Friday, October 08, 2010

Book Review: Chasing Zebras by Barbara Barnett


It is not often that I am asked to put on my bonnet as a reviewer of books, movies and television. However, this subject seems relevant to my interest/obsession with the television show House M.D.

Fans of House MD who feel that Season 6 represented an overall decline in quality in the series and that Season 7 may well be in the final nail in the coffin can find solace in Barbara Barnett’s Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide To House, M.D. (ECW, 2010).

Barnett is the aficionado’s aficionado, a fan who writes entries for Blogcritics org., titled “Welcome To The End of The Thought Process.” This book, a labor of love, is, she admits, a “highly subjective” look at the popular series. Series creator David Shore, a former lawyer, first conceived a show built around “a lawyer who hates his clients.” He later changed it to “a doctor who hates his patients.” The character was originally based on Sherlock Holmes, with Watson as his faithful sidekick. Holmes/Watson became re-invented as House/Wilson. House is played by the splendid actor Hugh Laurie, and the underrated Robert Sean Leonard plays his one and only friend, Wilson.

Barnett views the central character, Gregory House, as a heroic character in the model of Lord Byron or Mr. Rochester. Indeed, an undertone of romanticism runs through this book. One gets the impression that the author, like many fans, is hopelessly in love with Dr. House. As Robert Sean Leonard observed early in the show’s life, “the character of Gregory House is designed to be attractive.” Based on the misanthropic, drug-addicted detective whose brilliance and lack of conventional social empathy isolates him, Gregory House is all this and more. Like Holmes, the thing that House dreads most is boredom.

The first section of Chasing Zebras, “Differential Diagnosis: A Character Wrapped in a Mystery Wrapped in a Medical Procedural” examines House through the prism of the show’s medicine, ethics, music, religion, House’s chronic pain and drug use, his isolating genius, even the character’s personal belongings. (Each of the supporting characters, including his boss, Cuddy) is given their own chapter.) In the search for meaning that runs throughout the book, Barnett has conducted interviews with producers, writers, crew, and actors, including executive producer Katie Jacobs, writers Doris Egan, Russell Friend and David Foster, and a wealth of others.

The second section, "The Guide,"are recaps of the episode of each season, built around a comprehensive rundown including the disease of the week (the “zebra” of the title), House’s famous “epiphany” moments, other basic aspects of the formula, and what your faithful correspondent enjoyed the most, casting trivia. If there is anything you want to know about individual episodes, it is certain to be here. Barnett also takes thorough looks at certain episodes that she feels are pivotal to the development of the series and the character of House.

There is an exceedingly entertaining appendix, “Time Is Not A Fixed Construct,” in which Barnett attempts to unravel the show’s (to put it politely) elastic timelines. The author explores the character’s development over six seasons and how it has affected the show overall.

Some fans feel that Seasons 1-3 are the “classic House.” Others have the opinion that all of the seasons are “classic House” with the occasional weak episode here and there. Some viewers feel that with House detoxing off Vicodin in Season 6 and trying to become a better person, he lost the spark of individuality that made him such a fascinating character. In Season 7, he seems largely devoid of the torment that defined him, reducing House to the level of many snarky, smart television heroes that have proliferated in the wake of House M.D. Others feel that this is genuine character development and layers of his soul have yet to be exposed.

In this reviewer’s highly subjective opinion, this book needed a more rigorous editor and proofreader. And an index. Chasing Zebras could easily be cut by a third without sacrificing its essential purpose.

The author is in love with her own use of language, such as a tendency to follow the character’s mot juste with “Well played, Dr. House!” Barnett’s writing can slip into florid overstatement and redundancy. Much of her initial section on House repeatedly brings up the Byronic hero aspect, even if it is a stretch at times. She quotes lines from the 2008 film The Dark Knight in which Alfred says to Bruce Wayne: “You’re the one who can be the outcast and do the things that no one else can…A watchful protector, a dark knight.” Or in her own words: “[House] is a many-faceted crystal, and depending on the part of the prism through which you happen to observe him, he can be angel or devil, noble or an unrepentant bastard. The true colors you see may vary greatly.”

Barnett has a healthy ego: in the introduction she briefly mentions the sometimes rabid House online fan community, recommending her own blog for “in-depth analysis” without mentioning that she is the writer. And without naming the many other sites that discuss the show in great detail, save for the official HOUSE/Fox website. In the acknowledgements she thanks her loyal readers who have made “Welcome To The End of The Thought Process” “one of the best places on the Internet to discuss the series.”

Despite these flaws, this is an excellent addition to the collection of the dyed-in-the-wool House M.D. fan. Where else are you going to find the hidden similarities between House and Chick Webb? Or that sets of ancient calipers decorate his apartment walls? Or that Ethan Embry (“The Down Low”, Season 6) worked with Kal Penn (Kutner) in one of the Harold and Kumar movies?

For the casual viewer, this book might be a bit much. But it is not written for the casual viewer. It is written for those who are deeply invested in the program and its characters, like Ms. Barnett herself.

Chasing Zebras: An Unofficial Guide to House M.D can be purchased at and other outlets.

PLEASE NOTE: The House fandom is a large and vocal one. However, I will not publish comments that amount to hate mail, as is my usual policy. Also please not that I am not responsible for the "cool" "interesting" and whatever tags at the bottom; apparently they are part of the Blogger format.

Elisa & Bucky the Wonderdog


missy said...

I voted this as interesting, lol. ^_^ I never got around to reading this, but I probably should.

Part of me think that this is a case of a fan thinking WAY too much about a show, and perhaps being a little too infactuated with Hugh Laurie ("A watchful protector, a dark knight"? A "many faceted crystal"?? wow.)

Another part of me just wants some entertainment, and perhaps wants to fall in love with this show again somehow....

Susan said...

I've read Ms. Barnett's blog two or three times and been very disappointed at her inability to form a cogent argument or, indeed, to differentiate analysis from fanwank. I previewed her book on Amazon and noted more of the same, including the unsupported assertion that House was never a drug addict. Needless to say, I will not be buying it.

One small question for our illustrious hostess: are you certain Barnett conducted these interviews? In what little of the book I previewed, I got the impression--quite possibly mistaken--that she was quoting excerpt from other peoples' interviews.

Mad Fashionista said...

Dahling, Ms. Barnett conducted the interviews herself, I can assure you of that.