“People Love Puzzles” and/or “Why Do I Love ‘House’?”

Stay with me:

My 2-year-old son has discovered puzzles in a big way. The kid is obsessed. What does he want when he gets home from daycare? The TV? Nope, puzzles. The other night he never ate dinner he was so busy – so determined – to put together his puzzles. And when he’s completed all his age 1-4 puzzles and all his brother’s age 5-8 puzzles he will take you by the hand and lead you into his room and command you to sit down and do a 150+ piece puzzle so he can watch.

People love puzzles. I myself am addicted to Soduko. But the most popular and addictive puzzles mankind has ever created are these: stories. There are “puzzle stories” (like Memento or Aftershocks), but this is not what I’m getting at, at least not yet. What I’m getting at is this: All stories are puzzles. The author gives us small, specific pieces, one at a time, and we put them together. Only then can we see the entire picture. We could get into all kinds of lengthy discussions about narratology and the fabula and the syuzhet here, but let’s keep it simple and just remember this: all stories are puzzles. And we are all serious addicts.

Now, one of the themes I’ve been thinking about on this blog is the idea of falling in love, and a story having something in it that the reader/viewer can make an emotional attachment to, fall in love with. Previous posts on this have brought up many questions with few answers, and this won’t be an exception. But let me ask you this: Why do you watch “House”?

“House” is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, possibly my favorite show (last night’s climax featured some very lazy writing, but that’s a different post…). I am in love with it. I Tivo it but I nearly always want to watch it that same night. If there’s not a new episode on (like last week), I get very bummed. And I’m not alone – it is a hugely successful show. Which is hilarious, because according to the rules of TV, it shouldn’t be. The main character is an anti-social drug addict and a royal jerk, where the protagonist in movies and TV shows is supposed to be a sympathetic hero. According to the rules of TV executives, there is little for us to like in the character. Respect, sure. But like? Would you hang out with the guy? Or love? And yet… the show is huge.

I have a vague idea of a theory about this: we don’t exactly sympathize with House, but I think we do identify with him (aren’t we all grumpy geniuses who just barely tolerate the rest of the world?). Maybe this distinction between sympathy and identification is meaningless, I don’t know. Maybe it is automatic that if you identify with someone, you necessarily sympathize with him. I don’t know and I don’t care – the thing is that we love a show with an “unsympathetic” character. We love the show. Why?

Here we have to remember the puzzle angle. Puzzles are very powerful. Every episode of “House” is a hospital mystery, a puzzle to be solved. And mystery shows have always been successful – think about how long “Murder She Wrote” was on the air. Or how the recent era of procedural shows – the “CSI”s and all the others – are mystery shows at their roots.

But I would argue that “House” is different. Very different. And I’m not just talking about our relationship to the protagonist, I am talking about the puzzle itself, the mystery. In conventional mystery stories, we follow the sleuth and watch as the clues get collected. We understand what the clues are and what they mean. We try to solve the mystery ourselves. We are active participants – not unlike watching a game show, yelling “Jeopardy” answers at the screen – and when Angela Lansbury revealed the killer at the end of every episode, we sighed “of course! I should have known it was the fiancee’s mother!”. But with “House,” unless you have a medical degree, you don’t have all the clues or all the information – in fact, you don’t have any of the information or any understanding of what the clues mean, really. I mean, how many times has House revealed the diagnosis and you sighed “of course! I should have known it was fulminating osteomyelitis!”?

So why do I love “House”? It’s so well-written. Yes, but WHAT about it is so well written? What specifically do we make an emotional attachment to? It can’t be the joy of the puzzle alone, can it? After all, there are plenty of puzzle stories which are cold, lifeless intellectual exercises that don’t grab us emotionally – what can I do to prevent my current scripts from becoming more of these? We respect House – but is respect enough to create an emotional bond? I doubt it. So what is the secret ingredient, and how do I write it? Watching some jerk put together a puzzle you can’t possibly assemble yourself – WHY is that so much fun?

The next time my 2-year-old takes me by the hand and leads me into his room and commands me to do a 150+ piece puzzle so he can watch, I’ll ask him. Tonight, maybe.

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