“Not do, dead.” Addressing a young girl with a brain tumor, Dr. Sung Park (Keong Sim) speaks a sort of language familiar to viewers of hospital ensemble shows. He’s curt, he’s specific, and he’s right, a genius who voices insights admired by his colleagues and appalling to his patients. This particular patient—who appears in the second episode of Monday Mornings—is Tricia (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). She’s a piano prodigy and also a bit of an expert when it comes to her brain stem glioma; when the doctor tells her she needs to have surgery, she asserts that she’d rather not. She’s bright, but he’s correct.
Park is a surgeon at the fictional Chelsea General Hospital—located somewhere in Portland—where he’s surrounded by an elaborately multi-culti team of doctors and interns. Each is dedicated, if so-humanly flawed, each has a backstory, as well as good and bad reasons for decisions made. Park’s brusque manner makes him a little harder to read than some of his cohorts. When his chief of surgery Harding Hooten (Alfred Molina) suggests that he might want to refine the language he uses, Park looks surprised, as if he’s never considered that his apparently cryptic manner might affect his patients. Hooten takes a particular interest in Tricia, assuming the job of convincing her to have her surgery, that is, playing a kind of good cop to Park’s less obviously good cop.
They don’t precisely have a confrontation over the case, as Park and Hooten agree on what needs to be done. But they do spend a few moments evaluating one another in a brightly lit hospital hallway, one of those scenes you’ve seen more than once on TV, maybe even in one of creator David E. Kelley’s shows (say, L.A> Law, Doogie Howser, M.D., or Chicago Hope, all shows that helped to establish this cliché). The scene underscores what you know, that despite their different manners, the men share a mutual respect, sense of mission, and also a kind of seething ambition. You get the idea that they understand one another, despite and maybe because of their performative stand-offs.
Such stand-offs are typical in hospital (or law firm, or school) ensemble shows. And in Monday Mornings, they are provided with a weekly (and titular) ritual, whereby Hooten calls in his staff on Monday mornings to go over their work during the week before. The M&Ms, as they’re termed, involve public calling-outs concerning mistakes in judgment, questionable procedures, and lost patients. Here Hooten presides over a lecture hall, summoning younger doctors to the stage where he sits, where they proceed to read reports out loud. They may be embarrassed or affronted during this process, but mostly, their responses serve as points of departure for further plotting and characterization, such that they shape exchanges in offices or flashbacks to personal or professional traumas.
The format in Monday Mornings establishes doctors’ loyalties, feuds, and essential investments, publicly acted out so as to increase drama and especially, melodrama. Certainly, the most invested doctor in sight is trauma chief Dr. Jorge Villanueva (Ving Rhames), who has a gift for diagnosis and also a rowdy sort of wisdom to share. A survivor of who knows what kinds of difficulties, he encourages and instructs his younger colleagues, for instance, the workaholic Sydney Napur (Sarayu Rao), whose fiancé dumps her by telling her she’d be a “horrible mother.” True, he observes, she should be able to “hit the off button” on occasion, but he also assures her, “When the day comes and you decide to become a mother, you’ll probably be the best at that too.” As you don’t see the bad ex or know anything about Napur save for her awesome work at the hospital, you know that Villanueva (known as “Gato”) is right, and the ex is so wrong.
His rightness is premised on an appreciation of smart diagnoses and also the difficulties that plague doctors. In this, the older staff members repeatedly guide the younger ones. The show introduces the problem of legal impositions almost obliquely, when one resident, Robidaux (Emily Swallow), is (unfairly) named in a lawsuit. Her supervisor, Ridgeway (Jennifer Finnigan), assures her that she’ll have to deal with such matters regularly. “As long as lawyers like to heat their pools with med-mal claims, as long as Congress refuses to get serious about tort reform, we will always, always be saddled up for nuisance claims, which is what this is.” Good thing that Ridgeway is available to serve as a “big umbrella,” as Robidaux observes, so gratefully.
The dynamic here is already tired. The doctors mean well, the pharmaceutical and equipment companies are too eager to make money, and the patients serve as plot pints, ways to illustrate the doctors’ emotional and political dilemmas. That these dilemmas are predictable may be as much a function of sensational news and tabloid media as of generic TV, whether reality or melodrama. As such formula calls for neat solutions, it becomes less clear how useful the formula can be, even as TV’s version of “comfort food.” In presenting health care issues, whether via doctors who are heroic or medical supply company reps who are craven, patients who are noble or righteously angry, you might hope that TV might confront its own issues, its profits-minded reduction of stories to formula.