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Medical Investigation

Cast: Neal McDonough, Kelli Williams, Anna Belknap, Troy Winbush, Christopher Gorham
Regular airtime: Fridays, 9pm ET

(NBC)

Brackish

Perplexed by a weird malady that turns people blue, then suffocates them, a NYC doctor attempts to stand off against the N.I.H. specialist called in to solve the crisis. “Your guess is as good as mine,” pronounces the smug doctor, wielding his cliché like a blunt weapon. Not even. His opponent, Stephen Connor (Neal McDonough) turns him out in an instant: “No,” he asserts through clenched teeth. “My guess is better. And only one of us gets to make the call.” So there.


Trumped, the l doc grumps and nods, then disappears from the scene. Connor, it appears, has a reputation for being brutal and bossy, and no one gets around him. “He suffers from a terminal case of high expectations,” observes one member of his elite “mobile medical team,” meaning, you get used to his perfectionism and impatience, because he’s so impassioned about saving lives. A veteran of the first U.S. war against Irag, Connor has apparently seen his share of underrepresented victims and ignorant, abusive administrators, which makes him angry and contentious, quick to step up. And, as it turns out in the first two episodes of Medical Examination, he does make exceptionally good guesses. He is, according to executive producer Laurence Andries (who also worked with McDonough on the recently cancelled Boomtown), designed to fulfill viewers’ current “aching for heroes.”


But Connor is no simple superman. Oh no. He’s vulnerable and flawed as well, a hero who mirrors post-9/11 turmoil and fearfulness. The show goes to predictable lengths to reveal the costs of his heroic dedication, namely, a wife who’s left him (“We have to move on,” she sighs, when he asks about her upcoming dinner date, a moment that makes you feel annoyed at his prying but sympathetic for his loneliness) and a son who plays Little League ball and waits patiently for dad to show up, occasionally and when he can get a minute off from his big-pressure job. During one game, dad gets a call on his cell, one he “has to take,” and then, though the coach tells him to back off, Connor takes 30 seconds to impress on his son the importance of focus: the kid gets a hit and dad gets scooped up by a big black chopper.


Cut to his debarking on a rooftop, accompanied by his team, introduced by Connor’s directives regarding their roles in this investigation: Dr. Natalie Durant (Kelli Williams) does the lab work (earnestly and wholeheartedly, at one point announcing, loudly and urgently, “This blood is brackish!”); medical inspector Frank Powell (Troy Winbush) hits the “infection” scenes, scarping up evidence and running it through those fancy lighting systems the CSI teams use; newbie/boy genius Miles McCabe (Christopher Gorham, of the late Jake 2.0), whose guess are as good as Connor’s; and N.I.H.‘s short-skirted publicity liaison Eva Rossi (Anna Belknap). Determined and aggressive, they stride like a military team into the melee of epidemiology.


Eva’s part in the first episode is extreme and frankly cynical. Dispensed to distract a newspaper reporter from writing a story on the blue people outbreak, she engages in all kinds of ruses. When flirting (removing her jacket and crossing and uncrossing her legs repeatedly) doesn’t work, she leads him to the basement and turns off the lights, leaving him cell phone-less and lost. The fact that she reappears on screen as a pair of legs standing over his crouched figure—lights on! blam! instant James Bond poster!—only makes her original offenses seem more inelegant. When the reporter threatens her with a lawsuit and kidnapping charges, she offers him the “scoop,” after the affliction has been diagnosed and the problem solved (and the agency off the hook). He takes the offer, which apparently makes everything okay. It’s sad to think the N.I.H. (fictional or whatever) stoops to such tactless tactics; it’s even sadder that this concept doesn’t come as a shock. These days, you just expect government and the press to be corrupt.


Offered up as action heroes in rubber gloves and lab coats, these N.I.H. reps are also granted the now familiar accoutrements of forensic procedural shows: colored lights throbbing in the lab, dance track music pulsing as cells appear on slides, and patients, despairing with caved-in faces, begging for help. Beyond these banalities, Connor is conferred a special gift, that is, an ability to “see” the initial infection scene, with ghostly figures appearing before him, as he peers into their motives and points at them with his finger, as if he means to zap the mysterious illness with his unearthly outrage.


Maybe the explanation for Connor’s gift has to do with his exposure to chemical weapons in the Gulf (an upcoming episode reportedly concerns troops with an unexplained affliction). In previous versions of this device, say, those deployed by Crossing Jordan or the CSIs, the crime stories are shared, talked through or even acted out by a few characters. Here, Connor is on his own, as his apparition isolates him rather than connecting him with his fellows. His pluck is costly, his insight makes him lonely. When he launches into one such subjective flight, someone teases him, “Are you talking to me, your phone or your imaginary friends?”


The second episode gives Connor another chance to dream up causes, when an inexplicable encephalitis strikes down clusters of teenaged girls. The investigators pursue causes ranging from drugs, sex, parasites, and poison by a jealous classmate, each looking likely for a minute, before another pops up (this proliferation of possibilities is likely over a few days, but over an hour, they start to look contrived). Miles, being the youngest team member, is dispatched to interview the girls’ classmates, where he realizes his rapport with 15-year-old girls, and impresses his superiors with his ability to get info from interviewees who don’t know they’re giving it up.


While Miles discovers the source of one girl’s ailment, the others are apparently stricken by something lese, which Connor discovers during one of his visions, this one corrected, in a minor way, by his old friend Powell (who notes the illogic of the initial picture Connor paints. The resulting image is apparently vivid enough to lead both men off the truck where Connor identifies the accident site to the precisely necessary evidence, conveniently left in garbage cans nearby. Would that all such cases were so extraordinarily solvable.


However strange and wondrous Connor’s imaginings may seem, Powell appears in these first episodes the character best equipped to remind him of life on earth. (Even when he’s with his son, Connor tends to drift off, as does the camera, to emphasize his lonely-man experience). When Connor barks at Powell, he has to apologize. Worse, when Connor seeks wisdom, Powell provides (though as yet, he appears to have no personal inclination to follow his own advice): “The reasonable man,” he observes, “adapts to the world. The unreasonable man makes the world adapt.” Listen well, Grasshopper.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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