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'.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference