In Defense of House

The very strange Dr. House

The very strange Dr. House

I have to respond to Richard’s post about House and explain why I like, and continue to watch, the show. I know that some people say that the show has “jumped the shark” (and it seems, incidentally, that some people are just eager to claim to be the first to say that a show “jumped the shark”), but I still find House entertaining.

Why? Well, for one thing it is one of the most contrarian, un-P.C. shows on TV. House says the most appalling things imaginable, and the show isn’t afraid to poke fun at anything. Second, the theme of individual shows often address weighty topics, and in interesting ways. One of the running issues in House is the disdain that Dr. Greg House — the consummate dispassionate scientist and intellectual — has for organized religion, and his exasperation at the fact that many of his patients and fellow doctors continue to adhere to deeply held religious beliefs, despite House’s view that he has convincingly shown that such beliefs are stupid. I like the depth of some of these philosophical issues, which many TV shows don’t touch in anything other than the most superficial ways. At the same time, House also recognizes that it is just a TV show, and sometimes steps outside the normal frame of reference to wink at the viewer. For example, one of my favorite episodes, called Three Stories, featured a moment where House, after making a “continuity error,” looked straight at the camera and said something like: “Fortunately, time is not a fluid construct.” How many TV shows manage to comment ironically on their status as TV shows? The characters are interesting — Dr. House is arguably one of the most outlandish, unconventional, misogynistic characters in TV history — and some of the medical mysteries are fascinating. Often it is not the “main” patient, but the clinic patient that doesn’t get much time on screen, that is the most memorable — as when House deduced that a guy who was dating a vegan and claimed to be a vegan was experiencing floating feces because he was eating cheeseburgers when his girlfriend wasn’t around. There are other reasons, but this is sufficient to give a flavor.

Sure, House is not a particularly believable show, and often it is uncomfortable to watch. At any normal hospital, Dr. House would long ago have been fired, and House and his friends suffer more dramatic events — illnesses, job changes, life-altering epiphanies, deaths of loved ones, and so forth — than average people would. But it is, after all, a TV show — and one that I still think is worth watching.

Vegetable Week: Nix v. Hedden

One of the great, yet underappreciated, Supreme Court opinions ever published was Nix v. Hedden, in 1893. In that seminal decision, the Court wrestled with the weighty question of whether a tomato is a “vegetable,” or a “fruit,” within the meaning of the Tariff Act of 1883. The entire decision, including title, reporter’s note, background description, and the Court’s opinion itself consume only four pages of the U.S. Reports, and the opinion of Mr. Justice Gray is a mere two pages long, with nary a footnote in sight.

The Court’s opinion was straightforward. It unanimously found that there was no evidence that the words “fruit” and “vegetable” had acquired any special meaning in trade or commerce. As a result, the words used in the Tariff Act had to be given their ordinary meaning. The Court then applied the ultimate test — namely, when are tomatoes served during a dinner meal? The Court reasoned: “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables, which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with or after the soup, fish or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” In short, because no rational person would consume a tomato for dessert, it must be a vegetable.

It’s too bad we have moved beyond the days when the Supreme Court could address truly momentous legal issues, like whether a tomato should be deemed a fruit or a vegetable. In any case, Nix v. Hedden is a very helpful authority to cite when smart-alecks — like my good friend Dr. Science — argue that my anti-vegetable stance should not extend to tomatoes because, botanically speaking, they are properly classified as a fruit. Take that, Dr. Science! The Supreme Court as spoken, and as a lawyer I am bound to follow precedent.