I am a closet watcher of medical dramas. The reason for this is largely personal, and relates to my own experiences as a hospital patient several years ago. I got into a habit of watching medical dramas for clues, for ways of trying to understand my experience as a patient better. Mind you, I realise that medical dramas probably bear very little to the realities they’re meant to represent. A nurse I once shared a house with used to laugh herself silly about what they did with medical equipment on these shows. I’m always taken aback by how quiet these TV hospitals are, especially in the Emergency department: my overriding memory of hospital is of the constant noise. American hospital dramas are, I’ve noticed, slightly more noisy than Australian ones and they have more people walking around in the background, but then they probably have bigger budgets. I also find it very hard to believe that doctors and nurses spend large amounts of time standing around in glitzy offices discussing individual patients: my impression was that hospital was ‘go, go, go.’ And where’s the boredom of being a patient, interspersed with sudden moments of terror? I guess that wouldn’t make good drama.
I’ve seen at least one episode of the following medical dramas: House, The Surgeon, ER, RPA, the lamentable All Saints, MDA, and Trauma: Life in the ER (the last one being my favourite). Which seems like a lot (and the American ones are definitely better). I’ve been wondering, is it just me, Imparja TV or do there seem to be an extraordinary number of medical dramas on television at the moment? The other day, I read a review of House on the SMH website which made a similar observation: ‘Medical dramas seem to be spreading like bird flu.’ I thought maybe this was just my own perverse interest in things medical, but it seems it may be shared.
So why should hospital dramas be of that much interest? Is it the ageing population and the fact that most of us will probably die there or support sick or dying relatives in hospital? Is it because of the intriguing things that medical science can do these days? Is it because of the medical indemnity crisis and the more general ‘who’s to blame’ interest in matters of public liability? Is it because the hospital setting crystallises some of the issues for us as individuals living an age when our lives are often structured by large, public institutions and private corporate entities? And the difficult, pressured workplace dynamics that fill many of our lives?
A couple of weeks back on ER, Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame played a woman who’d suffered a stroke and had lost the power of speech. This was used as a vehicle to explore the patient’s perspective and sense of powerlessness. Nixon gave a voice-over monologue of the character’s thoughts, much in the sharp-tongued mode of her S&TC character Miranda. I found so many perky, acidic insights a little hard to take after a while -- the novelty wore off -- although she did capture something of the hypomanic mode of becoming a patient unexpectedly. (I talked and joked incessantly as a patient, so who am I to talk, tho my skewy rationale at the time was, ‘So long as I’m talking, I’m still alive.’) I must admit to a soft spot for the anal, uptight, swotty Anglo-Indian Dr on ER, whose conscientious ways remind me of self.
Then there’s House. I’m still trying to work this one out. I think this program possibly aspires to being the medical equivalent of Six Feet Under. So far I’ve seen two ingenious yet extremely unlikely plot-lines, in which patients were saved from death, kidney transplants and the wrong medication by the quick thinking of Dr House, who deduced odd yet somehow banal causes for their maladies (termites ingested by the family cat, too much cadmium in the dope plot’s soil). This show follows a detective-style format, in which cases are presented then solved after a series of clever twists and turns. Much of the show hangs off its namesake, who treads a very fine line between being irascibly appealing and totally unappealing. I’m not really sure whether the casting of Hugh Laurie as the caustic yet hyper-intuitive and analytical Dr House is bizarre or inspired. My memory of Laurie is of highly British Merry-Mr-Twiddle-type characters in comedies from Ben Elton & co. I can’t imagine the train of thought that would have led to him being cast as a bolshie, unshaven American doctor. Much of the interest of this show probably relates to the emphasis on ‘workplace dynamics’ (and some of the medical staff participate way beyond what seems to be the call of duty -- e.g. digging up the family cat to test for termites). And maybe we all long to be a crotchety Dr House in our workplace, the person who says what he likes and gets away with it, tho we probably wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of this.
According to the SMH review, House is very popular, much more so than The Surgeon, which bombed after being slotted against RPA. It’s no surprise that the show bombed: it presents meticulously researched half-hour episodes which focus on an individual case, so one might as well turn to RPA, which streams about three different real life cases across half-hour episodes. The Surgeon was inspired by Dr Alex and Dr Rex’s relationship in the Secret Life of Us, and also by the idea of presenting a ‘woman in a man’s world.’ The latter idea quite appeals to me, of course, but they might have made a fatal error in basing the program on a single plot-line. Dr Alex and Dr Rex’s drama was always offset against other dramas, even if those dramas were acted by lesser actors than themselves or Justine Clarke, who plays the young surgeon. Although the acting and storylines are less hammy than MDA’s, and the production quality is better, the Surgeon is too straight and lacks subtext (by contrast, House is perhaps a good mix of quirky major & straight minor characters).
Ok, that’s it for now, part one of my soliloquy on hospital dramas … I wanted to write something about the recent Campbelltown inquest, but another time. Also, there is a very good article by Atul Gawande (of Complications fame) on medical malpractice suits in the 14 November issue of the New Yorker.