“New Amsterdam,” like the mammoth hospital it’s set in, has a whole lot of enthusiasm and too many areas in which to direct it. Based on Dr. Eric Manheimer’s book on New York City’s Bellevue Hospital (“Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital”), NBC’s new medical drama paints a simultaneously promising, bleak, and (unintentionally) absurd picture of how a public hospital built on good intentions went awry. As Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold) tells a roomful of skeptical employees on his first day as their latest medical director, the hospital needs to find its way back to patient care after taking advantage of its celebrity status for too long.
This isn’t necessarily a bad way into a TV show. The problem is that no matter how many side characters and plots the series adds into the mix — and it adds a lot — the doctor who’s supposed to be its main catalyst for change is so irritating that he ends up overshadowing the more promising elements.
Eggold’s Max is such a hilarious version of TV’s long beloved “doctor who doesn’t play by the rules” archetype that it’s difficult to ever take him all that seriously. He’s framed as a Man of the People after he reveals he can speak Spanish to the janitorial staff. He aims for benevolence with a tilted head and pleasant catchphrase (“how can I help?”), even as he slashes and burns the hospital’s workforce after assuming he knows everything about every department after spending approximately 30 seconds looking at them. When the more experienced New Amsterdam employees — usually women and/or people of color — around him point out that he perhaps made a hasty decision in firing the entire cardiac surgery department on sight, he takes their suggestions and reframes them as his own.
Maybe realizing that Max might not be quite as sympathetic as the show needs him to be, the pilot episode of “New Amsterdam” gives him two significant life hurdles — a pregnant, estranged wife and a secret illness — in a blatant effort to humanize him. But again: just like the hospital, the show’s best attributes work in spite of Max’s efforts, not because of them.
The supporting cast of “New Amsterdam” does its level best to rise above the material from wildly different sectors of the hospital. Over in the emergency room, Janet Montgomery’s Lauren Bloom is whipsmart and matter of fact about the harder parts of her job. She’s a bright spot, or at least she is whenever the show’s not forcing romantic chemistry between her and Jocko Sims’ cardiac surgeon Floyd who, again, would be better off without their unconvincing flirtation. Iggy (Tyler Labine) works with sick and displaced children; physician Vijay (the ever reliable Anupam Kher) floats in between them all.
Elsewhere, however, Freema Agyeman is almost completely wasted as Helen Sharpe, a talented doctor who got too caught up in New Amsterdam’s PR game to practice medicine. She knows New Amsterdam like the back of her hand, but Max doesn’t understand or care why she needs to occasionally go on TV to raise awareness and money in order for it to keep running. So even though Helen starts off as a promising (and necessary) counterbalance to Max’s schemes, she quickly becomes all about his vision once the script decides he needs her on his side.
“New Amsterdam,” like its supposed hero, ostensibly has good intentions. It wants to do a medical show with an inclusive cast that can, thanks to the hospital’s public standing and sprawling services, tell stories about a wider swath of people. But in the meantime, it’s weighed down by an albatross of a main character who, despite his best and oft expressed wishes, isn’t helping much at all.
Drama, 60 minutes. Premieres Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Cast: Ryan Eggold, Freema Agyeman, Janet Montgomery, Jocko Sims, Anupam Kher and Tyler Labine.
Crew: Executive producers: David Schulner, Kate Dennis, Peter Horton, Dr. Eric Manheimer.