I have not done reviews of movies or TV shows here, and I’m not about to start. That’s not to say that they’re not worth doing because they certainly are. Discussing the stories that entertain us, either on a screen or on a page, is one of my favourite pastimes. It’s something that not only shows me a great deal about myself and the world as I am coming to understand it, but also inspires me in my own life and in my own creative process. The reason that I have thus far opted not to do reviews is simply because I know that if I start doing them, I won’t be able to stop. There are simply too many examples of books, movies and shows that I would like to write about, and many others more skilled at and more dedicated to this task than I are already doing a mighty fine job of it. I may even get there myself one day, but for now I’m going to keep things pretty general and not delve into an in-depth analysis of ‘House’.
Instead, I’d like to talk about how something as banal as a television program (or a movie, or a story) can capture the attention and the hearts of millions of people. It’s not a documentary. These lives that we see or read about never were and never will be. When we turn off the television, leave the movie theater or close the book, those characters don’t come with us. They don’t die, and they don’t live either. They hang suspended, frozen on paper or celluloid, trapped in their pixels and awaiting digital reanimation. They do not feel and they do not think. They cannot breathe. By rights they are no more real than a meager flight of fancy or a dream that is already vanishing upon waking. How is it that these imagined beings and their invented worlds could have any kind of impact on our daily lives? How could they possibly stir us beyond a momentary dip into laughter or a tear shed for the sake of sentimentality and nostalgia? What could they offer us that we do not already have, and why, when they are gone, would we ever look back on them with anything but whimsy? How could we call to mind these shadows of someone else’s psyche and feel a loss?
Some of you might be asking yourselves these questions and finding that for you there is no clear answer. It may be that you feel very little for things outside of the waking world, and possibly you even resent the notion that people could become so wrapped up in these fantasies that they begin to identify with them. There is so much that is exciting and tragic in life, you might be thinking, more than enough for a lifetime of emotion. There is simply nothing to be gained in letting these two-dimensional representations do anything more than divert us for an hour or so before we get on with our day and return to our lives. If you are thinking this, I have no argument with you. This is how you see the world, and there is nothing wrong with that. In the end, you may even be right that our society devotes far too much of our brain space to these ephemeral mindscapes. Perhaps our time would be better spent in pursuit of solutions to the problems that affect people in the here and now.
My only retort is that it is often through these other media that we lowly humans are able to identify with others whom we will likely never see or hear. For your average person, the world outside of our daily lives is little more than a very convincing illusion. It is an illusion that we accept and even believe in (for the most part), but it is nevertheless a fairly shaky concept. What we know about other people, other countries and cultures, other lives in general, we get from books and movies and television. I have traveled quite a bit more than most and quite a bit less than many, but I can say with absolute confidence that the impressions that we hold about the world and those in it are most often formed second-hand at best. We encounter famine, war and poverty on the news; we explore foreign capitals and even far-flung villages on channels devoted to travel and discovery; we find women with exposed breasts and men with bones through their noses in the pages of National Geographic; and we learn of foreign languages and cultures in windowless buildings in the middle of a country that considers their speakers second-class citizens. Yes, these are true stories that we are hearing, or as true as we are led to believe. They document actual lives and represent the facts as we are given to understand them. It is a world of non-fiction and not of make-believe, but none of that changes the fact that for all intents and purposes these people do not exist for us. They buy our computers, they build our computers, they till the soil and plant our crops, they suffer our injustices and benefit from our humanitarian missions, and if they didn’t exist then neither would we. But really, on your average day, in your average lifetime, they are the silent majority. They are a living fairy tale that we believe in but rarely think about, and they seldom touch our lives in any real way.
The power of fiction and of entertainment goes far beyond diversion. They may often have the single goal of bringing us a few moments of escape, but they can and do provide us with so much more. Charles Dickens taught us about how the other half lived with novels like Oliver Twist and Hard Times, and in White Teeth, Zadie Smith gave us insight into the world of a child of mixed race. The film Philadelphia depicted Tom Hanks, an actor that was unambiguously heterosexual, playing the role of a homosexual man dying of AIDS. It characterized the struggle of a man, once accepted and rewarded by society, to live with an illness that was quickly killing him, while at the same time finding himself marginalized by the very people and system he had worked so hard for. The TV miniseries Roots, itself based on a novel, portrayed the life of slaves living in our own country and brought us face to face with a story of how horrifying that experience was. These were all fictional tales that nevertheless gave us insight into real life, and for many of us they were the first interactions with these topics that helped us comprehend just how real these issues were and are.
But beyond the contribution that cinema, literature and television make to our understanding of major global issues, it is the ability of these fictional characters, through their interaction with each other and the world that they inhabit, to turn the mirror on us even as they bring us into their little universe. It is not necessary that their lives and the events that their stories recount have any basis in actual fact. It is their connection to the real world that is important. Each work of fiction–be it a moving picture, a radio broadcast or a collection of black marks drawn on white paper–was created by an actual person. The thoughts and feelings, experiences and relationships, struggles and successes contained in that story started out as the musings of a real individual. Through the eyes of these characters we can see so clearly the world that we live in, even if the place described is far from Earth or deep below its surface, in the distant future or in the imagined past. Hobbits, aliens, talking foxes–they all have something to tell us about ourselves, and that is where the true magic of fiction lies.
I noted above that these people and their troubles are no more real than the dreams we have and lose hold of almost immediately, and for me this is a very important parallel. I recently had a long and strange dream, during which I realized at one point that the characters of John Irving’s novels were not real. I had been interacting with several of them, and we were so close, such good friends, that the realization that it was not only all a dream, but that these were people that I had never met and never would meet, was simply too much for me to bear. I cried bitter tears of loss in the middle of my dream because I knew that I would never get to see my friends. The idea that they were only as real as my imagination was overwhelmingly sad because although I can visit them in their books and think of them any time that I like, they will never do the same for me, and they will never grow and change and interact with anyone or anything that they have not already. There is beauty in that too, of course, but at that moment I felt only profound sadness. I awoke from imagined tears and then cried a few more.
And now I am saying goodbye to another group of friends, the characters I have come to love on a television show called ‘House’. They are there, and I can see them whenever I want to, but they will never do anything new or show us something more than what they have already. Naturally, we can discover more about them by watching them again, learn new things as we see them interact from a perspective of more advanced age and experience, but what they had to say, they have said, and now we have to say goodbye. The friendship that we fostered with these characters is left as a half-remembered journey we took in a dream, and no matter how hard we try we will never make it back there. It’s gone forever because it never really was.
I chose the word ‘really’ in that last sentence for good reason. I am aware of how powerful the subconscious is, and I would never say that something dreamed or imagined doesn’t exist or even that it isn’t real. It does not necessarily cross over into our conscious reality, what we experience with our physical senses, and in that way it might not exist in reality, but I do understand that how we interact with the world using our five most obvious senses is not all that there is. Nevertheless, there is a longing that many of us have to see these realities harmonized in some way, to reach the dream, the story, the idea and experience it in the here and now.
How can a show like ‘House’, so formulaic that Dan Brown might even cringe when he watches it, touch us so deeply? The answer is that it is not a show that touches us. It is the lives we see develop over the course of eight years; it is the man we love to hate and love again, who has grown with and contrary to our expectations; it is the personal reflected in the impersonal, our ability to relate to people and things that aren’t and weren’t, and saying goodbye to them is like feeling the warm embrace of a dear friend for the last time. Is it the same as that? No, but it is a loss nevertheless. It is an acceptance that the home we built for these people in our hearts is truly left only in our imagination. It is a recognition that something has made its mark upon us and will never truly let us go, even if in time we begin to forget it.
And this, for me, was the message that ‘House’, in the wisdom of its creators, has left us with. The final two songs were like a gentle reminder that, although we will miss the friends we’ve made along that road, we must ultimately move on. I imagine there were tears shed across the ‘House’-viewing world when we heard Warren Zevon’s ‘Keep Me In Your Heart’. I could have cried then, and thinking about the song and writing this now, I’m nearly there. But then we smiled with Guy Lombardo’s ‘Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)’, comforted by the reminder that life does go on, and that we had better make the most of it. So thank you, ‘House’. Thank you for the memories and for your friendship. Thank you for that sense of home I felt as I grew closer to you and all of your strange and loveable characters. Thank you for giving, and thank you for letting go.