The pseudo-profound voiceover. The camera walking down a busy hospital corridor. Absurdly complex relationships among doctors and nurses. The patients whose lives are at stake. Childrens Hospital obviously parodies hospital dramas such as Grey’s Anatomy and ER. Its broad and mostly fearless sensibility also fits perfectly in Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, which notoriously pushes boundaries of taste and piles on the outrageous non sequiturs.
The Season Two premiere finds the ensemble of self-absorbed, oversexed doctors facing the death of one of their own. Blake Downs (writer-producer Rob Corrdry), a Patch Adams wannabe in clown makeup who advocates the healing power of laughter over surgery, has failed to save the life of Lola Spratt (Erinn Hayes). She’s died of an imaginary brain tumor she’d invented as an excuse to break up with Glenn Richie (Ken Marino), leaving Downs on the verge of a “nervous Blake Downs, M.D. Coming this fall.” As Corddry looks at the camera to deliver this line, an ad for that spin-off fills the bottom of the screen.
Once again, Childrens Hospital’ meta-textual humor takes aim at hospital shows, soap operas, and network TV’s incessant self-promotions. The joke multiplies as Dr. Spratt’s roommate and occasional make-out partner, Cat Black (Lake Bell), remembers her lost friend. In addition to the weight of Spratt’s death, Dr. Black is carrying a baby by her boyfriend, a six-year-old afflicted with advanced aging diseases. She walks through the hospital visibly pregnant, pondering such brain-teasers as, “What do you call an ending that begins again? A begending.”
The new “begending” for the hospital comes in the form of Sy Mittelton (Henry Winkler), a meek administrator hired by the insurance company that has bought Childrens. In an all-hands meeting, he sensibly argues that only new sources of revenue will keep the hospital afloat. Richie promptly dubs him “the new Fuhrer,” adding, “He collects butterflies? Typical suit.” But those butterflies may hold the cure to cancer…
Like Corrdy’s earlier work on The Daily Show, Childrens’ Hospital takes on multiple targets. The melodrama, involving a half-dozen plotlines, obviously resembles Grey’s Anatomy. Where House and ER use patients to advance the doctors’ and nurses’ stories (usually to make them seem like “good people”), Childrens Hospital exactly reverses this formula. The neglected patients reveal the protagonists’ shallow narcissism. Their personal lives are always their first concern (one montage has Cat Black breaking up with everyone in the office, then cycling through them again). And the “Previously on Childrens Hospital” openings mock the trite tragedy of soaps, signaled by zooming close-ups and minor-key musical cues.
These “Previously” introductions often bear little resemblance to actual previous episodes, emphasizing the show’s deliberate lack of continuity. Its self-contained episodes freely introduce new characters or kill off old favorites, underscoring the manipulations of dramatic stakes here and in “real” soaps (see: the will-she-die-or-not plotline of Katherine Heigl’s Izzie).
Childrens Hospital’ capriciousness often feels like improv comedy, or a series of short skits. The players are all veterans of sitcoms and sketch comedy shows, and they work well together. Given the popularity of their targets, they also have a rich vein of generic conventions and viewer expectations to mine.