WHAT is it about the men and women in white coats that we love so much?
Not the ones that come to take you away, ha, ha, but the other kind: the doctors.
Most of us wouldn’t be caught dead inside a hospital – unless we really are caught dead, in which case the decision has already been taken out of our cold, lifeless hands. Yet the medical drama has long been one of the most popular and resilient television genres of the lot, even if contemporary examples such as Casualty, Holby City and Gray’s Anatomy are currently looking as exhausted as a junior doctor at the end of an 18-hour shift in A&E.
Westerns, the biggest thing on the small screen in the 1950s, 60s and the first half of the 70s, are, bar occasional revivals like Lonesome Dove, Deadwood and Hell on Wheels, buried in Boot Hill. The medical drama, however, remains as widespread as the common cold and twice as difficult to get rid of.
If there were as many real doctors patrolling our hospital corridors as there are fictional TV ones, there would be no further need for private healthcare. Never again would a patient have to sleep on a trolley or a mattress on the floor.
There’s another one starting tonight: Sky 1’s Critical, from the brilliant mind of Jed Mercurio (Line of Duty). Mercurio, a qualified doctor, has form with medical dramas. While working in an NHS hospital in the 90s, he wrote (under the clever pseudonym John MacUre) Cardiac Arrest, starring Helen Baxendale as a cynical junior doctor.
If Cardiac Arrest was controversial because of its dim view of the British health service, Mercurio’s later medical offering, Bodies, caused an even bigger fuss by portraying some of its characters as negligent, incompetent bunglers who botched operations. It was also realistically gory.
While Sky 1 didn’t release any previews of Critical, we’re promised that the series, which unfolds, 24-style, in real time, will be even more unflinching in depicting the guts and bolts of surgery.
The dramatic, ultra-slick trailer for
Critical calls to mind the daddy of the genre, ER, which turned George Clooney into a worldwide star after years spent toiling in unsuccessful series – including, ironically, a hospital sitcom called E/R – and rock-bottom movies like Return of the Killer Tomatoes (which was still a whole lot more fun than Batman & Robin).
ER was the first, and is so far the only, medical drama I watched avidly every week. Created by another doctor-turned-writer, the late Michael Crichton, it was lauded as much for its accurate depiction of medical procedures as for the quality of its writing and performances. And yet, for all the justified critical acclaim heaped on ER, it still had faint echoes of the idealised US medical dramas of old, like Dr Kildare, starring Richard Chamberlain, or Marcus Welby, MD, featuring faded movie star Robert Young as the kindly, silver-haired family medic.
Clooney’s Dr Doug Ross and Anthony Edwards’ Dr Mark Greene were, if not always angels themselves, then certainly on the side of the angels. ER also sidestepped the brutal realities of America’s healthcare system. You never saw a patient being turfed out of County General into the street because they didn’t have insurance.
Critical is unlikely to sidestep anything. But will its concentration on what goes on in the theatre rather than in the doctors’ lives be enough to revive an ailing genre? We’ll have a prognosis after tonight.