Medical drama - No politics, we're doctors

In the post-'ER' world of American TV medical dramas, a raft of new shows is shifting the focus from the doctors to the nurses. But, says Gerard Gilbert, while they offer gore, adultery and drug abuse aplenty, one subject remains stubbornly out-of-bounds

Given how miserable is the experience of being a hospital patient – let alone the business of being cut open, stitched back together again, irradiated and generally poisoned for our health's sake – we seem to have an inordinate appetite for watching it happen to other people. Hospital dramas and melodramas have been a staple of US television since Richard Chamberlain started checking pulses as Dr Kildare back in the Kennedy era, Grey's Anatomy being just the latest show to lather up this well-formulated medicated- soap mixture of accident, illness and romance.

For many aficionados of the genre, ABC's Seattle-based Grey's Anatomy has almost seamlessly supplanted arguably the greatest medical saga of them all, ER, the NBC series that gave us George Clooney and which ended this April after 15 award-laden years. The last few seasons may have become a bit fagged-out and on the sudsier side, but at its zenith Michael Crichton's saga of a Chicago emergency room was a miracle of intelligence and adrenaline. "The great thing that ER taught us about medical dramas is that they provide a great, high-pressure backdrop to play out the usual personal dramas", says Laura Fries of the Hollywood industry magazine Variety.

But while Grey's Anatomy may provide much of the same – albeit with less surgical excitement and greater emphasis on the personal relationships of the doctors – for many people there is still an ER-shaped hole in the weekly TV schedules. And it's a void that TV producers have rushed to fill, with a glut of new medical dramas this summer and autumn. In fact, never before have the networks sought so much medical help – and if you were looking for trends, you might say that there has been a shift of emphasis from the doctors to the nurses.

Edie Falco – Carmela from The Sopranos – takes the title role in Nurse Jackie, a blackly comic drama about an adulterous, pill-popping New York nurse which has already fallen foul of both Christian groups and nursing bodies. It's been a big hit however for its makers, Showtime, the subscription channel that also brings us those other morally screwed shows Dexter, Californication and Weeds. Indeed New York magazine reckoned Nurse Jackie was "the best series yet in the cable channel's ongoing meditation on the nature of addiction... and the setting for a truly breakthrough female character."

Nursing bodies presumably approve wholeheartedly of Christina Hawthorne, the eponymous protagonist of Hawthorne – a paragon of a head nurse: a beautiful widow who sticks up for her patients and staff, even championing the janitor when he complains that the hospital bean-counters have made him switch to a cheaper brand of disinfectant (you can perhaps already guess where Edie Falco's Nurse Jackie would tell him to stick his disinfectant).

Hawthorne is played by Jada Pinkett Smith – Mrs Will Smith – and her saintly health-care worker stuck in the throat of the New York Times, who reckoned: "Hawthorne is mostly it seems intent on promoting the self-regard of its star, who also happens to be an executive producer on the show."

The heroine of NBC's Mercy is also a nurse, although American viewers will have to wait until mid-season to catch Taylor Schilling as a nurse returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. NBC also have Trauma, starring Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher) and Cliff Curtis as San Franciso paramedics, while the British actor Jeremy Northam (Sir Thomas More in The Tudors) has the starring role in CBS's similar-sounding Miami Trauma.

But it's CBS's other new medical drama of the autumn, Three Rivers, that is the most eagerly anticipated. This one's about transplant doctors – and it is apparently earnest and contemplative, posing ethical questions as it considers the viewpoints of donors and those receiving their organs. CBS has given it the prime-time Sunday-night slot.

You wonder how realistic the transplant scenes in Three Rivers are going to be. ER broke the mould of TV medical dramas when it came to the gory details of emergency health-care. "We wanted to show what it was really like to be a doctor in an emergency room, the explicit surgeries, successful and botched", recalls Dr Fred Einesman, ER's former medical adviser. "In the beginning we said 'that's too bloody to show', or 'we can't use technical medical jargon'. But not for long."

Adds Laura Fries from Variety: "In a way, shows like House up the stakes because with seemingly daily advancements in medicine and outrageous real-life medical stories – think of things like 'Octomom' [the Californian woman who gave birth to octuplets in January] – shows have to rely less on the technical health aspects and more on the extreme measures taken by the doctors."

But if the blood and guts, as well as technical realism, are reaching ever greater extremes, there is arguably one form of realism, the socio-political realism of the US health-care system, that is still not being addressed. As President Obama struggles to turn his health-care reforms into law, there is one ambitious new TV medical drama you won't find in the autumn schedules – so let me pitch it here.

It seems to me that there is a gap in the market for a medical version of The Wire or perhaps The West Wing. The former could focus on one city hospital and include those who don't have health-care insurance, the middle-class patients who don't have quite as much coverage as they think they do, as well as form-filling doctors and litigation-averse administrators. David Simon, I await your call.

The latter show would concentrate on the Washington end of the equation – the reformers, the conservatives, Big Pharma. Fries however argues that the changing face of US medical care is gradually being addressed.

"I've enjoyed USA Network's new show Royal Pains, because it looks more closely at the failings of the American health system. The lead character [played by Mark Feuerstein] is a doctor kicked out of a prestigious hospital because he helped an uninsured patient over a wealthy hospital-board member. His new practice works outside of the usual medical norms – almost going back to the days of home visits and personal care.

"In fact, I would wager that we'll see more medical shows that will work outside the traditional ER-format, sort of reinventing the rules as the rules for health care (especially in the US) seem to keep changing."

Reviewing the latest crop of medical dramas, Fries's colleague Brian Lowry sounds a more caustic note about the way TV medical dramas soft-sell the realities of the US health-care system. "Thankfully, patients [on TV] seldom have to worry about filling out tedious medical forms, being grilled about insurance coverage or suffering from a prior condition", he says. "Getting their doctors to see them on a moment's notice is never an issue. And their insurance companies are presumably more than willing to pay for any and all medical care.

"Come to think of it, perhaps the Obama administration should enlist TV writers and the medical consultants that they employ to take the lead in revamping the health-care industry. After all, who could possibly object to a system that functions as smoothly, humanely and efficiently as all that?"

BLOOD SIMPLE: FIVE NEW MEDICAL DRAMAS

Three Rivers
Every ethical angle about organ transplants is explored, as Alex O'Loughlin ('Moonlighting') leads the dedicated team of transplant doctors at Three Rivers hospital in Pittsburgh. Each story is told from the point of view of the organ donors, the recipients and the medics who look after them.

Hawthorne
Jada Pinkett Smith – aka Mrs Will Smith – stars in this new drama about a saintly head nurse who cares too much (yes, it's possible). Christina Hawthorne is beautiful, widowed and dedicated... did you already guess that Pinkett Smith is also the show's executive producer?

Royal Pains
Mark Feuerstein plays a fast-rising ER doctor who loses his job after he favours an uninsured patient over a hospital-board member, winding up in the Hamptons as a "concierge doctor" to the rich and famous. Breezy escapism for those who thought that 'Burn Notice' put some fun back into the spy genre.

Trauma
The lives and loves of a team of San Francisco paramedics, marking 'Antwone Fisher' star Derek Luke's return to the small screen. Cliff Curtis ('Live Free or Die Hard') co-stars as a genius surgeon who likes to travel by helicopter.

Nurse Jackie
Edie Falco from 'The Sopranos' plays a ballsy New York healthcare worker who pops pills for a bad back and isn't beyond giving the hospital pharmacist a quick one in return for a fresh supply of tablets. Pitch-black humour is the edge here, as you'd expect from the cable channel behind 'Dexter' and 'Weeds'.

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album