A Step Back
Two aspects of Presidio Med made it noteworthy even before its debut. First, as promotional spots repeated, it’s “from the makers of ER.” Technically, this means that executive producer John Wells is a member of the same creative team that developed ER, winner of 17 Emmys and a Peabody Award.
Second, Presidio Med has a distinguished cast, mostly female, which marks one major difference from ER. Blythe Danner (perhaps best known now as Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother) plays Dr. Harriet Lanning, a matronly OB/GYN who counsels the other women doctors on staff. Among these is Dr. Rae Brennan (Dana Delany, who returns to a medical drama after her acclaimed role as an Army nurse in China Beach), who, in the show’s debut, returns to San Francisco after a stint in a medical camp in Pakistan. Anna Deavere Smith (The West Wing) plays Dr. Letty Jordan, a straightforward, no-nonsense cardiologist, Sasha Alexander (Dawson’s Creek) is Jackie Colette, a carefree, policy-bending plastic surgeon, and Julianne Nicholson (who appeared on Ally McBeal) plays the fiercely independent pediatrician, Dr. Jules Keating.
As strong-willed as these characters might sound, to describe Presidio Med as “ER for women” would be a gross simplification. If it appeals to a female demographic, it does so with complications, at once mobilizing gendered stereotypes while also gesturing toward a more progressive notion of women in medical dramas (as doctors and not nurses, as featured protagonists and not tangential characters or the love interests of male leads).
In addition to its lineup of women doctors, Presidio Med diverges further from ER in that it is, oddly, more conservative. Rather than a kinetic, chaotic emergency room, filled with blood flying, chests being cracked, and tubes being fed into the bodies of accident victims, Presidio Med takes place in a private practice, where patients arrive calmly and by appointment, for treatment of non-life-threatening ailments (at least, they’re not usually life-threatening). This calmer mood prevails even in the set design, as deep purple and wood grain replace the halogen-glazed linoleum of ER‘s trauma rooms.
Rather than emergencies on the premiere episode, we see a small boy being treated for cat scratches and a woman undergoing liposuction. Certainly, not every case on ER is a bus crash and not every patient on Presidio Med will have only minor scrapes (the second episode featured a firefighter who was a burn victim). But the general set up is clear: as employees of a private hospital, the women doctors are far removed from ER‘s “masculine” action.
The doctors themselves have stereotypically feminine specialties or concerns. Harriet is an OB/GYN, and scenes of her delivering babies bookend the show’s debut. Jackie’s first operative act is the aforementioned liposuction procedure. Plastic surgery is not the exclusive domain of women (on the show, a 14-year-old boy later comes in wanting a nose job), but the pressure to conform to unrealistic body types and features has resulted in more women undergoing plastic surgery than men. Consequently, Jackie’s medical focus skews to a majority of female patients.
Even when their medical specialties are not specifically focused on women’s “issues,” the doctors’ “femininity” is frequently underlined. Jules has a growth on one of her ovaries and worries that she might not be able to have children. Rea is alternately troubled by her inattentive husband and tempted by Dr. Nicholas Kokoris (The Mummy‘s Oded Fehr), a mysterious doctor who follows her from Pakistan (where they worked together at the camp) in an attempt to woo her to his side. Babies and husbands dominate the lives of these characters, as babies and appearances dominate the professional lives of Drs. Lanning and Colette.
Whether through their medical focus (gynecology, plastic surgery), their personal problems (fertility, the other man), or their working environment (clean, quiet, and safe), the women doctors of Presidio Med neatly align with stereotypical notions of femininity. While they are ostensibly progressive models of successful professionals, Presidio Med offers nothing, other than their careers, to distance them from traditionally gendered roles or behaviors. While they are at the pinnacle of their careers in a male-dominated line of work, they are also very much conventional “women.”
This kind of stereotyping is not limited to the women (or even American) characters, however. The show also mobilizes conservative masculine stereotypes: the only male doctor on staff, Dr. Matt Singerland (Paul Blackthorne), gets into a fistfight while playing basketball, is dumped by one blonde before immediately trying to pick up the next, and obsesses about sports. With his British accent, Singerland comes off as a testosterone-charged version of Hugh Grant, without any of the polite behavior.
In light of PM‘s stereotypical representations, ER, ironically and despite its preponderance of male protagonists, offers a more unusual woman doctor in Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes, this month’s Advocate cover girl), a lesbian who runs the emergency room with efficiency and authority. As a lesbian with authority in a difficult situation, Weaver’s sexuality expands the usual concept of professional women in the workplace. By comparison, Presidio Med‘s highly feminized doctors conform to a much more rigid set of social expectations about women. Weaver, of course, is only one woman on ER. Nonetheless, she pushes expectations and possibilities much further than Presidio Med does.