Fraught with emotion, humor and the periodic grisly glimpse of what a body looks like pried open, “Hopkins” marks another six-week cinema verite stay at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in the capable hands of producer Terence Wrong, who previously gave us ABC’s “Hopkins 24/7.” Uncompromising, raw and assembled as a narrative with a surgeon’s touch, it’s a more-than-appropriate occupant of the hour where “ER” makes its rounds, and represents an increasingly rare use of news-division resources in a manner that soberly blends filmmaking skill with dramatic flair.
Subsequent hours have a hard time equaling the premiere, which features Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinjosa, who came to America illegally, briefly toiled in California’s migrant fields and is now one of the country’s foremost brain surgeons. (Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Lou Dobbs.)
At one point, Quinones-Hinjosa has a patient’s artery squirt blood into his eye, fostering concern about the possible dangers that entails. Meanwhile, we meet urologist Karen Boyle as she performs a prostate exam, seeking to soothe a slightly flustered patient by telling him, “I have smaller fingers.”
Both patients and medical personnel open themselves to the cameras. One doctor struggles throughout with marital issues, while the second hour includes a race to locate healthy lungs to transplant into a desperately ill woman. The third hour explores the emergency room, where the urban strife showcased in HBO’s “The Wire” (one ER doc calls Baltimore “a war zone”) is brought into disheartening real-life view.
Other than music, Wrong and his team let the camera and occasional confessionals from participants do all the talking. Having shot more than 1,500 hours of footage, the crew mostly eradicates the conspicuous influence of the filmmakers’ presence, capturing harrowing moments graced by genuine humanity.
The medicine, though, isn’t the real minor miracle achieved here. Rather, it’s an hour of primetime news free of tabloid impulses or sleight of hand — no small accomplishment in the wake of ABC News’ staged ethics test “What Would You Do?” and the transformation of “20/20” and “Dateline” into news-lite terrain.
Obviously, it doesn’t hurt that the high-stakes setting plays like a scripted medical drama, minus the preciousness of “Grey’s Anatomy.” At its best, “Hopkins” recalls the 1970s series “The Body Human” — highlighting the marvels regularly performed at a big-city hospital without flinching at the patients’ tears and fears, or the sort of searing pain that elicits guttural screams.
The term “reality” is cavalierly tossed about on television, but “Hopkins” puts most of those staged, manipulated exercises to shame. It’s been eight years since “24/7,” but as with the patience required to break down self-consciousness into a sobering vision of reality, some things are worth the wait.