This man's 'House' is really a fortress blocking out humanity
NOW THAT Star Trek's gone, the most thought-provoking drama in my TV diet is "House, M.D." (the season finale is Tuesday).
I got into it because star Hugh Laurie had enthralled me in TV adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves & Wooster" short stories.
Now it's the show I don't wait to watch. Even though TiVo saves "House" for me every week,
I watch it when it airs on Tuesday nights to discuss it with a colleague whom I don't have any other excuses to bother.
"House" fascinates me because the main character, Dr. Gregory House, embodies my worst workplace fears. He's an extraordinarily competent doctor whose brilliance is only matched by his amorality.
Nearly every scene showcases his cynicism, manipulation, cutting wit, off-putting manner and general misanthropy. It's awfully fun to watch him win every battle of wits with his peers, underlings and patients, but I would hate to be any of his colleagues; he prefers solving puzzles and winning games to forming relationships.
Software developers, the stereotype goes, have House-ish characteristics: They don't care about their colleagues' emotions and see everyone who does as unduly delicate and probably incompetent. The common term for directing hacker scorn at a "suit" or a "drone" is "flipping the bozo bit." Once a programmer has decided you are a bozo, his mental processes ignore everything you say. But Dr. House goes one step further. He doesn't care how others feel, not because he's socially inept, but because he sociopathically manipulates everyone, including his closest friend.
Ordinarily I'd dismiss such a dysfunctional person and try to work around him. But Dr. House can get away with his unprofessionalism because he can diagnose even obscure maladies quickly and accurately. He represents, to me, a nightmare of a boss — too brilliant to ignore, too abrasive to like. And that paradox forms the core of the show: He argues with his colleagues, exploring the great philosophical questions from the perspective of a magnificent bastard.
Great literature causes you to empathize with a person very different from you, or in a world very different from yours. Then, after you've been changed, you have a new way to see the world. Since I started watching "House" two years ago, I see more conflicts as incarnations of an archetypal clash: "House" vs. Bush. Would I rather work with the unlikable competent, or the likeable incompetent?
The stereotype of Indian software engineers among American software engineers is not a kind one: Indians are like the pointy-haired boss from Dilbert, overly concerned with formal certification and process and without initiative or genius for innovation. If I weren't feeling charitable,
I'd paint the Indian government with the same brush.
China, on the other hand, doesn't bother with civil liberties or any regard for the dignity of its people; it just gets the job done, diplomatically and economically. Tyrants can be effective in the short term. But I don't believe the ends justify the means; I am willing to sacrifice some efficiency in my personal and work lives to honor humanity.
Still, the writers of "House" put resonant words in his mouth. He argues passionately that actions and results matter more than intent or effort. He knows when to optimize for the common case and when to ferret out the unusual. He makes sweeping, risky decisions, and his boldness has magic in it.
But he sees selfishness and lies everywhere. If you look for selfishness, you find it; I look for love, or try to. Eating garlic fries at an airport restaurant, I saw the love between bantering couples, a guy signing off "I love you" into a cell phone, strong women kickboxing on TV, people sharing food and water, and people chasing after each other with dropped wallets and boarding passes. What would House see in all that?
After watching two seasons of "House," I have a notion of how I'd survive working for someone like him. He preys on defensiveness; to take away his advantage, I'd have to pre-emptively take responsibility for my flaws and mistakes. Openness, honesty and decisiveness would protect me, and I'd try to humbly learn what I could from his giant brain.
But I'm not going to turn into Dr. House. I think emotions and relationships are worth honoring, at home and at work, alongside competence. Then again, ask me again after I've spent three years at a software company.
Sumana Harihareswara writes each week for Bay Area Living. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.