In my youth, everyone wanted a doctor like Dr. Kildare or Marcus Welby, M.D. A bit later, mom coveted the care doled out at “Medical Center,” though much of that had to do with Chad Everett’s dreamy bedside manner.
Today, the doctors populating our primetime dramas are generally more dysfunctional than any of their patients. They’re heroic and resourceful in treating disease and injuries, sure, but hapless when it comes to personal graces (see “House”) or matters of the heart (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice”).
So the fantasy has shifted: We like our fake medical personnel flawed, and our real ones seemingly flawless. And the extent to which that dovetails with insecurity about an unfeeling health care system – the one President Obama and Congress have spent the last year debating — may explain why an M.D. like Mehmet Oz, or “Dr. Oz” to his millions of daytime viewers, has supplanted the traditional TV doctor as a source of comfort.
Oz himself grew up with that TV image of the idyllic family doctor, and he’s keenly aware of the present yearning for it.
“We can lament the fact that Marcus Welby has passed away, or we can look for other ways to replace that level of connection,” Oz said in an interview, citing a need to “close the gap between what your doctor seeks to do and what Marcus Welby would have done.”
Consider it a small referendum on both medicine and media that people are finding a facsimile of that connection on television. “Dr. Oz” is averaging about 3.6 million viewers daily, putting the program third (behind Oprah Winfrey’s show and that of her other “Dr.” discovery, Phil McGraw) among daytime talk fare. During the week of Feb. 8, the Sony Pictures Television-distributed series achieved its highest rating since premiering in September.
Oz has been outspoken about the need for Americans to assume a more active role in their well-being by adopting healthier lifestyles, as well as the threat the medical establishment faces due to its crushing cost structure if significant reform isn’t implemented. Yet even those rather innocuous-sounding observations risk raising hackles and develop enemies for Oz given the polarizing nature of the politics surrounding health care.
“The problem that I see for any poor soul who wades into these waters on this topic is that you’re quickly defined by those with ideological motivations,” Oz said.
Still, he sees inaction as inviting disaster, and worries the situation could become “much worse than now in terms of the uninsured” if nothing is done. And while his success doubtless owes something to the system’s dysfunction, he adds, “Folks should not be getting their primary health care from a guy on television.”
Daytime TV is hardly a pristine environment, but it feels relatively chaste compared with the half-truths and scare tactics disseminated by the political class. Against that backdrop, Oz flirted with controversy simply by suggesting that a “social covenant” exists in regard to providing people with health care options, and that it’s not “good social policy for us not to want that for our fellow man.”
Utter an idealistic sentiment like that on Fox News Channel, and you’d quickly be branded a socialist.
At the very least, TV has become a source of medical information for many, supplanting the “I wish my doctor was like that” quality that informed medical dramas all the way through “ER,” which has had no clear dramatic successor in addressing health-care anxieties.
Then again, the first question doctors real or imagined ask on TV remains “Where does it hurt?” in stark contrast with actual health-maintenance organizations, where the opening exchange is invariably, “How are you going to pay for this?” even as your blood redecorates the tile. (It’s such a relatable gag that this week’s “The Office” has the pregnant Pam enduring hours of contractions so she can milk an additional night of hospitalization from her “stupid HMO.”)
Small wonder many TV viewers have opted to drift from our ugly black-and-white world into full-color fantasy, where doctors place patients’ welfare above all else and insurance companies largely go unmentioned. And because we can’t escape into the reassuring arms of Dr. Welby anymore, we’re off to see you know who.
Read previous columns at Variety.com/Lowry