Trauma drama hits a new peak as medical series go from ‘St. Elsewhere’ to St. Everywhere

[5 October 2009]

By Neal Justin

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

If Marcus Welby were on call today, he’d probably have a heart attack. Today’s TV doctors are too busy juggling psychotic patients, sleep deprivation, drug addiction, budget-slashing bosses, supply-closet trysts, ER shootouts, helicopter crashes and hallucinations to practice bedside manners.

There’s one matter, though, that they don’t have to worry about: employment.

Medical series have never been healthier, with three new network dramas — “Three Rivers,” “Mercy” and “Trauma” — joining an already crowded field that includes “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice” and “Scrubs,” which returns midseason.

Local stations have found room in their afternoon schedules for both “The Doctors,” a medical version of “The View,” and “The Dr. Oz Show,” which comes with a referral from Oprah Winfrey. Add the fact that physicians portray superheroes on “The Biggest Loser” and that many of the crime fighters on “CSI” and “Bones” have memorized the New England Journal of Medicine, and you have a small-screen squad that would rival the staff at the Mayo Clinic.

“So often in television you have a certain number of things that enter the wind, and you end up with a lot of shows in a certain area,” said Gail Berman, the former entertainment president for Fox TV, who now serves as an executive producer for “Mercy.” “This year it’s medical. You just go with the flow.”

Not that the onslaught won’t get some executives’ hearts racing. Lloyd Braun, Berman’s creative partner, remembers that he hesitated to sign off on a promising pilot back when he was co-chairman of ABC entertainment, only because the network had already watched a number of other efforts flat-line. At the very last minute, he agreed to give the program a chance. The series: “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Of course, “Grey’s” isn’t exactly in the pink these days, thanks to the departure of T.R. Knight and the behind-the-scenes whining of Katherine Heigl, leading the new competitors to believe they can pick up some of the aging series’ regulars. But the clientele they really covet are the fans of “ER,” which ended its staggering, highly lucrative 15-year run last season.

“It’s the 800-pound gorilla — and it’s gone,” said Dario Scardapane, creator of “Trauma.” “I think a lot of people want to find out what the 21st-century version of a medical show will be. I know that’s what we’re shooting for.”

The formula dates back to an era long before everyone wanted to be examined by George Clooney. “Medic,” starring Richard Boone, was making the rounds in 1954 and series such as “Julia,” “M(ASTERISK)A(ASTERISK)S(ASTERISK)H” and “St. Elsewhere” have served as milestones in TV history.

“With the big three — the legal show, the cop show, the medical show — they all have kind of built-in stakes,” Scardapane said. “It’s life or death, and nobody’s numb to life or death.”

Scardapane doubles down on his bet that viewers won’t be bored by ratcheting up the action. The paramedics and docs of his San Francisco-based “Trauma” move at speeds that make the “ER” staff seem to be operating in slow motion. The series kicks off with an in-air explosion that must have cost as much as half of Jay Leno’s salary. In “Three Rivers,” the Pittsburgh team appears to be fueled on Red Bull, racing cross country in thunderstorms to procure organs in “Beat the Clock” fashion.

The success of “CSI” has also convinced networks that they can take audiences into the belly of the beast — literally.

“I’m struck by how realistic today’s medical shows are,” said Alfre Woodard, who earned two Emmy nominations in the 1980s for her work on “St. Elsewhere” and now punches in at “Three Rivers.” “I don’t think we ever actually saw a heart or lung on ‘St. Elsewhere.’ Now, you know, some of the viewers could practically help with the procedures.”

“Mercy” separates itself from the majority of past efforts by concentrating on the nurses rather than the doctors, an approach also taken this past summer by cable’s “Nurse Jackie” and “Hawthorne.” These underpaid, underappreciated figures, toiling away in New Jersey, offer a blue-collar version of “Sex and the City,” with grumblings, gaiety and grogginess exchanged over beer rather than Cosmopolitans. It’s a radical, and welcome, departure from past decades, in which the profession’s main function appeared to be servicing the doctors, both in and out of the operating room.

“In working on this role, it’s become more and more clear that nurses are sort of the backbone of our hospital system,” said Taylor Schilling, who stars in the series as a no-nonsense caretaker who has just returned from a tour in Iraq. “There’s this period of time before the doctor comes in and after the doctor leaves when a patient is with their nurses. It’s very, really exciting.”

“Mercy,” as well as every other medical series, will succeed only if viewers are drawn to the characters.

“At the end of the day, I really think that’s what the audience cares about,” Braun said. “Are they going to connect to these characters and these stories at this moment of time? Whether you’re first, second or third, none of that matters. It’s just all about that.”

The best way to assure success might be to sit down and watch this past season of Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” one of the most acclaimed new shows of 2009. It sets the bar for all the new shows by focusing on the lead’s complex personality, not her complex occupation.

“It could have been a plumber and I would have done this show,” said series star Edie Falco. “It just so happens that she functions in a world where her drug of choice is handy. Of course, if she was a plumber, she’d probably be drinking Drano.”

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