robin_d_laws (robin_d_laws) wrote,

Premise Threat and Iconic Identity

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[Contains spoilers for the present season of House, M.D.]

A common form of false suspense in serial media is the premise threat: a story possibility that, if not reversed, ends the premise of the property. For example, you know in any episode of Gilligan’s Island, or its descendant, Star Trek: Voyager, that any chance of rescue will be dashed by the end of a regular, non-finale episode. (I haven’t caught Stargate: Robert Carlyle but assume it too will eventually be forced to deal with the premise threat issue.)

One form of the premise threat is abandonment by an iconic hero of his iconic nature. This happens all the time in comics. I remember being shocked as a kid reading a friend’s back issues of the first “Spider-Man quits” arc. Even then I knew that he didn’t really quit, because years later, new Spidey comics were still coming out. Still I took the premise threat seriously, as I hadn’t seen it done before.

This year the writers of House have its iconic hero seemingly abandoning his iconic nature. In its season opener, which has divided fans of the show, they broke with formula to spend two hours with House in a psychiatric institution. Only one other series regular appeared; even the credit sequence was changed. After an extended homage to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, House was presented with his challenge for the season: to get his medical license back, he would have to become a kinder, gentler Gregory House. This seemed oddly incongruent with the reason for his being institutionalized, a psychotic break brought on by Vicodin addiction, but never mind.

For the next episode, the writers’ room created suspense with the premise threat, that House wouldn’t be practicing medicine any more. By its end he was ready to go back to work, although under slightly constrained circumstances. Since then, he pretty quickly crept back to being the same old satisfyingly obnoxious and devious House. Occasional lip service is given to his attempt to be a new person, but that’s the extent of the supposedly premise-shaking changes promised by the season opener. He’s found in his supposed lack of power new ways to torment his long-suffering friend and colleagues, and all is well again. Once again, as when a new cast of sidekicks was rotated in, the context around the iconic character has shifted, but the character has proved true to himself and able to execute the show’s basic formula week in and week out. As all premise threats must do, this one has left the essentials unchanged.

Since premise threats are, at their core, fake-outs, it’s usually bad news when series writers resort to them. This premise threat fizzled out surprisingly quickly, but that’s not even the show’s most striking departure from its original tone. The outré , strained and circuitous plot line used to eject a series regular has me looking around for the shark pool in the parking lot.

Although poorly executed, the premise threat does confirm House as an iconic hero. We don’t want to see a humbled or non-practicing House any more than we want to read issue after issue of Peter Parker going to school, working as a freelance photographer, and doing his laundry. By overcoming premise threats, the iconic hero embarks on a ritualized return to his comforting true nature. He proves that he is not changed by the world, but forces the world to change for him.

Tags: iconic heroes, narrative structure

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