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Documenting the medical show

Molly Griffin | Wednesday, December 7, 2005

“Grey’s Anatomy” is part of a long tradition of medical television dramas and comedies. The human drama of life in hospitals is appealing to both networks and viewers alike. The shows vary in how realistically they portray medical life – as well as in their focus on humor or drama – but their huge popularity reveals how the intense and emotional lives of doctors are great fodder for television.

Some shows, while set in hospitals, focus very little on actual medicine. One long-running example is the soap opera “General Hospital,” which is technically about doctors, but in which their external dramas are much more central.

Medicine often seems like a deeply serious specialty, but some shows manage to show the humorous side of this solemn profession. A classic example is “M*A*S*H,” which managed not only to find humor in medicine but also in war.

The series focused on a group of nurses and surgeons who were part of the Medical Army Surgical Hospital and in the midst of the Korean Conflict. They used humor and pranks to cope with the difficulties and tragedies that surrounded them. “M*A*S*H,” which ran from 1972 to 1983, actually lasted longer than the Korean Conflict – which lasted from 1950 to 1953 – that inspired it.

A more recent show that combines humor and medicine is “Scrubs,” which focuses on a group of interns at the Sacred Heart Hospital. Zack Braff plays Dr. “J.D.” Dorian, and the show follows his introduction to life as a doctor through a humorous and sometimes slapstick manner. Most medical series usually fall to dark humor, if they show any at all, because of the seriousness of the subject they deal with. “Scrubs” uniquely approaches medicine with a sense of levity, and this separates it from the pack of shows about doctors.

“M*A*S*H” and “Scrubs” are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to medical shows. Most programs about medicine focus on the natural drama that hospitals contain, and many of them also focus on the relationships that various hospital staff members have with one another.

“St. Elsewhere” was set in a decaying urban hospital, and it was one of the first medical shows to reveal the grittier side of medicine and the imperfect natures of many doctors. It contained its share of controversial moments – it was the first networks show to feature an AIDS patient, it showed a doctor’s naked backside long before “NYPD Blue” made it “de rigueur” and five main characters died unexpectedly during the show’s 1983-1988 run. The show established the realistic style, interlocking stories and conscious effort to break traditions that would become the staple of most medical dramas.

The David E. Kelly drama “Chicago Hope” ran from 1994 to 2000 on CBS. The show focused on surgeon Dr. Jeffery Geiger and his surgical colleagues, and it presented their personal and professional problems. The show suffered from cast and producer reshuffling, as well as competition from another medical drama – “ER.” The pilot episode of “Chicago Hope” debuted the day before “ER,” and for a brief time the two shows were in a competing time slot before “Chicago Hope” was moved.

NBC’s “ER” is the most famous medical show in recent memory. It was created by Michael Crichton, best known for novels like “Jurassic Park,” and produced by John Wells, who also worked on “The West Wing.” Each episode follows a day in a Chicago-area emergency room, and reveals the life-and-death decisions they must make in the hospital and in their own lives. The show, which started in 1994 and is still on over a decade later (eons in television time) is known for its rotating cast. It made actors like George Clooney, Noah Wyle and Anthony Edwards famous, and has included William H. Macy, Mare Winningham and “M*A*S*H” alumnus Alan Alda. The current cast of doctors includes Mekhi Phifer (“8 Mile”), Parminder K. Nagra (“Bend It Like Beckham”) and Shane West (“A Walk to Remember”).

Two recent medical shows, “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” seek to balance the tragic and comic elements in medicine, rather than focusing almost exclusively on humor or on reality.

Fox’s “House” follows the adventures of Dr. House, played by Hugh Laurie, who has almost no bedside manner to speak of and suffers from his own constant pain. While his antisocial tendencies make him difficult to deal with, his extensive ability to diagnose diseases makes him respected. The cases he solves are often bizarre and sometimes comical, but the show presents the notoriously tricky diagnostic side of medicine as an integral part of saving lives.

“Grey’s Anatomy” combines the humor and pathos of medicine in a Seattle hospital. The show combines personal drama, professional competitiveness and unusual medical cases while trying to balance the humor and tragedy.

The world of hospitals is natural fodder for television. Medicine deals with the balance between life and death, and hospital cases can run the gamut from tragic to humorous. Doctors, at least on TV, usually have intense personalities and must balance life with their consuming careers. Medical shows have been a part of television since its beginnings, and new shows will continue to find ways to express this difficult and respected profession with unique twists.