourse together to create a compelling space for the discussion of televisual failure.
Making television is hard. I have not and probably will not ever work in the industry, but I can still say with full confidence that this is a true statement. Critics often talk about the constraints of the American broadcast television system on “quality” or “complex” network dramas such as Lost, but rarely are those conversations had in reference to the series we think of as procedurals. In fact, those kind of series are supposed to revel in the 22-24 episode-a season business model so that they can continue to churn out standardized, simplistic and formulaic content. And no one really raises an eyebrow at this system. The CSI:s and the NCIS of the world help make things like The Good Wife possible. It’s trade-off we are all okay with and the expectations for those “other” series are subsequently lowered.
But there are still challenges to producing even the most procedural of television series. Once a series is locked in to a specific format and formula, whether visually or narratively, it is difficult to break free from those restrictions. Characters start doing the exact same things, saying the exact same things and the stories develop in a too-similar pattern. Popular formulas are most certainly a blessing, but they can also be a curse. Perhaps there is a tipping point for when an appealing formula stops being so formula. In that respect, someone might be willing to argue that producing procedural television is actually more difficult than producing something like Lost. I am not that person, but I would absolutely be interested in listening to somebody try to convince me.
And of course, trying to break free from the formulaic conventions is extremely risky — especially for popular series. Fans might start to grow restless with staleness of the product, but sometimes, trying to freshen things up just makes matters worse. Audiences are fickle. They think they want something new, but when series give it to them, they clamor for the halcyon days and old comfort foods. The fear of the unknown is an awfully powerful thing in the human psyche and it manifests itself regularly in the television industry. What happens when a series tries to break the formula, even temporarily? Once you provide that small, but different taste, can you ever go back? And will your audience follow you?
Even though it’s always been something more than just a “traditional” procedural because of its intense and tight focus on its compelling lead character, House still relies heavily on a specific formula, one that includes a procedural story almost every single week. And it is a fantastic example of what happens when the production team starts to feel the weight of that formula on the series and tries to mix it up. House shows us how those decisions can have very positive outcomes, especially in the short-term, but ultimately not really work out in the long-term.
By the time House made it to its fifth season in 2008-9, it was a series being simultaneously suffocated by its formulaic nature and strained by its desires to step outside of itself. But it didn’t start out that way.
Highly regarded as one of the best series on all of television throughout its first three seasons, House had absolutely no reason to mix things up. Critics loved it, fans especially loved it and the ratings were very, very good. I know that it was following American Idol at the time, but there were points in House‘s second and third seasons when it was averaging around 23 million viewers. That’s insane. The formula wasn’t really tired yet, there was still life to be found within the stories with the original team.
Yet at the end of its third season, the House production team decided it wanted to avoid becoming like CSI: or any one of a number of old procedurals. In the fourth season, David Shore and company blew up the team, brought in lots of new people, narrowed that lot to a lesser number and then created an event that put the series’ most palpable pairing (House and Wilson) on the outs. It was one of hell of a transitional season, one that I especially loved but understand why others did not. If I really cared about Cameron and Chase, I probably would have been super-pissed they had been demoted from major player to occasional usage. No matter your thoughts on season four of House, you can acknowledge that it took some real stones to make the decisions that the House team did back then.
Season five, for the most part, messed up everything for House. It quickly tried to re-establish a status quo after the confusing, but compelling events of season four, but the results were sort of disastrous. Because of the cast changes, the series asked its fans to keep enjoying the formula, but with different faces they barely knew. Big supporters of Cameron and Jennifer Morrison couldn’t take her not being on the series each week, but the especially couldn’t take watching her lose all sorts of screentime to Olivia Wilde’s Thirteen, the clearly defined “upgrade.” And I’m sure there were a few people out there who felt the same way about Chase, and thus maybe were upset with Kal Penn’s Kutner? Surely no one cared about Taub enough to muster up that much rage. Anyway, House had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. The fans of the original seasons were rightfully frustrated about the changes, while those folks who really enjoyed the chaos of season four (like me) were disappointed that House had begun resting on its laurels again. The risks had paid off, but only temporarily.
Which brings us to the 20th episode of season five, “Simple Explanation.” No episode of House represents the series’ internal tensions with formula like this one. The House team clearly has ambition and the capacity for innovation, the developments in S3 and S4 proved that. I’m not sure if it’s the formula itself or maybe the team just ran out of good ideas for awhile before finally deciding that it was time to mix it up a bit. After almost a full season of unsuccessful rote stories that relied heavily on the series’ formula and conventions, even in the face of some possibly interesting storytelling avenues (such as the House-Wilson drama and Thirteen’s illness) and new characters to play with, the writers were apparently joining critics and fans in the pool of restlessness. In place of any real innovation, the writers took the easy way out: Very Special Episodes. Throughout S5, the writers implemented a number of the medium’s biggest storytelling tropes: Hostage situation! Baby adoptions! Parental death! Episode from the perspective of a patient! Psychic death cat! Okay, the last one isn’t a trope, but it is fun to say. Special episodes, typically reserved for sweeps periods, allow writers of formulaic television to step outside their boundaries, if only for one week. It’s a little nuck of creativity that can be carved out amid a rigid structure and formula.
External factors allowed the writers to pull out one of the biggest “special episode” tropes around: surprise death! There’s really not a better cure for restlessness on dramatic television than death. If executed well, killing off a character reshuffles the desk, changes the game, whatever you want to call it. House had nailed a character death at the end of S4 when Amber said goodbye and these external circumstances allowed them to, well, pull the trigger on another one in the spring of 2009. Kal Penn decided he wanted to work for President Obama and therefore had to leave the series. People leave hospitals. People get other jobs, sometimes within other departments of the same hospital that House works in. House had shown us all of these things before April 2009. But there’s no place for quiet, logical departures for the series’ least developed character regular character when the writers can just have him blow his brains out after breakfast. Wait, what?
Like I mentioned, “Simple Explanation” perfectly displays the writers’ conflict with themselves and their formula. On one hand, it wants to be this “Very Special Episode” about suicide, its possible causes and the general mourning period required when a regular cast member dies. On the other hand, “Explanation” still desires to tell a medical procedural story that is nearly completely devoid of thematic connection to the suicide story and also involves Meat Loaf. I wish I was making that last part up. Well, I probably wish I was making it all up.
There are so many flaws in “Simple Explanation,” like how it completely confirms that the Penn’s Kutner character had no identity on the series or the fact that it INVOLVES MEAT LOAF, but all the errors stem from the episode’s inability to commit to one story or another. Most House episodes balance the medical case with a few smaller character stories (that are sometimes larger when they involve House’s primary issues), but this one is so poorly-constructed and off-kilter that it’s confusing. Both sides of the story are under-developed (clearly to different degrees).
Kutner’s death is a shocking reveal and I understand the episode’s attempts to tell a story about what happens when someone kills themselves with literally no reason, but that doesn’t excuse it for introducing the story for what appears to mostly be shock value and then move on to a case with very little substance or connection to what’s just happened. Writing a story about a character surprisingly committing suicide is sort of novel in a medium that’s all about the “driven to suicide” trope, but the surprise can’t be it. You can’t ever develop a character and then back your way into a shocking suicide because the actor wants to go work for the president. That’s not how television storytelling works. The writers weren’t aware of Penn’s decision early enough to forgive the lack of shading for Kutner over nearly two seasons. And when the episode in which the character dies doesn’t even spend enough within its running time contextualizing said character’s death, the pointlessness of it all becomes further apparent. It’s shocking and the audience is supposed to feel sad, but it’s ultimately empty. You can tell me all you want that Kutner’s blank personality makes it more affective, but I will never believe you. This is especially true when FOX took the opportunity to create one of the creepiest things in social media/internet marketing ever in the online memorial for a fictional character that no one really cared about because he wasn’t a character. Unfortunately, the distasteful Kutner memorial has been removed from FOX’s web site, but you can see the disgust many people expressed in the aftermath.
Meanwhile, this happened in season five, meaning the writers had very little desire/ability to craft a good procedural story anymore. This one is all about the wife of a sick man deciding to fake an illness (to make herself feel better, I guess) and then “shockingly,” the wife actually does fall victim to an illness. And then there’s a lot of lying and fake-outs, and that doesn’t even include the usual twists and turns in the medical case itself. These two characters seem like miserable and awful people and oftentimes in the episode it doesn’t really make sense how they loved one another to begin with. It’s mostly egregious to stick to the formula when a lead character kills themselves, but it’s especially egregious to stick to the formula and not put in any effort to make those formulaic conventions worthwhile. The writers had to know that the viewers would care more about Kutner’s suicide, so it begs to reason that they would have wanted to make the case so interesting that the viewers couldn’t worry about Kutner because other elements of the episode were so successful. This episode does not accomplish these goals. Perhaps worse of all, there’s no thematic connection to the suicide or what the team members are going through. Sure, Kutner “lied” by not talking about his problems with everyone else, just as the husband and wife keep things from each other. But this is House, home of “everybody lies.” You have to do better than that. And this is a series that often makes its episodic themes totally obvious, sometimes obnoxiously so. Yet, in a circumstance where it needs that kind of storytelling most, “Simple Explanation” forgoes it.
This episode is a man without a country. It presents the possibility of formula-busting, but can’t bring itself to go the final steps necessary to make that happen. It’s a “Very Special Episode” skeleton with “Normal Episode” organs and its non-committal attitude not only serves as the nadir of House‘s worst season, but also a fairly heavy slap in the face to one of its characters. And unlike the last entry in this feature, Lost‘s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” it doesn’t serve as a massively important pivot point for the series, either within the story or outside of it. But not all episodic failures are disasters-by-design or blessings in disguise. Sometimes, terrible episodes are just terrible.
On a larger level, “Simple Explanation” shows us the difficulties and dangers with procedural-heavy storytelling. Procedurals are regularly derided for their lack of innovation, standardization, etc., but there’s certainly an art to crafting those kinds of stories, just as there is for writing serialized, quality series. Very Special Episodes are the easiest way for procedurals to mix it up, but sometimes the VSE doesn’t work within the framework of the procedural. The tensions between innovation and convention are found within every episode of a procedural, but perhaps never more true within the VSE. And this applies perfectly to “Simple Explanation,” where the House writers are clearly trying to mix up the formula and cause a stir, but are similarly unwilling to let go of their comforting, formulaic structure.