Spring 2008, Vol. 11, No. 1

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From the Editor:

Sally Gets Religion

God and Mammon on the Web

Off with their Head Scarves

Playing Godless

Letter to the Editor


Playing Godless
by Christine McCarthy McMorris

Americans may not be prepared to make an atheist president, but that doesn’t mean they won’t watch one on TV.

That would be Dr. Gregory House, eponymous star of House, the most popular Fox network drama that has consistently been among the 10 top-rated shows since it debuted in 2004.

House—played by British actor Hugh Laurie—is not just an unbeliever, he’s a Christopher Hitchens-type serial religious ridiculer, given to pronouncements like: “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” Or: “Faith. That’s another word for ignorance, isn’t it?”

Told “You’re an atheist,” he replies, “Only on Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time, it doesn’t really matter.”

So how has House endeared itself to a nation of believers?

A bit of background for the uninitiated. Series creator and executive producer David Shore (whose twin brothers are Orthodox rabbis) based his idea of a brilliant-but-misanthropic doctor on Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, House is a mélange of deductive logic, encyclopedic knowledge, an inability to suffer fools gladly, melancholy, and drug addiction (handfuls of Vicodan standing in for Holmes’ cocaine and morphine). His Dr. Watson is a long-suffering oncologist named Dr. Wilson.

“[W]hat if instead of looking for bad guys, we’re looking for germs,” Shore told Washington Post staff writer Ceci Connolly in an April 17, 2005 interview. In each hour-long show, House turns his considerable powers of ratiocination to solving the week’s mystery ailment, while reciting his favorite bedside mantras: “Nobody changes,” and “Everyone lies.”

When House began its first season, many critics agreed with Denver Post TV critic Joanne Ostrow’s view that audiences might not be ready for a healer so unrepentantly “rude,” “edgy,” “smug,” and “sinister.” Ostrow warned: “Not only is Laurie an atypical lead for an American primetime drama, his character is not a lovable or even accessible protagonist.”

“Marcus Welby he’s not,” the Hartford Courant’s Roger Catlin noted, while holding out hope that there was “still a chance for this dark diagnostician” on network TV.

Laurie himself, best known (pre-House) for playing bumbling aristocrats in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster on British TV, was dubious. “In truth, I didn’t think the show would be such a success,” he told the Chicago Daily Herald in early 2006. “OK, I thought it would fail.”

But by the time the first season ended reservations faded away, and during the next three seasons House racked up high ratings and rave reviews, not to mention an Emmy for Best Writing and two Best Actor Golden Globes for Laurie.

In the process, it succeeded in establishing its hero’s atheism while scaring off none but the most theologically sensitive viewers. The Parents Television Council, for example, assailed Fox for being “the most anti-religious network” and House for “consistently mocking religion and people of faith,” Claire Hoffman of the Los Angeles Times reported December 14, 2006.

The first peek into House’s spiritual void came in a first-season episode entitled “Damned if You Do.”

Sister Eucharist: I need to talk with you, Dr. House. Sister Augustine believes in things that aren’t real.

House: I thought that was a job requirement for you people.

When an African-American Mormon applies for a job in the fourth season, House subjects him to comments about  “chasing out demons” and “magic underwear,” as well as asking, “You a Mormon? You’re wearing a ring from Brigham Young. Or did your folks just do the lawns?”

Then there’s this exchange with the orthodox Jewish husband of a sick woman.

House: You live according to God’s six hundred commandments, right?

Husband: [folding his arms] Six hundred thirteen.

House: You understand them all?

Husband: Takes a lifetime of learning…

House: But you follow the ones you don’t understand because the ones you do understand make sense, and you believe the guy who created them knows what he’s doing.

Husband: Of course.

House: So you will trust my diagnosis and you’ll let me treat her, because in this temple, [scarily] I am Dr. Yahweh.

Husband [with look of disbelief ]: I want a new doctor.

As a Champion of Atheism, Gregory House has won the show some shout-outs from the secular side, happy to embrace any plausible primetime soul mate. A House video clip can be found on the website of Richard Dawkins, Oxford professor and author of the bestselling The God Delusion. In it, the doctor tells a fellow physician that his patient’s newly found religious faith is only a symptom of disease.

Physician: We can’t just inject her with 10cc of atheism and send her home.

House: Religion is a symptom of irrational belief based on groundless hope.

 In real life, Laurie bears some similarity to the character he plays. Raised in Oxford and educated at Cambridge University, he is listed (along with such celebrities as Isaac Asimov and Ted Williams) on As he told James Lipton in a July 31, 2006 Inside the Actors Studio interview, “I’m not a religious man. I believe in science. A humility before the facts. I find that a moving and beautiful thing. And belief in the unknown I find less interesting.”

Critics with less of a secularist agenda picked up on the fact that the freethinking doctor was not so much a role model as a classic flawed rebel. His narcotics addiction, loneliness, arrogance, and even the constant pain he suffers from an injured leg led Ellen Baskin, writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2006, to conclude that House’s limp was “certainly a metaphor for his wounded psyche” and to compare him to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca—“one of the big screen’s classic reluctant romantics.”

For religious viewers, House’s atheism could be spun as a sin just waiting to be repented. A Beliefnet forum on the episode “Don’t Ever Change” included such sentiments as “Amen! God is moving him!!!” and “The Almighty is at work here.”

To be sure, many critics pointed out that the public’s embrace of the atheist doctor was due to Laurie’s quirky charm. “Let’s not be misunderstood,” wrote the Washington Post’s Justin Rude on August 28, 2005. “Laurie makes the show.” Or as co-star Lisa Edelstein, who plays House’s attractive boss, explained to the Albany Times Union in 2005, “I think he’s hot. He’s a sex bomb. Let’s face it.”

But it is House’s role as a foil for serious engagement with traditional problems of faith and morals that may explain the show’s success. Thus far, 14 of its episodes have dealt directly with religious questions like miracles and the afterlife, while at least 25 more touch on issues ranging from abortion to physician-assisted suicide to homosexuality.

Three episodes stand out in particular. In “House vs. God” (Season 2), a teenaged faith healer is brought to the hospital, where House sets up a scoreboard for both him and God to win points. Although he discovers that the young healer has contracted a sexually transmitted disease that he is hiding from his father, exposure to the boy’s virus seems to (miraculously) shrink the tumor of a cancer patient at the hospital. Although House remains unconvinced (“I fear for the human race. A teenager claims to be the voice of God, and people with advanced degrees are listening,”), by the end of the program the score is even.

“Human Error” (Season 3) sets House against a Cuban refugee couple who put their faith in prayer and give thanks to God when the woman returns to life after her heart stops. “How come God gets credit whenever something good happens?” House complains. “Where was He when her heart stopped?”

Finally, in “Don’t Ever Change” (Season 4), a woman who has recently converted to Jewish orthodoxy collapses at her wedding. House argues that her conversion is a symptom of her disease. Another doctor, a secular Jew, disagrees, reflecting “They have something we don’t have.” “You drank the Manishewitz-flavored Kool-Aid,” House taunts, but in fact, his belief that people never really change is disproven: The conversion turns out to have nothing to do with the disease.

About this episode, Alan Sepinwall, one of the most thoughtful online TV critics (who blogs on The House Next Door and What’s Alan Watching?), writes, “One of House’s fundamental beliefs about people is proven wrong, leading his heart to grow, oh, a half a size at least.”

In each of these three episodes—and many more—religious people may be cleverly rebuked by House, but they are always given the chance to respond. And more importantly, the stories are left sufficiently open-ended that viewers can make up their own minds about who is right.

In short, while the good Dr. House may be prime time’s avatar of atheism, the show hedges its bets. As David Shore said in an On the Media interview broadcast on NPR on August, 17 of last year, “To ignore issues of faith is to ignore a pretty fundamental part of all people’s lives when they’re in the hospital, facing death. I’m not saying all people find God, but they certainly do ask those questions.”


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