TV on the Brain

Curator's Note

Magnetic Resonance Imaging – the MRI – makes frequent guest appearances on medical dramas. Like other diagnostic tools, it uses a screen to let the doctors see into a patient’s body, though its particular talent usually showcased on television is its ability to display neurological functions and disorders. As the patient disappears into the machine, it shows us the brain: the center of cognitive activity and a seemingly perceptible indication of who we are. The MRI was itself developed through photographic, televisual, and digital technologies. In House, images of the brain are literally stilled and distilled through the MRI and filtered through television, so that the two become related scenes – or screens – of perception. In this set of images I want to begin to suggest that the MRI is an investigative tool that mirrors the nature of television itself. Often each device also seems to provoke the intimate conversations that repeatedly take place around them, suggesting a knowledge enabled by the screen, borne outside the patient’s body. Dr. Gregory House, board-certified diagnostician and adorable miscreant, loves TV. In fact, it seems he would often rather watch a medical drama than tend to his patients. Yet, though it might simply seem to be an instrument of distraction or procrastination, television, like his yo-yo, appears to aid House’s powers of interpretation. In recommending that Dr. Cameron read less and watch TV more, Dr. House suggests that television, too, is a diagnostic tool. Diagnosis is, after all, a form of interpretation – and isn’t it what we do when we watch TV?


I really like this idea of diagnostics and interpretation filtered through television watching: a bunch of white coated doctors watching the same small screen and talking about it could equally be the MRI screening or television watching scenes in this set of clips. House really likes and watches television, I think, as a way to flaunt his popular culture preferences, so as to make his brilliant diagnoses seem "intuitive" rather than intellectual--he is and looks smarter than the other doctors partly because of his unconventional modes of interpretation. (everyone who watches the show knows that special tinkly music that comes on when House "gets it") He may tell Cameron to "read less, watch more tv," but viewers can trust that he has read plenty in day. Similarly, he likes another little screen--Sony's PSP handheld gets a lot of play in this show. However, it seems to me that the PSP has different things in common with the MRI than does the television, since the PSP has controls that are more similar to an MRI's. What a brilliant reading of a sometimes-brilliant show! House does love those medical soap operas and I have often wondered what that means.

Really interesting observations about the proliferation of screens in House. The beginning of the clip, when the patient makes the remark, "Like Jonah inside the whale," reminds me of the way that medical technologies rendering the interiority of the body visible can be seen as beneficial - in terms of diagnostics - and threatening in the ways that medical images of the body render our bodies strange or our corporeal selves as our enemies (or as Rilo Kiley's lead singer Jenny Lewis writes, "because they [doctors] chart up your insides and put them on display"). Aside from House's cynical take toward religion, it's also interesting that the producers cut from the claustrophobic space of the interior of the MRI to the chapel, where House watches sports on his portable TV. The chapel, long constituted as the space of healing, prayer and meditation in an American hospital system dominated by religious affiliated hospitals and medical centers, is empty except for the sounds and images of the portable television, which seems to provide the comfort and company that the chapel (and perhaps divinity) fails to provide. While one screen technology benefits doctors and patients by providing a way to diagnose physical/medical abnormalities, perhaps the focus on the portable television is a way to diffuse patient/viewer ambivalence on the MRI and refocus their/our attention on an image system we as spectators more enthusiastically view. Thanks for pointing out the other mediated screens in House. Your observations help me begin to understand why House is appointment television in my grandparents' home. For viewers like my grandparents, whose bodies have been rendered visible by medical technologies many times in the past few years in Methodist-affiliated hospitals, I wonder if the way the program showcases medical imaging technology and places it within prime time serialized narratives provides a particular kind of spectatorial pleasure and catharsis.

What totally excellent comments from the both of you! Thank you so much for taking the time. I am glad that you both seem to see the ways in which I am trying to tease out also some spectatorial relations here, and then you add to them so nicely. In watching these various scenes, I keep asking myself a number of questions: where does the pov of the patient in the machine go? Does the screen remove an intimacy with the patient's body and replace it with an intimacy of another sort, or between other characters? How does one screen (such as the televisual) drive the screen of the other (the medical)? In fact, is it television -- for us, for House -- that makes medical narratives easier to bear? I think this is partly what bsasling is getting to regarding the grandparents' viewing. Having recently had a medical narrative of my own (as some feminist critics might have called it back in the day), I specifically avoided House for some time, only to later understand how on this show television mediated the narratives to the extent that we could have a simultaneous distance from and intimacy with them. And to Lisa, I think you are right about House's flaunting of his pop culture knowledge and preferences. But then I'd raise you one further. I think his suggestion here is not merely that his diagnoses are intuitive (though I do love this connection you make) but that intellect has a role in television watching. It's what allows him not just to diagnose phyical conditions but also the personal motivations behind them. (His psychological diagnosis of the patient in "Control" bears this out amazingly.) Finally, I need to note that I edited these five separate sequences together: they appear from four different episodes in the first season ("Mob Rules," "Damned If You Do," "Love Hurts," and "Control.")

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