In all medical dramas, characters have sex in supply closets
Patrick Freyne: Medical soaps do what prestige telly does, just backwards and in scrubs
Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd in the good old days
Back in the 1990s there was an explosion of hospital dramas. Something in our collective consciousness realised that what the culture needed was photogenic professionals exchanging smouldering looks while elbow-deep in someone else’s guts.
But this isn’t just a metaphor for third-way politics. Such bloody romantic evisceration is now so endemic to medical dramas that we’ve forgotten that the person who first came up with it was clearly a sociopath: “Yes, the love story is fascinating, but wouldn’t it be cool if we also pointed a camera directly into some literal wounds?”
Grey’s Anatomy and Casualty and Holby City aren’t just beloved by serial killers (“Aw, I can see his literal heart!”), they are also loved by fans of romance (“Aw, I can see a literal heart!”) and fans of medicine (“Aw, I can see his literal heart!”). I have over the past 20 years met people who became medical professionals due to these programmes, which is a little like joining a commune because you like the Smurfs. Though, in fairness, medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Casualty have been running for so long that I think if you’ve watched them since the start, you’re legally allowed to perform operations in some hospitals.
In all medical dramas, characters have sex in supply closets. For some people who are institutionalised by their own workplace bureaucracies, the cognitive dissonance of this mars the romance plots
All medical dramas are different, but they share certain qualities. In all medical dramas, characters have sex in supply closets. For some people who are institutionalised by their own workplace bureaucracies, the cognitive dissonance of this mars the romance plots. “But… but where do they put their supplies? The staff sexatorium? This is a terrible hospital!”
In all medical dramas there are also mavericks who play by their own rules and do operations while smoking and wearing leather jackets, and there are also uptight stick-in-the-muds with clipboards and bow ties who insist on putting bones and organs back in the “right” parts of the body and not getting creative with it and shouting “Surprise!” when the patient wakes up. These two archetypes are at the core of all medical dramas… and life.
Then there are the specifics. Casualty (Saturday, BBC One) has a tried-and-tested gimmick where it starts most episodes with some characters you’ve not seen before and lets you play a guessing game about what awful thing is going to happen to them. This week a distraught woman in a car drives headfirst into the back of a parked truck. “Life is pain!” the Casualty viewers say in unison, then bless themselves. A working title for Casualty back when it started, in 1986, was All the Terrible Things That Could Possibly Happen to a Person. Thirty-five years later and they haven’t even got to global pandemics yet.
Like other soap operas’, Casualty’s plots revolve around family secrets and illicit affairs and people being accused of crimes they may or may not have committed. Every episode features a harried nurse complaining about understaffing while conspicuously carrying a file from place to place. Whatever about the people who like the operations and the sexy shenanigans, it’s the fans keeping tabs on the paperwork who are the real perverts.
In this episode the woman from the opening vignette has a sad backstory about a missing daughter and an estranged husband and an overprotected younger daughter. But don’t change the channel – you also get to see the bone sticking through her broken leg being straightened by medics, and, if you’re here for the filing, we get a look at her X-rays and patient number.
All of this is just sturdy scaffolding for storytelling. Casualty might be long-running, soapy and formulaic, but it’s also deftly scripted, pacily directed and well acted. It’s a reminder (for me) of how soapy medical melodramas often do exactly what prestige telly does, just backwards and in hospital scrubs.
I know you just want to see footage of operations, but on Holby City you get that too. You see guts and intestines and everything. So I hope you’re happy, you big weirdo
In this episode, one character, Jade (the excellent Gabriella Leon), very disturbingly has her drink spiked at a club, and Dr Ethan, who has Huntington’s disease, has to tell his partner, Fenisha, that there’s a chance their newborn baby might have it too. Both of these plots are handled upsettingly well. In fact, it’s the second time a medical drama has made me cry in a fortnight (see also: Call the Midwife).
Holby City, another long-running hospital drama, is also on BBC One, and this series, I believe, started life as a Tory document about reforming the NHS (represented for the purposes of this metaphor by its sister show Casualty). The closing credits even roll over bleepy music and a twirling crystal skeleton, like at the end of a particularly good PowerPoint presentation.
This week we see Hanssen operate on his abuser while a nurse helps perform experimental surgery on the son she gave up for adoption and a drug-addicted doctor invites a patient to come live with him. Join with me for the responsorial psalm: “This is a terrible hospital! No one can keep their private lives to themselves, and they’re always performing unethical surgery, sometimes while on drugs!”
It’s darkly entertaining all the same. I know you just want to see footage of operations, but you get that too. You see guts and intestines and everything. So I hope you’re happy, you big weirdo.
On Grey’s Anatomy you can see their hunky faces as they do gruesome procedures, utter medical jargon and strain their ears to an emotive pop soundtrack. That’s the holy trinity of eroticism for some folks
Across the ocean on Grey’s Anatomy (Wednesday, RTÉ2), Covid-19 has become airborne in the sense that a whole Covid-themed season is now on the airwaves, unlike Holby City and Casualty, which are avoiding the virus like, well, the plague. They prefer more escapist surgery. On Grey’s Anatomy everyone is in face masks, but sometimes these are the fancy ones with transparent screens. So you can see their hunky faces as they do gruesome procedures, utter medical jargon and strain their ears to an emotive pop soundtrack. That’s the holy trinity of eroticism for some folks.
Loads of the characters or their families have Covid-19, and that is arguably, to quote David St Hubbins, “too much f*cking perspective”. Luckily, it still has all the classic Grey’s Anatomy shtick. There are, for example, two whole conversations between an emotionally verbose person and an unconscious person. An unconscious person is, of course, the ideal conversational partner for most emotionally verbose people. They usually don’t notice the unconsciousness.
They’ve also given the eponymous Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) Covid-19 and, underscoring the seriousness of the situation, have brought back her long dead love interest, the hunky Patrick Dempsey, famously nicknamed Cuddles P SexDoctor, for some hallucinatory sequences. And here’s the thing: amid the familiar tropes, the episode has ruminations on birth, death and the grim political intersection between public health and race. So Grey’s Anatomy still has it (and I don’t just mean Covid).