We Keep Watching The Same Medical Drama

The Medical Drama you’re watching today is the same one your parents watched.  They same one.  This isn’t to say that some aren’t interesting, or that they don’t have decent character development. If you’re a fan, I get it. But you’re watching the same show, and often enough, the same episode.

Grey's Anatomy @manningthewall.com

The Cast of St. Elsewhere – I mean Grey’s Anatomy

Throughout February and March this past year, Lois and I binge watched Grey’s Anatomy in our home office (what we pretentiously call “The Library.”) Understand that we spend more time there than in any other room in the house, so distracting ourselves from the drudgery has become key to our productivity.

If you’ve never watched Grey’s Anatomy, imagine The Gilmore Girls with marketable skills. If this were a post about the show and nothing else, I could stop right here, put in the affiliate links and pat myself on the back for inserting some original content into my blog today.

But it’s not about Grey’s Anatomy. Or is it? Because every medical drama is the same. It’s the thesis of this post. But what makes them the same, and how did they get this way?

I’ll answer the second part of that question first: Young Doctors In Love.

A send-up of the daytime Soaps of the period, the 1982 film chronicles the trials of a cohort of residents/interns as they navigate their way through their first year as doctors. A number of Soap stars, including Susan Lucci make credited and un-credit cameos throughout.

This film also would mark the beginning of the bromance between director Gary Marshall and writer/actor Hector Elizondo. Never taking itself too seriously the story follows brilliant young doctors Michael Mckean (the Lenny side of Lenny and Squigy) & Sean Young (so cute, so crazy) as they deal with the burden of being the smartest people in the room. And yes, that’s a very young Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame playing a hapless hit man.

The Medical Dramas of The Past

During the 60s and 70s, medical dramas general focused on patient care, usually couched in a life threatening or even a life-ending episode. A sampling of shows airing at this time include Dr. Marcus Welby, Ben Casey, Emergency, Medical Center, and my sister’s favorite, Dr. Kildare, starring the coolest gay guy ever:

Some of these dramas were good, some mediocre, others downright awful (see: Temperatures Rising). But they all followed a basic formula of problem solving, sometimes creative, sometimes conventional.

The release of Young Doctors In Love represented a complete shift. There will always be some of little Jimmy asking for a homerun from his hospital bed, but the recipe, and the attitude experienced a polar shift, so that now everyone is making the same show. Sometimes it’s done well (St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope), sometimes its iconic (ER), othertimes it’s downright face-palming (Nightingales). It really doesn’t matter.

Since 1982, every television writer and producer involved in the creative process of a medical drama meet a number of benchmarks. Snappy, sardonic dialogue is a must. There has to be a venerable patron or matron. You can’t do without the young hotshot, or the young resident systemically misdiagnosing patients with his friends covering for him. Spouses/partners, and significant others will thoughtlessly but inevitably add to the pressure because the show’s main characters are never home, always out on call, or saving a 3-year olds life in lieu of attending some niece’s Bat-Mitzvah.  The seemingly invulnerable chief of staff will have his or her crisis of confidence, (presuming the show runs long enough), the hot shot will make a fatal mistake, and the goofy guy for whom everyone’s been covering will hit on the solution that everyone else missed.

The Winning Formula:

There will be inappropriate relationships. Age differences going both ways, mentors and proteges, people who should be together unable to quite work it out as well as awkward pairings. Friends will sleep together and miraculously stay friends. Men and women will compete against each other in the dating game along the whole hetero-LGBT spectrum. Friends will betray each other, stay angry for a few episodes, and then forgive. Rivals will be forced to work together and begrudgingly concede the proficiency of their teamwork. Babies will be born under apocalyptic conditions to remind us that there is still hope.  A major character develops a life threatening illness. A character’s parent who makes his/her lives’ miserable or is just terminally embarrassing must be enjoyed by everyone else. And most importantly, a major character must die every now and then, provided it’s  someone everybody loved.

This is the show you’re watching. And it’s been around for 35 years.  But it works, so enjoy.


About Phil Christensen

The trail behind me is littered with failure. The trail before me remains to be seen.
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2 Responses to We Keep Watching The Same Medical Drama

  1. Weirdly, it has actually effected the way people think of doctors.
    Everyone these days seems to think we are careless sociopaths who got into it for the money, when the truth is closer to being an exhausted, glorified mom. We’ve gone from being healers to short order cooks who are just in the room to prescribe what you tell us you want.
    We have 400 doctor suicides a year, not to mention the thousands of docs who retire early or change careers, partly because the expectations are still so high but the rewards have been stripped away. Hollywood has not helped, because the drama settles into peoples heads as truth.
    Not sure there is a solution, since an actual doc’s life is pretty boring – not good TV – and we tend to look tired, not sexy.

    • Bettina Fuller says:

      “We’ve gone from being healers to short order cooks who are just in the room to prescribe what you tell us you want.”

      Well THAT is a direct result of “pain is the 5th vital sign” crapola nurses were force fed in the 1990s. We were no longer allowed to use objective criteria to assess pain. New nurses do not even know that they are supposed to validate subjective complaints. About half of the commercials on TV are for prescription drugs with the admonition to “talk to your doctor about XYZ.” Of course the patient views the physician as someone who is supposed to serve up what the patient wants!

      BTW, I have a new internal medicine doctor. I noticed the sign on my first visit “This office does not prescribe narcotic medications.”

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