Television doctors, from Kildare to Quincy, have always been devices designed to allow their creators to explore morality and mortality. At their most complicated, these characters are conflicted about the power of their godlike knowledge of the human body's inner workings. But they're never really that interesting. The real stories belong to the patients—guest actors with guest afflictions designed to reveal that deep down, no matter how narcissistic, arrogant, prickly, or otherwise difficult the doctors may seem, their hearts are as pure as Doogie Howser's private diary and all they really want to do is help people.

No such purity is to be found in the black heart of Gregory House, lead character of House, M.D., one of the most consistently hilarious and compelling doctor shows of all time. The show's premise can be summed up thus: "Doctor with no bedside manner." Though true enough, this brief description doesn't really express the degree to which House revels in being a complete, joyless, intentional bastard. He's antisentimental, antisocial, and most of all antihuman, only deigning to see actual patients (he prefers charts) when he's forced to by the administrator of the teaching hospital where he's landed a cushy job as the leader of a team of novice doctors who specialize in diagnosing mystery infectious diseases.

Now that's what I call good TV. But even better DVD-TV, because every episode is basically exactly the same: There's a cold opening (stolen right from the Six Feet Under playbook) in which someone almost dies. This individual is rushed to the hospital, where one of House's colleagues tricks the curmudgeonly doctor into being intrigued enough to take the case. His team misdiagnoses the condition, the patient almost dies, then they re-misdiagnose it, the patient almost dies again, then House figures out what's really going on—usually thanks to some piece of personal information the patient lied about—and saves a life with only seconds to spare. The disease is almost always preposterously arcane (e.g. African sleeping sickness), and the stakes are always life and death. It's completely ridiculous, and completely wonderful.

British comedian Hugh Laurie, heretofore best known as Bertie Wooster to Stephen Fry's Jeeves (and other such British drolleries), gets everything right in playing the wounded sawbones. The weathered good looks, the cane-assisted limp, the gravelly voice, the wide-open eyes—Laurie's House is tormented by pain, and driven by scientific curiosity. Unlike most TV doctors (though like many real ones), his interest doesn't lie in helping people feel better. House is interested in solving the puzzles that afflicted bodies represent. The patients, often as not, are obstacles, and he treats them with insults, one-liners, skepticism, and disdain. But he treats them. He's a bitter, cynical, caustic, abusive drug addict—popping Vicodin like breath mints—whose guiding medical principle isn't "first, do no harm"; it's "everybody lies."

But that's because House is a genius, and a great character, not just a healer with a heart of gold.