As television has grown more complex, dramas have given us unflattering portraits of various professions: Corrupt cops, unscrupulous lawyers, devious businessmen, unhinged firefighters, crazy movie stars, empty-headed anchormen, even daft paper salesmen in Scranton, Pa.
Yet at a time when you don’t need to be a frothing Michael Moore acolyte quoting “Sicko” to see the U.S. healthcare system as a misbegotten mess — where proof of insurance trumps medical concerns, and the words “open enrollment” are greeted with collective groans — primetime continues to paint rosy pictures of the medical establishment. Indeed, TV doctors rarely so much as mention a bill, much less deny coverage, omit preventive measures, dump patients or avoid treating them.
Across the TV spectrum, the opposite is almost always the case. On “House,” the doctors attempt one elaborate procedure after another on a patient — all within a single episode — until they discern and eradicate the problem.
Occasionally, wouldn’t you like to see House’s boss ask if the dude’s plan covered experimentally unscrewing his head to see what flies out?
Nor does it end there. The staff at “Grey’s Anatomy” sometimes make mistakes (such as falsely telling a woman that she had a terminal disease), but there’s nary a mention of costs or trying to steer a patient toward a less-expensive regimen. TNT’s short-lived “Heartland” doled out transplants like blood tests. Ditto for “Grey’s” spinoff “Private Practice,” where the love-lorn members of a “wellness group” don’t question what their fertility, holistic and psychiatric sessions cover. Hell, the pediatrician rushed out last week to prevent an emotionally wounded kid from jumping off a roof. Take that, Aetna!
This is happening when dramas have matured considerably, daring to be richer, deeper, darker. When it comes to medicine, though, a “Daddy (or mommy), make it better” fantasy still prevails. Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House might be cantankerous and misanthropic, but behind the snarl he’s every bit as committed to curing people — no matter what it takes — as Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby were in days of yore.
Ironically, a fleeting note of sobriety comes in this week’s return of the NBC comedy “Scrubs,” kicking off its, like, 27th season. The first episode features an innately likable patient with an unknown illness, prompting the doctors — who fear that financial pragmatism will force them to send him home — to conspire until they can ascertain what’s wrong with him.
Admittedly, not every image is quite so cheery. Producer David E. Kelley has explored medicine’s shortcomings in his various dramas, as has “ER,” which even dealt with Dr. Greene’s assault by what he thought was a disgruntled patient — a plot that should probably be employed more often given the general level of disgruntlement that actually exists.
Perhaps the most damning take on hospitals came from the U.K., with the BBC America series “Bodies.” But that show was over the top in the opposite direction, as medical incompetence elevated the patient mortality rate close to those for characters in the “Saw” movies.
Stateside, the dominant depiction of hospitals envisions a place where the staff goes to extraordinary lengths to make people well and money is never an object.
Compare that to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted this year, in which nine out of 10 respondents said the U.S. healthcare system at the least requires “fundamental” changes, and at worst a complete overhaul.
How to explain, then, of the popularity of medical fare, with the aforementioned “Grey’s,” “House” and now “Private Practice” delivering major audiences? Sociological inferences based on Nielsen data are invariably suspect, but it’s not a huge reach to surmise that people attracted to the romance and life-or-death decision-making also savor the ideal of dedicated professionals who don’t inundate patients with reams of PPO or HMO insurance forms as the blood gradually drains out of them.
Whatever the reason, however much TV drama has matured in the last 15 years, a warts-and-all portrayal of medicine a la “The Shield” isn’t at present part of the mix. Then again, that might be the secret behind these programs’ success, offering escape from a world where doctors qualifying as McDreamy are simply those that call back before an ailment becomes an obituary.