Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Analyzing Storytelling Strategies in Serial Television Drama: Hybrid Structure and Functional Polyvalence in House M.D.

Sebastian Armbrust

University of Hamburg


Over the last decade, a number of serial US television drama productions have garnered critical acclaim and academic attention for their aesthetics, their complex and innovative narrative structure and thematic aspirations. Under the label of Quality Television, serial drama has become increasingly accepted as a valuable narrative category. While narrative theory has in the past been adapted from literature to film and to audiovisual storytelling in general, specific applications to serial television drama have been scarce (e.g. Kozloff). While many phenomena of narrative discourse can be and have been applied across the media, one hallmark of serial  television is how its stories[1] are structured as a result of the very specific conditions and constraints of this text type, industrially manufactured and catered to be embedded into the television flow. The resulting combination of long-term and short-term parallel storylines, and how they are dispersed within and over the episodes, sets serial drama apart from other forms of narration.[2] While media scholars have set out to describe the different structural aspects of serial television drama's stories (cf. Mittell; Newman), there is to date no detailed theoretical account or model of their structures. A borrowing of narratological concepts may help to develop such a model, and has been explicitly invited by television scholar Jason Mittell to account for the narrative complexities of recent productions (39).

Hoping to contribute to such an account, I will in this paper discuss the medical drama House M.D. under the aspects of hybridization - a structural development in serial storytelling that has been discussed in television studies - and its procedural structure, a feature of cop and detective shows that focus on professional problem-solving procedures. I propose to analyze the resulting narrative structure under the notion of polyvalence (which I adapt from narratologist Emma Kafalenos), arguing that the events shown in a television episode may have more than one function as a result of the interweaving of multiple storylines.

The term hybridization has been associated with storytelling in serial television drama ever since the rise of so-called Quality Television in the 1980s.[3] Prior to this turning point, serial productions were categorized as either series or serial. A series initiates and closes one story per episode (e.g. a murder case in a police drama, or a medical case in a medical drama), with no long-time changes of state concerning the recurring characters. Serials, on the other hand, feature story arcs spanning multiple episodes, often connected by cliffhangers that leave dramatic situations unresolved between episodes (Kozloff 90-1). This is either achieved by intertwining multiple storylines into a complicated web of interdependencies and thematic resonance, as in the soap opera, or via the slow progression from episode to episode of a long, novelistic story arc, often to be found in multi-part adaptations of literature, historical and/or biographical material. With the seminal productions Hill Street Blues (NBC: 1981-1987; a police drama) and St Elsewhere (NBC: 1982-1988; a medical/hospital drama), television policemen and doctors increasingly found themselves not only solving one or more weekly cases at the same time, but were also confronted with ongoing personal problems and character development progressing slowly in the background (c.f. Feuer; Nelson; Dunleavy). This introduction of long-term melodramatic story arcs and dynamic social relationships into the series has produced a hybrid series/serial form, and is also described as serialization (ibid.).

The term hybrid is applicable to House on several levels. As a mixture of procedural, a sub-species of the series which follows a schematic professional procedure in solving one case per episode, and character-driven serial drama, focusing on the personal fate of the doctors, it is a typical case of serialization. Furthermore, the procedural structure it follows in the solving of the weekly medical case suspiciously resembles the formula of the forensic investigation dramas of the CSI franchise, which makes House a generic hybrid of medical and criminal/detective drama. If applied somewhat more loosely, as the mixing or interweaving of isolable elements or structures in general, the term hybrid can also draw attention to the production's highly dynamic composition on a micro-structural level, where genuinely unrelated problems are often discussed side-by-side in a single conversation, and ultimately inform each other. Thus defined, hybrid structure is a ubiquitous characteristic of House, and prominent storytelling strategy in contemporary American television drama; creating a fast-paced and fairly complex flow of action and/or dialogue often taken to be particularly entertaining and 'witty'.

Below, I want to explore this relationship further and suggest that in doing so, we can benefit from story-oriented narratological perspectives, pursuing notions introduced by Vladimir Propp and Tzevan Todorov, which Emma Kafalenos ("Not (Yet) Knowing", Narrative Causalities) has developed further into a ten-step model of story progression, and integrated into a perspective that accounts for an event's "functional polyvalence" (a term originally coined by Doležel). To demonstrate how such a perspective can advance our understanding of serial storytelling, I will start out (1) with a brief summary of the narratological points of departure; show how they can help to describe (2) the procedural mystery-solving plot that serves as the dominant structuring device of each episode; (3) how House works with multiple parallel story lines, some of them spanning multiple episodes; and (4) how the weekly medical mystery case and other story lines interact on a functional level.

Narratological points of departure

Todorov defines five necessary stages of a story: (1) equilibrium, (2) disruption of the equilibrium, (3) recognition of the disruption, (4) attempt(s) to repair the disruption, and (5) reinstatement of the equilibrium ("2 Principles"). Since one trait of contemporary television drama is the telling of multiple stories within one episode, referred to as main and side plots or A-, B-, C-plots (etc.) by screenwriters (Douglas 71), a television episode's structure is somewhat more complex. Nevertheless, each of the different story lines, which are picked up and suspended in relatively short turns that Douglas describes as "dramatic beats" (Douglas 70, see also Newman), can be described as such a movement from equilibrium to equilibrium.

To account for the specific nature of storytelling in serial television, I view it as crucial to acknowledge that these parallel plots interact with each other and that one stage in one plot may at the same time serve another function in the next. To capture this "functional polyvalence", I turn to Emma Kafalenos' 10-stage model derived from Propp and Todorov; in which she argues that the function assigned to an event is "subject to interpretations that may shift according to the context in which it is perceived" (Narrative Causalities 6). Kafalenos primarily refers to shifts in interpretation resulting from the retrospective revelation of knowledge that was initially withheld by the discourse and leads to a reassessment of events already known to the reader. However, her notion of polyvalence can readily be extended to events that differ in function depending on how they relate to each individual character's problems, plans and goals, and/or different parallel story lines. Kafalenos' model is reproduced below and shall serve as a technical vocabulary to quickly identify and categorize the functions of events in the following analysis.

                      A (or a) destabilizing event (or reevaluation that reveals instability)

                      B request that someone alleviate A (or a)

                      C decision by C-actant to attempt to alleviate A (or a)

                      (The C-actant is the character who performs function C.)

                      C' C-actant's initial act to alleviate A (or a)

                      D C-actant is tested

                      E C-actant repsonds to test

                      F C-actant acquires empowerment

                      G C-actant arrives at the place, or time, for H

                      H C-actant's primary action to alleviate A (or a)

                      I (or Ineg) success (or failure) of H

The key functions A (or a), C, H and I are described as obligatory for a complete sequence from equilibrium to equilibrium, the indented functions as optional (Narrative Causalities 7).

Generic hybridity and procedural structure

Dr. Gregory House, the show's eponymous protagonist, is not your typical television doctor, and House M.D. not a typical hospital drama. Gregory House is in many ways an antithesis to the classical television doctor of the 1960s (and on film, since the 1940s), who was a wise and benevolent paternal authority, a competent problem solver not only in the medical realm, but an adviser on life in general (Turow, Jacobs). A sociopath from the outset, Gregory House avoids dealing with his patients directly, preferring to view them (via test results and imaging procedures) as catalogs of symptoms that present themselves to a very detached, scientific type of diagnostic scrutiny (cf. Rich et al). Whenever he is forced to interact with other characters directly, he is cynical, insulting, and manipulative, always superimposing not only his own professional views over other opinions, hospital guidelines, and medical ethics, but also privileging his personal whimsical needs and fixations over the well-being of his patients, assistants and colleagues. Constantly evading his everyday working commitments in the clinic, his employment in the hospital is only justified because time and again, the most bizarre and mysterious medical cases do get him involved. Those cases that draw his interest keep him engaged until he has deciphered the cause of the ailment, saving his patients from a seemingly inevitable death. At the same time, House himself is the most dramatic 'case' of the medical drama: Due to a leg injury, he suffers chronic pain, walks on a cane, and is addicted to the pain­killer vicodin.

Each episode of House is structured into four acts, preceded by the teaser. This structure, shared by many hour-long television dramas, is a product of television's requirement for commercial breaks, which divide an episode into five parts (even more on some channels; Douglas 74-5). The commercial breaks are anticipated and crafted into the episode's structure by the screenwriters, who typically end an act with a dramatically open situation that serves as a cliffhanger, to keep the audience engaged across the commercial break. Each act consists of a number of beats that pick up multiple parallel plots in alternation, creating a sense of complexity and continuous flow, as the narration seldom lingers on the same problem for more than one or two minutes. While the classical series tended to resolve all plots towards the end of an episode, thanks to this structure the series/serials seldom reaches a holistic sense of equilibrium, as when one plot attains closure, others may at the same time remain suspended in a dramatically unresolved situation.

In House, the medical mystery case of the week strikingly dominates the four-act structure in a fashion that is more akin to a crime procedural than to the typical hospital drama. In contrast to House, medical dramas since the 1970s prioritized the personal struggles of the medical staff members with the demanding personal, social, ethical and institutional contexts of their profession. Storylines concerned with these problems often spanned multiple episodes or entire seasons and gave the medical drama melodramatic, soap opera-like characteristics (cf. Jacobs 29-37). In contrast, House foregrounds one medical case per week, which is not foremost a challenge to the doctor's humanity or surgical skill, as in the classical medical drama. Like the murder mystery in a crime show, it is rather an epistemological problem that needs to be solved before the case can be resolved in the successful treatment of the patient. Accordingly, the patient's underlying condition is never what it seemed from the outset and continues to evade the diagnostic heuristics the doctors apply to the symptoms until an explanation of what really disrupted the patient's equilibrium presents itself only late in the episode. This plot structure not only abstractly resembles a detective's chasing of clues and repeated revision of hypotheses. The lack of a reliable diagnosis often forces House's assistants (or rather: House forces his assistants) to do the literal detective work of breaking into homes, looking for toxic substances or other sources of infection.[4] This style of investigation, combined with the recourse to lab results, and audiovisual illustration of the scientific explanations with computer-generated journeys into the body's organs on a cellular level, makes House more akin to the forensic crime procedural CSI (CBS: 2000-) than to any hospital drama.

This similarity is also visible in the schematic narrative composition of each episode, which I (somewhat crudely) summarize below, contrasting CSI and House.

0. Teaser, in which a victim is murdered / a patient develops symptoms that typically lead to a collapse. Generally, the show's recurring characters are not present at this initiating event, and the opening credits succeed the teaser, that is hence also referred to as a "cold start".

1. Act one, in which (after the opening credits) the detectives arrive at the crime scene / the patient arrives at the hospital and the experts begin their investigation into the identity of the murderer / the nature of the illness underlying the symptoms. This act typically ends in the negation of all the hypotheses initially entertained: the first suspect is innocent / the medical case is more mysterious and life-threatening than assumed, which often manifests itself in graphic bodily displays of new symptoms.

2. Act two, in which the search for an explanation of the current situation begins anew; and ends again in the negation of the hypotheses.

3. Act three, which repeats the same steps to the effect that at the end of the third act, imminent death looms over the patient and the doctors seem further away from a solution than ever before.

4. Act four, in which the crime is finally reconstructed / the correct diagnosis is discovered, the murderer is arrested / the patient is treated and healed (or, in rare cases, diagnosed as terminal and informed that no treatment is possible).

It should be noted that this is an abstraction of the show's structure, an underlying principle emerging over the course of 155 episodes to date, from which individual episodes may very well deviate. What is striking and revealing about this dramatic schema is how reliably House returns from its various side plots and serialized story arcs to the case of the week at the end of each act, in almost every episode. This is somewhat surprising, since the 'side' plots - most notably House's own pain and drug problems when they surface from time to time, but also the personal affairs of the other doctors - seem often more dramatic and spectacular than the mystery case of the week. This is due to the medical jargon in which the cases are discussed, which is unlikely to be fully comprehensible for most viewers, but also due to the formulaic structure, which makes the course and outcome of the medical procedures highly predictable. The developments in the personal lives of the doctors, on the other hand, are often less predictable, and appear to be more eventful to viewers who have gotten to know the characters over the course of the show.[5] Nevertheless, in most episodes, each act is eventually dominated by the repeated failure of the doctors to diagnose the medical mystery, until the solution presents itself in act four. Thus, although it may be less eventful than other developments, this structure dominates each episode, and may provide the viewer with a kind of routine or ritual as a backdrop for other, more original aspects of an individual episode.

The development of the main plot can be described in terms of Kafalenos' functions as follows: The breakdown of the patient is a destabilizing event (A), the hospitalization can be read as a request that someone alleviate A (B), consequently House and his team become the C-actants, who repeatedly undertake attempts to alleviate (H) that fail several times (Ineg), but eventually succeed (I). Several issues seem worth discussing in more detail:

(1) Functions D and E (C-actant is tested and responds to test) can be applied, but have to be taken in a somewhat abstract sense. In a literal sense, it is the patient and not the protagonist of the story who is tested (i.e. subject to scientific testing methods, but also medical experimentation).

(2) This activity is not only directed forward - towards the reinstatement of a biochemical equilibrium (functions H and I) - but also backwards, since only the correct reconstruction of A, the disruption (illness / murder) can lead to a solution (healing / arrest). In a more abstract sense, the obscure symptoms behind which the ailments of the patients hide can be read as a test to the diagnostic skills of the doctors. Consequently, their solving the riddle empowers them (F) to attempt to alleviate (H). Of Kafaleno's ten functions, only G is superfluous: being hospital staff, the C-actants are already present at the place for H.

(3) Over the course of an episode, it is often cast into doubt whether an A, or what kind of A, existed in the first place: In a crime story, the detective may consider the possibilities of suicide or accident (not As that would require his professional posing as a C-actant). Correspondingly, in House there is often a debate whether there actually is a persistent medical problem, after mysterious symptoms mysteriously disappear again, or after the first treatment seems to have alleviated the symptoms (which could be compared to ceasing the criminal investigations after the first suspect is arrested). That is, the very existence of A (the disruption) is under constant scrutiny, including a number of competing hypothetical As that would each require a different H (action to alleviate A). This analysis is similar to those in Kafalenos' work, who shows that different functions may be applied to an event based on rivaling hypotheses that may be entertained by the reader. I find it worthwhile to add that in House (or the detective story), these hypotheses are also entertained and debated by the characters.[6]

(4) As stated above, the correct diagnosis is best described as F (C-actant acquires empowerment), described by Kafalenos as optional, but serving as the pivotal event of each episode in House. In contrast, H and I (action to alleviate A and outcome of that action) are described as obligatory. In House, they are already implied by that empowerment and often occur off-screen, in an ellipsis, to be referred to by the doctors in a later conversation, or to be inferred by the viewer from the patient's release from the hospital. This is not to say that they can be absent from the story, but they seem less pivotal due to their marginalization in the discourse than it is implied by Kafalenos' model.

As a conclusion, Kafalenos' functions are productive for the analysis of the main plot of a House episode, but some aspects of her model can be modified or specified to account for its typical features. Most importantly, some of her optional functions seemed pivotal in House, while some of her obligatory functions, albeit not absent from the narrative, were backgrounded to an extent suggestive of marginal relevance. Furthermore, functions D to G suggest a proactive hero rather than an observant doctor/detective, but they are still applicable on an abstract level, or if taken as an epistemological event. Hence, I suggest to take Kafalenos' list not as a relatively fixed model of obligatory and possible functions, but as a catalogue of functions that may vary in relevance for different types of narrative. It seems likely that specific variations of this list are possible and that they correlate with, or even constitute, generic conventions.

Side plots and serialized story arcs

Despite the structural prominence of the mystery-solving procedure (a form of closed narration), House is also a good example of serialization (open narration). The title character's own history stands out as a theme that is repeatedly picked up as an episode's B-plot, e.g. in "Detox" (Episode 1-11), where Lisa Cuddy, the hospital's dean of medicine and House's superior, wagers a month of clinic duty that House cannot get by for a week without his painkiller vicodin. Consequently, House endures a week of painful detox that makes him even more abrasive than usual - and demonstrates how much he loathes dealing with the "boring", usual patients he generally encounters in the clinic. This story, running in parallel to the week's medical problem, has its own equilibrium, which - from House's personal perspective - seems to be his ability to function as a doctor, despite his injury and pain. This agreeable state of affairs is regularly disrupted by clinic patients - who he does not like to deal with - and his boss and colleagues, who in their constant attempts to help House, presuppose that his situation is a lacking, disrupted state. As in "Detox", House often responds by proving to them (and himself) that he is functional even in his addiction to vicodin (which he admits as a dependency, but not as a problem). In this episode, he is successful in resisting the drug for one week, demonstrating his ability to cope with his condition and relieving him of one month's clinic duty - both reinstatements of his personal sense of equilibrium.

While this wager is initiated and resolved within the same episode, the drug addiction is a theme that resurfaces and is re-evaluated in many more episodes, becoming a problem time and again. In season 3, over the course of multiple episodes, House is under investigation by a policeman for prescription drug abuse; in season 5 his experiments with various drugs almost cost him his life, and his overdosing of vicodin makes him delusional. Ultimately, these events lead to a realization that his personal state of affairs is unstable, and he submits himself to the care of a psychiatric institution. This long-time development can be viewed as beginning in a state that takes a long time to be recognized as disequilibrium (Kafalenos' function a), and leads to multiple unsuccessful attempts to alleviate (experiments with drugs and other forms of self-treatment), before the correct evaluation of the initial state enables House to alleviate his situation by submitting himself to the care of another professional (Kafalenos' function B, in which the problem is delegated to another C-actant).

At other times, side plots are a source of more light-hearted stories, comic relief, or spectacular displays of House's nonconformism. This is particularly true in plots revolving around House's clinic duty: many episodes find him hiding from his boss Lisa Cuddy in the rooms of coma patients, where he prefers an episode of his favorite hospital soap on TV over actual work. In other episodes, he constantly ridicules his clinic patients and/or detects and reveals all of their often spectacularly embarrassing life issues with a single Sherlock Holmesian glance. The list of themes for side plots could be continued with the problems House's abrasiveness and world-view cause his colleagues and assistants, or with the personal relationships that develop in the background as in any other medical drama.

A more detailed functional analysis of such side-plots cannot be undertaken here, but it can be assumed that each individual plot can be analyzed as a movement from equilibrium to equilibrium. Furthermore, every episode features one or more side plots, which by an everyday, causal logic, seem fairly unrelated to the medical mystery case. As a result, the development of one plot may serve as a distraction from the other, and so create the impression of a dynamic, multidimensional and fast-paced narration.

Functional polyvalence and interaction

Nevertheless, these parallel plots are crafted to relate to each other, resonate thematically, or in dramatic juxtaposition. The interaction between the different plots results in a structure in which one event can be functionally polyvalent, which I define as serving different functions (sometimes opposed) in different parallel story lines. In House, we can find such functional interactions on different levels and between different types of stories intersecting within particular episodes.

Perhaps the most frequent type of interaction, found in many episodes, is that between a clinic case, which serves as the episode's B- or C-plot, and the A-plot, the medical mystery case. At first, the clinic case may appear as a welcome distraction from the dramatic main case, as in the episode "Skin Deep" (2-13), which I will summarize in some detail to discuss various instances of functional interaction.

In act one of the episode, a fifteen year-old supermodel is hospitalized after she collapsed on the catwalk (A-plot, A-function). First tests indicate that she took heroin, which may mask the symptoms of any other conditions she may be suffering from. Thus, she is put into an induced  coma as the prerequisite for an unusual, but fast detoxification method. At the end of act one, her heart suddenly flatlines - a very typical end-of-act complication and cliffhanger in House (at the beginning of act two, it is revealed that the patient is stable again). Parallel to the progression of the A-plot, increasing pain in House's leg is introduced as a B-plot. Some scenes, or beats, are dedicated to this storyline, while others, in alteration, focus on the medical case. However, both storylines may intersect in certain scenes and even interact, so that an event of one storyline may influence or even constitute an event of the other storyline. For example, House almost trips and collapses due to his pain while discussing the model's condition with his assistants, and is increasingly irritated, rushing decisions instead of thoroughly weighing all the evidence. In these moments, he is clearly not in his normal, 'functional' state as the problem-solver of the A-plot. In the contrary, the events of the B-plot cause him to be an additional kind of disequilibrium, or threat of complication, in the story of alleviating his patient's problem.

With the beginning of act two, it is revealed that the patient is stable again, and House goes to see a male clinic patient (C-plot) who turns out to have couvades syndrome: An excess of estrogen makes him experience a sympathetic pregnancy with his wife. It doesn't take more than a glance from House to diagnose this condition - and make fun of it, since it is not problematic from a medical standpoint, but highly embarrassing for the patient. In functional terms, House's diagnosis negates the patient's disequilibrium, or rather: he refuses to serve as the C-actant to this rather noncritical problem and tells the patient to just shut up and deal with it: "Millions of women have got the same thing, they're not bugging me." As such, the C-plot is simply a case of comic relief that returns in acts 3 and act 4, where the father-to-be, more alienated by his own body than by House, again seeks his help.

Meanwhile, the A-plot has not advanced further towards a solution (although the patient has advanced closer to death): In acts 2 and 3, House and his colleagues have alternatingly entertained cancer and post-traumatic stress syndrome as a diagnosis, both of which fit the symptoms, but neither of which they can find evidence for. In the B-plot, House has investigated into his pain problem and been treated with a shot of morphine administered by his boss, Lisa Cuddy - which has alleviated his personal disequilibrium and improved his ability to concentrate on the A-plot (which could be analyzed as a gradual empowerment of the C-actant: Kafalenos' function F; one overcome obstacle).

House's final encounter with the B-plot occurs early in act four, when he is called to the delivery room, where the clinic patient's wife is in labor, and angry at her husband who is so troubled by his own sympathetic labor pains that he cannot even get up and hold her hand. "Oh shut up", House yells at the lamenting woman, "you've got yourself the perfect man: a woman. He's got more estrogen coursing through his veins." - and then House pauses, with a thoughtful expression. In a manner very typical for the show, he has just had an epiphany: away from the A-plot, busy with seemingly unrelated affairs, he has solved the medical mystery case by lateral thinking. As it turns out, the teenage supermodel herself himself has androgen insensitivity syndrome, a case of male pseudohermaphroditism: Although s/he is genetically masculine, his/her condition has inhibited the development of male genitalia and privileged the production of female hormones, resulting in (perfectly) feminine bodily characteristics. The new hypothesis, that the mystery and clinic patient share a related condition involving excess estrogen, is ultimately confirmed when House finds (via imaging techniques) the cancer in the model's left testicle, which is hidden somewhere inside his/her body. In functional terms, a seemingly unrelated chain of events, initially not even accepted as a disequilibrium worth dealing with, is eventually the element that serves as function F in that it empowers the C-actant - or in Propp's terms, serves as the magical agent the hero has to acquire (function XIV) before returning home (XX; here a metaphorical journey 'home' to the A-plot) and resolving his task (XXVI) (Propp 25-65).

These epiphanies are quite typical in House. Since the medical cases put before House every week are cases that would evade every other doctor, and even have to evade House's genius for the first three acts (for the sake of continuing the story), it seems almost consequential that they can only be solved by a type of lateral thinking that relies on information which lies outside of the riddle itself, be it in clinic patient's cases, or other in other types of side plots (see Beebe for a more thorough discussion). On the other hand, the outrageously obscure cases House has to deal with every week and his radical skepticism, often presenting itself as cynicism, mutually endorse each other: While House's attitude is a disruption to the equilibrium of others and often seems to be the symptom of underlying personal issues, it is also the 'magical agent' he needs to succeed as a C-actant, a trait privileged by the procedural mystery-solving structure.

To add a further dimension of polyvalence, House also frequently introduces new problems to the lives of his patients, while or by solving their medical ones. In the case summarized above, the patient is released into a state of crisis about his/her sexual identity.[7] In other instances, cases of rare hereditary diseases may reveal biological relationships that threaten families. In these episodes, the doctors do not only solve a medical mystery of the week, but also one about a patient's identity or social relations. Again, the two kinds of stories are connected, because a patient's personal secrets may cause him to lie about medically relevant issues. Such white lies often inhibit the correct diagnosis and thus serve as another obstacle that needs to be overcome by the doctors, a hallmark reflected in Gregory House's mantra and tagline of the show: "everybody lies."

Theoretical discussion

Contemporary serial television drama highly relies on a "flexi-narrative" (Nelson 30-49) structure in which different parallel storylines are advanced alternatingly. As the functional analysis of events in House has shown, these parallel plots seldom remain unrelated. To the contrary, they frequently intersect, so that the same event may fulfill different pivotal functions in different storylines. Specifically, functional interaction could be detected between the main plot that is initiated and terminated within one episode, and side plots, which may range in length from single scenes to long story arcs spanning multiple episodes. This may lead to complex situations in which two (or even more) problems are negotiated side-by-side or against each other. Ultimately, they may influence each other and provide to each other pivotal functions, as in the epiphanies that let House solve his cases with pieces of information drawn from seemingly unrelated storylines. While Kafalenos' notion of functional polyvalence, and her ten-step model of story structure, have been instrumental in the analysis, it appears that it can be refined and extended with regard to serial storytelling in television drama. I want to conclude by pointing out several issues that seem worthy of further discussion:

(1) It has to be noted that the word 'equilibrium' somewhat contradicts the concept of serial dramas such as House. Most shows rely on an ensemble of characters with different plans and goals. Thus, the status quo from which an episode develops is often an ambiguous one, only more or less stable depending on different characters' perspectives. Many shows create a complex and conflict-ridden web of social relations between their characters, serving as an inexhaustible wellspring of disruptions that may never be solved. This is not strictly against Todorov, who with this word refers only abstractly to the stability of a situation. This stability need not be pleasant, and the state of the reestablished equilibrium may be quite different from the initial state. Nevertheless, serial narration seems to deconstruct even the notion of such a stable state of affairs, as the solving of one problem may often happen at the cost of another stability.

(2) Kafalenos' functions are situated at a useful layer of abstraction - not as fine-grained and specific as Propp's original morphemes of the Russian folktale, and not as minimal as a five-step progression from equilibrium to equilibrium. Where the parallel stories in House diverge from her ten-step model, they seem to do so in a matter of degree related to the importance, or eventfulness, of that specific function within the narrative schema of the show. This suggests two things: (a) that Kafalenos' model may benefit from abandoning the classification of certain functions as obligatory or optional, and replace it with (or add to it) more flexible, gradual criteria; (b) that the distribution of relevance or eventfulness between the different functions may be genre-specific. It may thus be worthwhile to develop genre-specific variations of such a functional model.

(3) The notion of polyvalence implies another question. In this case study and in Kafalenos' model, the multiple values of an event all lie on the same theoretical level: The level of a story's development from equilibrium to equilibrium, of which there may co-exist a number of variations at a given time. These levels may be congruent with the perspectives of different characters participating in a story, reproducing their individual evaluations of events related to their personal desires, plans and goals. At the same time, an event may have functions related to other theoretical levels: It may have dramatic functions (e.g. producing a dramatic tension, suspense, or comic relief), ideological functions (legitimating one evaluation of the story over another), structural functions (related to its position in the act structure or programming flow of the larger television text), and more. Since the stories of serial television are crafted to cater to all of these functional levels (and all stories cater to similar arrangements of functional layers), much may be revealed by taking the notion of polyvalence even further, by analyzing the functions an event may have on different theoretical levels, and how these different classes of functions relate to each other.


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[1] I follow Chatman's distinction between story as the events and existents in their logical order (the "what" of a story); and discourse as the "how" it is represented by the text (19).

[2] cf. Robin Nelson, who describes television's structuring as "flexi-narrative" (30-49); and John Ellis, who describes it as "segmentalization"  (145-59).

[3] Feuer, Kerr, and Vahimagi's MTM Quality Television is generally viewed as the seminal work introducing the term to the academic audience. Quality television gained new momentum in the late 1990s with the pay-TV channel HBO's own productions Oz and The Sopranos, and the marketing slogan "it's not TV".

[4] These parallels are not surprising in the light of the obvious references to Sherlock Ho(l)mes, whom Gregory House was deliberately modeled after by the producers (cf. Jackman; and many other commentaries on the show): Both are socially impaired geniuses who excel at solving the mysteries that have evaded others. Both have an addiction (House to vicodin / Holmes to cocaine and morphine), a best friend (Dr. Watson / Dr. Wilson), play an instrument (Piano / Violin), and have the same street number (Holmes lives in 221b Baker Street, House's number is 221 as seen in some episodes).

[5] Schmid defines eventfulness as a quality dependent on the relevance, unpredictability, persistence, irreversibility and non-iterativity of an event (26-9). Of course, my argument relies on taking the perspective of a long-time viewer who knows the show well. From such a perspective, the saving of a patient's life is predictable and iterative - but were I to align my perspective with the patient in or a one-time viewer of the show, it would likely stand out as highly relevant and persistent.

[6] This is a result of the telling of two stories at the same time, as Todorov observes in his "Typology of Detective Fiction" ("Typologie des Kriminalromans"): the story of a crime (or here: of an illness), and the story of its investigation.

[7] The disruption to the medical equilibrium (A1) thus leads (via intermediary steps) to attempts to alleviate (H1) that are at the same time a disruption to a psychological or social equilibrium (A2), which may turn out to be a secondary problem that is solved within the episode (I2), failed to be solved (I2-neg), or simply undetermined as the episode ends.