Fox’s latest attempt at a fresh medical drama, “The Resident,” is a surprisingly cynical look at human nature and corporatized healthcare. That’s a refreshing, dark underside to what is otherwise a pretty run-of-the-mill story: Handsome young professionals, dramatic medical emergencies, and feverish hookups in empty exam rooms. Cary Agos — I mean, Matt Czuchry — plays lead Conrad Hawkins, a third-year rock-star resident who in the premiere episode is assigned first-year, fresh-faced newbie Devon Pravesh (Manish Dayal). Conrad is a great doctor, but he’s no fun to hang out with: He’s brash, peremptory, and borderline chauvinist, suffused with the god complex that make doctors so much fun to be around. Devon pretty much immediately has a bad time of it.
But in what seems to be a signature part of “The Resident’s” ethos, Devon isn’t exactly lovable, either: He’s sporting an expensive gold watch on his first day, complaining about Conrad, and shamelessly schmoozing by the bedside of a sick patient when he runs into a senior physician in the hospital. “Grey’s Anatomy,” the most successful currently airing medical drama, positioned its young interns as crippled by their own passion to save lives. In “The Resident,” the practice of medicine is secondary to the interpersonal and economic demands of the day.
As a result, “The Resident” is one of the most negative views of modern healthcare we’ve got — I mean, besides any trip to your local general hospital. In the first rather gruesome scene, chief surgeon Randolph Bell (Bruce Greenwood, deliciously smarmy) botches a routine appendectomy; the team goes from taking selfies by the operating table to being drenched with the dying patient’s blood. On the spot, Bell constructs a plausible explanation to cover up his mistake. He’s the boss, and the most decorated surgeon at the hospital; what he says, goes. Bell is the kind of preening ego that writes “anonymous” reviews of his own handiwork to boost his profile, and in the second episode “Independence Day,” he redirects a transplant heart slated for a long-suffering patient to an idiot politician who got shot in a hunting accident. He’s despicable, but his strategy isn’t without sense: The hospital needs to make money to survive, and the best way to do that is to avoid scandal and court the wealthy. It’s what every business would do — except of course when a hospital does it, it’s lives that get lost in the shuffle.
Only Conrad seems immune to the structure of power and money around him, and that is the show’s biggest flaw. Czuchry is an engaging actor, but his character’s personality never makes sense. The audience is just supposed to accept that he’s the good guy, without fully understanding what he did to earn that title. Sure, Conrad is generous and giving with his patients; sure, he wears a hoodie around the hospital instead of a white coat and drives a motorcycle, which is all meant to signify that he is a “rebel.” But he’s also pestering his ex-girlfriend Nic (Emily VanCamp) to get back together with him, long after she’s expressed disinterest, and hazing his intern Devon with jokes about either his education or his ethnicity. If it’s supposed to read charming, it doesn’t; he just seems awful. Fortunately, by the second episode, he’s less needlessly provocative, which suggests movement in the right direction. But the confusion around Conrad feels like some of the broader confusion of the show; it aims to be cynical, but it still needs an idealistic core for the audience to root for. It’s smart that “The Resident” seeks to disrupt TV’s pleasant fantasies of healthcare in America — and in the show we see one of the most frank discussions of how profit-seeking degrades patient care. But it needs a stronger, broader ensemble. When everyone is terrible, it’s hard to care.