“NY Med” provokes mixed feelings. Producer Terence Wrong’s verite documentary style remains extremely compelling, mining all kinds of stories — touching, harrowing, funny — out of the heroic work of real-life medical personnel at two New York-area hospitals. Yet this ABC News series, in its 2012 incarnation and now this one, also has developed a slightly pandering streak, featuring celebrity surgeon-turned-TV-host Dr. Mehmet Oz among its rotating regulars, and revisiting several “characters” from the past. These nods to commerce don’t undermine the project, but they ultimately make this eight-part summer replacement less commendable, for reasons that aren’t hard to diagnose.
As with Wrong’s earlier documentary efforts (which have ranged from New York to Boston and Baltimore, and from doctors to cops and back again), the cameras become such a part of the environment as to feel largely unobtrusive. They are also unflinching, from the gruesome images of people rushed to the emergency room with serious injuries to raw footage of surgeries that zero in on beating hearts and exposed chest cavities.
Compared with the lion’s share of the fluff that news divisions schedule in primetime (perhaps especially on ABC), this is strong and sobering stuff. Starkly presented, it allows the doctors and nurses to tell their own stories, while oscillating between two facilities — one in Manhattan, the other in Newark — creating a sort-of “Rich Med, Poor Med” dynamic.
At times, the show can be disarmingly funny, like the 28-year-old female urologist who has to talk to older men about the most intimate aspects of their lives, or the ER doc who has to deal with a drunken patient.
Still, “NY Med” also exhibits the creeping influence of reality TV, upping the ante on the staff’s personal stories, heightening the schmaltz factor regarding the subjects chosen, and tapping Oz, a polished TV personality who is featured in the premiere as well as two later episodes. (The daytime doctor’s recent scolding over his pitches for diet pills is a separate matter, but qualifies as unfortunate timing.)
If the allure of the franchise has always been a chance to see the reality behind these life-or-death jobs — the real “ER” or “NYPD Blue” if you would — these concessions can’t help but make the program feel designed to go down easier by further approximating those dramatic conventions.
Of course, any criticism of “NY Med” is entered into with reservation, primarily because the venture itself represents a throwback to the days when network news used primetime to focus on more than just stories of missing women, murderous husbands (or did he?) and obviously staged moral dilemmas. Yet while this latest version of the show remains above that sometimes-toxic mix, these hours prove that it is not, alas, immune to its influence.