Thought Experiment: Dr. Jack Shephard v. Dr. Gregory House

(WARNING: This contains major spoilers regarding ABC’s Lost (2004-2010) and Fox’s House 2004-2012. Please be advised).

And no, not entering any Grey’s characters into what is by my fiat a two-man competition, so don’t even bother complaining Grey’s fans. The question is: which is the more emotionally-damaged-physically-attractive-yet-fundamentally-sympathetic-addict-show-stealing-brilliant-doctor is the more desirable?

Let’s go with five parameters in that relative order: (1) extent of emotional damage; (2) pure physical attractiveness; (3) relevance to his show; (4) effectiveness of character’s concept; and obviously most importantly (5) actor’s portrayal of the conflict inherent in the character. I’m not going to nerd out to the extent where I assign points a la Iron Chef in each category, but in my unscientific estimate, each category has different maximum conceptual points, which will affect the overall outcome.

So our combatants here are two of my favorite characters in the last decade of network television; they are in no way my two favorite characters in ALL of the past decade’s television. These two I find compelling — for me, since I’ll be a doctor some day far away, and as I’ve had huge crushes on both characters during the runs of their respective shows — and, more importantly in general, as two instances of archetypes with similar resumés that have come to define much of 21st century television — that of the troubled, anger-prone, substance-dependent male mid-career professional who dominates most scenes of his character-driven ensemble dramedy. Obviously in this view, Jack takes the upper hand merely by virtue of being part of a plot with a much greater scope and cast of characters; I’m going to take that fact into account when we get to 3). I think that Don Draper, Walter White and Tyrion Lannister (though, to be fair, Tyrion’s adapted from George R.R. Martin’s novels, but between Martin’s plotting and the inimitably talented Peter Dinklage’s portrayal belong in that company) would not have achieved the levels of callous cynicism that viewers have come to love without these two troubled docs serving as the precursor (sorry, bad Breaking Bad joke) fueling this most recent iteration of the Cheeverian “troubled yet somehow still hanging on professional male.”

SO: Extent of emotional damage

This clearly has to go to House. As fucked up as Jack can be, House is a walking train wreck, popping Vicodin like the rest of us throw down popcorn at the latest Daniel Day-Lewis three-hour epic (think refills; and refills; and then… refills). Jack is suspended from St. Sebastien’s in Los Angeles after being found under the influence during a procedure; in a ham-handedly Oedipal attempt at irony, Jack signs an affidavit affirming that his alcoholic Chief Surgeon father is responsible for the death of a patient after severing her hepatic artery while operating under the influence. The Oedipal thing extends to House as well, when the always predictable one-trick pony that is R. Lee Ermey appears as House’s previously unknown father in a season five story mini-arc.

But no matter if Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) has to flush Jack’s meds down the toilet, or how Jack is portrayed as a mountain-man-bearded washed-up addict trying desperately to reconnect with his sometimes beau Kate in major story arcs in seasons four and five, nothing can possibly even remotely challenge the wake of destruction House’s inability to address — or even acknowledge — his own emotions and Vicodin addiction leave in his path. Aside from his multiple arrests, confinement in a mental institution, imprisonment, pathologically schadenfreudic abuse of his purported best friend, Dr. James Wilson, his questionable complicity in Wilson’s girlfriend’s death, his unconcealed contempt for the law or any institution that would include him within some social set of rules governing the behavior of… well… most human beings, it’s his contempt for himself that’s the most compelling. House loathes himself so deeply that his only recourse is to push anyone remotely interested in his well-being as far away as possible, while treating his patients as mere Rubik’s Cubes to be diagnosed, treated, and (in most cases) cured, while rejecting any value of their potential humanity (which, for him breaks down to VsubH = (the amount of shit I give about this patient) / (time spent) = 0).

Pure physical attractiveness:

Also easy; it goes to Fox in a landslide, as he’s younger by a decade and you get to see his shirtless inked torso quite a few times during the run of Lost. Now, Hugh Laurie is a damn good-looking man, by any stretch of the imagination, but if I had to pick a doc to pound on my chest (or anything else, for that matter =P), Jack wins hands-down.

Relevance to his show

This is a tough one. When it comes to Lost, Jack is the glue that holds the island together for the entirety of the show, ultimately saving the island in a final scene that still summons emotions and seems to knit the fabric of an extremely complex and often confusing show into an ending that didn’t accomplish a full accounting of the various plot twists and turns, yet brought the characters together for one last time, “at the end of all things.” And Lost was never really about the plot; much like The Wire or Mad Men, it turns far more on the deep bonds the viewer develops with the characters involved, the extent to which the viewer relates the characters’ fates to her or his own and genuinely cares what happens to them. It doesn’t hurt that Michael Giacchino’s soaring and often devastating score give Jack the advantage here, and, while House IS House, can’t match the bond that fans of each show make with their respective male protagonists.

Effectiveness of character’s concept

Another tough one, and I have to give it to the creators of House here; despite the superficial similarities of each doctor, I can’t watch an episode of House without trying to do the impossible and get inside House’s head. Such a tragically flawed anti-hero; Jack has his moments of just regular humanity within the parameters of his relationships with his father, Kate, Juliet, his wonderfully-portrayed (and a hat-tip to Terry O’Quinn, who portrayed Locke perfectly) antagonistic and love-hate relationships with Locke and Ben. Jack forms relationships, makes friends, finds love; he assumes the leader’s mantle because that’s who he is. House, on the other hand, is a leader by reluctant necessity; what few relationships he has hang on by threads more fragile than those keeping you in touch with your baby teeth at eleven. Even in moments of intimacy, he’s awkward, reserved, seemingly hell-bent on destroying what little moment of happiness he won’t admit he just might have found. Jack wants to get off the island because he believes without question (at first, at least) that finding relationships and experiences of equal or better value is not only possible, but inevitable. House doesn’t care. In his most intimate moments, he wants to, yet remains drawn to what is familiar and safe — his medical brilliance, his Vicodin, his pleasure in his pain. House is the pre-Draper — an enigma even to himself, but drawing ever more into his own staggeringly chaotic path to self-destruction.

Actor portrayal

This is actually easy, because it’s a tossup. As a fan of Blackadder yet who missed Party of Five by just a few years, I had more familiarity with Hugh Laurie’s television work than Fox’s, yet can’t imagine how either actor could have portrayed their respective characters more faithfully to their scripts. Superb acting from both men.

Verdict: Dr. Jack Shephard is the troubled doctor of the mid-to-late 00s.

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~ by Benji on 9 April 2013.

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