Clear! Old-School Medical Drama, Stat!

[13 October 2011]

By Michael Barrett

Medical dramas are a TV staple, in some ways much the same now as they have been for decades: heroic doctors deal with the medical issues of guest patients and clash with wrong-headed guest colleagues. Details of texture and approach have changed, however, as is clear from studying a once-popular hit like Medical Center. During a revolutionary period in American TV featuring the introduction of mild profanity, controversial topicality, and sitcom relevance, this series churned out weekly medical crises and then promptly passed into pop-culture oblivion. The first season has just been issued through Warner Archives’ made-on-demand service.

Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett) is a handsome young doctor with blue eyes, a square jaw, and spiffy sports jackets. When off the job, he wears sunglasses, colorful neckerchiefs, and a healthy tan. Hotshot docs of his ilk always needed a crustier mentor or father figure in a big office alternately to rein them in and encourage them, and that person for Joe is Dr. Paul Lochner (James Daly), Chief of Staff at the generically named University Medical Center in Los Angeles. We’re never told what the university is.

In the first scene of the premiere episode, “The Last Ten Yards”, O.J. Simpson in football uniform helps an injured teammate into Gannon’s office. “Big nigger ran over me,” says the mate with a jocular air, to which Simpson smilingly says “That white boy shouldn’ta got in the way.” There was a window in the ‘70s, in between the relaxation of older standards against vulgar language and the impostion of new politically correct standards, where you could hear hip race-baiting dialogue like this among interracial chums. I still recall an episode of The White Shadow where somebody says “You run like a white nigger.”

Simpson plays Bru Wiley, the most promising college football star in the country, a first-round draft pick within a month of scoring a bigtime pro offer. He’s having symptoms of a serious problem (cut to the chase: a tumor of the adrenal gland) that Gannon wants to fix before it kills him, while Wiley doesn’t want to dish his chances. He shows Gannon that his mom lives in an alley somewhere on a backlot haunted by embarrassingly loosey-goosey old school chums who are now mainlining heroin while his 16-year-old sister isn’t staying home like she should, so it’s a heavy scene, man.

Wiley doesn’t want anything to queer his stab at the gold, and that means when his hardworking candy-striper wife (Cicely Tyson) wants to tell Gannon about those blinding headaches, he growls “Listen now, if you pull that man’s sleeve I’ll kill ya!” He demonstrates a violent temper in other scenes as well, and the episode’s happy ending (spoiler!) never addresses this problem. Maybe it was removed with the tumor. Maybe it was a product of the high blood pressure. Or not. One can’t watch this without feeling a curious chill.

An allegedly exciting sequence at the big game intersperses stock footage of a game and stadium crowds, close-ups of Simpson, and oddly silent shots of Everett racing across campus while an announcer’s voice calls plays from another universe. During the climactic operation on her husband, the wife has her own outburst of temper at the talent scout over “you honkies” always pushing her husband, but that’s just her nerves talking. “You know that simply isn’t true,” he says before she sobs on his lapel.

Meanwhile we’re tempted to laugh at the subplot about the eight-year-old boy who had his left hand amputated, but for some reason the wrappings make it look like he’s got more hand than the other arm. They must have grafted on a boxing glove. He and Wiley play checkers in one of those heartwarming codas where everyone is chuckling at the wonderful world.

Yes, what a world. Today’s TV hospital dramas came after the milestone called St. Elsewhere, the hospital equivalent of Hill Street Blues. In other words, a world of radically different conventions. The conventions here, which scream “Seventies”, are the type parodied on the old SCTV skits.

All dialogue is direct and efficiently expository, almost expendable as it punches across its little tête-a-tête‘s. It’s no less annoying, and perhaps slightly less so, than today’s convention of artificial tensions among characters constantly on edge with each other, even colleagues they have to work with every day. (I wonder if today’s dramas send a subtle message about work as an unrewarding grind.)

The mise-en-scene is even weirder. Medical Center, which must have thought it was being more or less realistic, has an almost minimalist aesthetic. To convince us we’re in a working hospital, isolated people pass in a background of hallways and wards with almost no ambient or background noise. The main characters speak in a crisp, hollow zone of uninterruption, albeit with a music track tugging us along under the dialogue.

In this episode, that music is provided by the great David Raksin; he was a TV workhorse, though it’s a bit like having Debussy score the school play. Different composers score other episodes. Lalo Schifrin wrote the martial theme music that gives us a sense of striding with purpose. It’s heard over the closing credits only. The unusual opening credits feature heartbeats and P.A. announcements over colored negative images of operating doctors, X-rays, and rushing bloodstreams.

Another convention of the era is that each episode focuses exclusively on its problem-case of the week, which is announced in the opening scene. Drug addiction, unwed pregnancy, a Vietnamese orphan, and child beating are among Season One’s hit parade.

Today, this single-mindedness makes the stories more predictable and draggy than ever. The drama is handled as soap opera with Gannon getting het up and delivering one or two lectures per show about responsibility and egotism, and at least one scene where the patient gets woozy and passes out to queasy music and camera motions. The climax is always an operation with Gannon calling for scalpels and asking the anesthesiologist about the BP. (“120 over 70, doctor.”) Colleagues watch through the skylight while loved ones pace in the waiting room. This series uses the same medical advisor, Walter D. Dishell, as M*A*S*H, which started a couple of years later and had more blood in the operations.

Medical issues are a lens to social issues, and the show’s relentless message is that the godlike professionals in nameless medical institutions are curing our ills one by one. The medical center, for all its bustle and tension, is a sterile oasis in which patients reassess their lives and find renewed peace, a place where order is dispensed by science.

By episode’s end, the patient is cured and their personal problems will be addressed with a new resolve and understanding that saves everybody’s marriage, baby, and career. No matter how much angst was expressed along the way, the traditional verities are reinforced. Such a show probably wouldn’t fly today, certainly not for seven seasons. Even though today’s themes and messages are often the same, the structures and surfaces are very different.

In perhaps a refreshing change from today, the doctors have almost no private lives. (It was St. Elsewhere that made the doctors’ issues more interesting than the patients.) Most of the time, we don’t have a clue if Gannon is gallantly carrying on while negotiating romantic problems, fighting alcoholism, having flashbacks to childhood trauma, dealing with cancer, or getting his taxes audited. For all we know, he’s a perfect figure who sleeps in his office and only comes out to express concern for patients with every conceivable medical issue, because he’s an expert on all of it and there’s no operation he won’t perform admirably.

This must have occurred to the producers, because a few episodes at the end of the season suddenly give us a glimpse of Gannon’s swinging pad and his dog Gus. There’s also a hint or two that he’s trying to have a relationship with semi-regular psychiatrist Jeanne Bartlett (Corinne Camacho), but he keeps breaking their dates. She’s quietly dropped halfway through the season, and when the show needs another beautiful brunette psychiatrist for a couple more episodes, it’s now Dr. Pauline Michaels (Marj Dusay).

Then there’s a big change of pace in “Care Is No Cure” where Gannon takes a vacation in Mexico and falls hard for a free-living lass (Shelby Grant, Everett’s real-life wife). Alas for her, this is an era of TV drama, stretching from Bonanza to about The Incredible Hulk, in which a pre-ordained fate is meted out to guests with whom the regular hero falls in love. For once on this medical series, there’s no happy ending. (However, Grant appeared twice more in different roles in later seasons.) And then, after this tragic interlude, Dr. Bartlett suddenly drops back into the season a few more times as if nothing ever happened. Certainly nothing from one episode will ever be referenced in another.

A social issue that manifests several times is the Generation Gap. This series is pitched squarely at the squares—that is, the grown-ups who pay for their kids to attend universities like the one in the series. We are frequently shown images of troubled and rebellious youth and their frumpy parents, as the hip-yet-responsible Gannon bridges their problems with a few compassionate tongue-lashings.

Example, please. In “The Deceived”, lippy student Carrie Snodgress (“I’m politically active!”—though we haven’t a clue about what) is beset with a wildly alcoholic mom (Inga Swenson) and a crudely clueless dad (Pat Hingle) who’s always on business trips. At the emotional resolution, it’s daddy who explains himself in a long, moving apologia (longer than you’d see today) in which he explains where he’s coming from: growing up in the Depression, he learned that earning money for your family was how you expressed love, and that his stint saving democracy in WWII makes him angry at these long-haired kids burning their draft cards (the viewer presumably nodding in sympathy), and that he just doesn’t know how to talk to the daughter he loves but he pleads with her to accept his kidney. They cry and hug; the music swells; everything’s going to be All Right. The thing is, this kind of tosh works.

Or there’s “Runaway”, in which Gannon temporarily shelters the titular youth (Richard Thomas) before orchestrating another reunion with a gruff, misunderstood Greek father (Simon Oakland) who must realize that his son wants to play the guitar instead of working on a fishing boat. In the particularly tiresome “A Duel with Doom”, a charismatic young collarless priest (Martin Sheen) who talks the kids’ language delays his vital operation as he tries to get through to a sullen destructive youth (Bruce Davison) from his shelter; at least this one doesn’t have to move in with Gannon.

Care Is No Cure

More parent/child reunions are only a motion away in “Fight and Flight”, which turns on a teenage girl’s case of hysterical blindness. Gannon is sure she saw something when she was 15 that triggered this condition. Unusually, this outing doesn’t have a climactic operation but a climactic flashback (in black and white stills) in which she recalls her trauma at seeing daddy with his mistress before she fell down the stairs—the teen, not the mistress. That this glimpse of adultery could be the primal trauma does seem rather hysterical; today, the mystery would have to be solved by nothing less than her own abuse.

One episode lets us into the life and posh abode of the widowed Dr. Lochner. “Moment of Decision” introduces a life-threatening condition for his daughter Jennifer (Tyne Daly, real-life daughter of James Daly), fresh from the Peace Corps with a dazzling fiancé who tells her she must be out of her gourd when she wants to call off the wedding so he won’t be stuck with a sick wife. This kind of false heroism shows up more than once in the season and must be dealt with sternly. Another moment seen more than once is a man’s demonstration of love to his woman by delivering a mock punch to the face, but nobody deals with that one.

This episode is directed by Daniel Petrie, who did lots of doctor shows before moving sporadically into features (Buster and Billie, Resurrection, Fort Apache the Bronx) and returning to TV movies. The series’ most frequent director is respected Hollywood vet Vincent Sherman, who was so comfortable in melodrama that he’d done good work with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

“Jeopardy” is the most striking example of how the show uses Gannon to negotiate the ambiguities of generational politics. The story begins with a student assaulting a dean (Lloyd Bochner), and at first Gannon and Lochner stride around uttering the reassuring conservative smuggeries about law and order.

“A motive for violence? Lately that’s becoming as American as apple pie”, says Gannon in an early scene, and Lochner answers, “The regents have felt for some time that the university’s been too soft on troublemakers. That boy’s going to get the book thrown at him.” In the next scene, Lochner characterizes the regents’ point of view as “You know, violence and anarchy on all the better campuses, so put your foot down hard or they’ll step all over you”, and Gannon replies, “I confess to being in sympathy with anything that helps reduce the casualties on our side.”

That turns on a dime when a stylish girlfriend tells Gannon about the patient’s weird personality shifts during the past year, like participating in protests. Once Gannon suspects there’s an organic reason (another tumor) for the disorder, he becomes the viewer’s reliable seeker of truth instead of excuses. By this alchemy, the enemy becomes the social forces pressuring the hospital for “coddling” a delinquent.

Another wonderful operation (with groovy camera angles looking up from the incision toward the towering surgical team) makes everyone merry. The social message is that society is too quick to diagnose treatable illness as insanity, and a subtext is that organic medicine is more like real medicine than psychotherapy. A more distant subtext is that maybe all this nonsense can be cut out of student radicals.

In “A Life Is Waiting”, a pregnant woman (Barbara Rush) faces a choice about a therapeutic abortion, but in this episode several years before Roe vs. Wade, all the characters want to save the baby if possible (it is). The conflict is that while the wife wants to take the risk, her husband (Robert Lansing) places her safety first and must learn to respect her decision. The real curiosity here is that both husband and wife must sign the permission forms for the wife’s operation, so it’s possible to have what Gannon calls a “Mexican stand-off” if the spouses don’t agree and the hospital can’t go forward without resolving it. This legality isn’t perceived as an issue requiring Gannon’s hectoring.

More husbandly consent is required for the young wife (Sharon Farrell) who asks for “sterilization” (a tubal ligation) after bringing on her fourth miscarriage in “Between Dark and Daylight”. She also needs a psychiatric exam and approval by a committee. Maybe they all need their heads examined for not discussing reversible procedures, or even floating the idea of the husband (Tom Skerritt) having a vasectomy. Anyway, it turns out her hysterical fear of pregnancy is based on witnessing her parents’ marriage, but she just needs a good talking-to from Gannon, who proves that the bickering neighbors really love each other.

However, Gannon violates a university rule requiring parents to be informed in “The V.D. Story”. The circumstances are complicated (the patient is married to a Vietnam vet), but the centerpiece is Gannon’s long address to a review board on why it’s a bad rule and why the fuddy-duddies should strike it. “I believe that’s the voice of the future,” declares the ever-understanding Lochner. In TV dramas, legal hearings are traditionally an ideal context for speechifying; that convention hasn’t changed.

Some episodes are vehicles for big guest stars. With relaxed authority, Walter Pidgeon plays a distinguished ambassador in “The Fallen Image”. His heart trouble serves as a metaphor for his neglected relationship with Viveca Lindfors, typecast with justice as “a durable beauty with a suggestion of infinite character” (Gannon’s words). She has an accent, a rueful smile, and many stylish hats. It’s pure soap, but watching them together or solo is easy.

This above-average entry is one of four episodes written or co-written by Andy Lewis, who also did the dreary premiere with O.J. Simpson. This was Lewis’ only season on the show, since he went to work right away on the feature Klute and garnered several nominations for it. It’s odd to make the connection. This is another episode directed by Petrie, who takes advantage of Pidgeon’s most eloquent speech to conduct an elegant track around the bed.

It’s also easy watching a brittle Lee Grant emote as a neurotic widow in “The Loner”, whose problems with intimacy are handily resolved by adopting the orphan boy down the hall. There’s a racial angle because the hispanic tyke’s caucasian mom has just failed to come out of a coma—“She’s an American and he’s a Mexican,” as it’s put by a doctor named Dan Purcell, who at the time would be called oriental (James Shigeta, who appears twice more this season, his character always having a different name).

It’s curious to realize there was a time when Forrest Tucker could be a special guest star. Here he is in “The Professional” as a washed-up football idol being slapped on the back by old buddy Slim Pickens. Nobody guesses that the boasts about his job and income and travels are all, in today’s lingo, a case of fronting. This is one of two Season One episodes with Jayne Meadows (Steve Allen’s wife, Audrey’s sister) as Nurse Chambers; her role expanded in later seasons.

A third and more interesting type of plot involves internecine conflict among the staff. Valid differences of opinion are expressed, but somebody’s always right and somebody’s always wrong, and Gannon is always right.

“The Sharpest Edge” is a dialectic between a brilliant older surgeon (John Marley) who represents a school of thought that Gannon thinks is too quick to operate, while the older man thinks Gannon is overly cautious and conservative. If you think the odds aren’t stacked in the two cases over which they clash, think again. It’s revealing that the younger blood is perceived as the more conservative; this reflects the show’s attempt to appeal to (handsome) youth while placating the older audience.

In “The Adversaries”, Gannon sticks up for a woman doctor (Patricia Quinn) to receive a coveted residency over a duplicitous male colleague (Christopher Stone). “The pressure’s bad enough for anyone who wants to be a doctor, but for a girl it’s worse. She has to work twice as hard,” moans she for the viewer’s edification; it was a common phrase on the subject in socially conscious TV.  Then the little ninny falls for the guy’s snake oil and thinks she’s in love, showing the bad judgment viewers expect of emotional females.

Mercedes McCambridge gives a gasping, tic-heavy turn as a veteran nurse trying to conceal her strokes by popping pain meds in “A Matter of Tomorrow”. In a weird subplot, she’s best friends with a young rock star (Cliff Potts) at whom she gazes with dewy fondness. His mutual regard feels even weirder, but apparently he has no friends or family. “I not only listen to today’s music, I understand it,” she avers before sitting in on his dreadful recording session.

That’s nothing compared to William Shatner’s wallow as a shouting, gung-ho researcher in “The Combatants”, which replays the same dialectic from “The Sharpest Edge” in a new context. (So it’s not surprising that both are scripted by the same person, Oliver Crawford, whose prolific TV credits include an earlier medical drama, Ben Casey.) Shatner is sure his new miracle drug will cure Hodgkin’s Disease and doesn’t want to bother testing side effects, which leads to much finger-wagging and breast-beating. His pauses and modulations are so intensely, parodically Shatnerian, it’s hard to follow what he’s saying.

In “His Brother’s Keeper”, Gannon orchestrates more generational harmony between a colleague (Tim O’Connor) and his over-achieving sons (Ben Murphy, David Cassidy). The best of the colleague episodes, however, is “The Rebel in White”. Scripted by Anthony Lawrence, this story focuses on race in a much more subtle and ambitious manner than the O.J. Simpson outing, and as a socially conscious effort on minority surgeons, it’s much better than the one about the “girl doctor”.

Georg Stanford Brown plays an eager intern (at one point calling himself “supernigger”) who may or may not be ready to handle a tricky operation on a “dumb cracker” (Will Geer). Aside from racial dialectics, the dialogue intriguingly introduces the divide between North and South, class, the triangle between liberalism and prejudice and paternalism, expectations of cultural identity (“You don’t want to be black!” declares the wife who wants to go “back home”), the inescapability of racial interpretations or suspicions on possibly non-racial decisions, and how all this amplifies the pressures of surgical training. It still plays like a carefully elevating round of issue-oriented blather, but less pat than most.

The series spun off from a glossy two-hour TV movie, U.M.C. (for University Medical Center), broadcast on 17 April 1969. It’s not included here. Richard Bradford (Man in a Suitcase) played Gannon in that film. Daly was already cast as Lochner, and the stellar (for TV) cast included Edward G. Robinson, Kim Stanley, Maurice Evans, Kevin McCarthy, J.D. Cannon, William Windom, Shelley Fabares, Angela Cartwright, and William “Blacula” Marshall as an African-American doctor.

The series itself is no slouch on guests, as you can tell by perusing the above rundown. In addition to the many already mentioned, Season One offers Ed Asner, Dyan Cannon, France Nuyen, Brooke Bundy, John Ericson, Martine Bartlett, Belinda Montgomery, Jo Anne Harris, Carl Betz, and Walter Koenig.

There are thankless minor regulars who don’t have names: Chris Hutson as the Surgical Nurse (called Nurse Courtland in later seasons); Daniel Silver and Vince Maguire as Anesthesiologists; and Richard Stuart as a Resident or Doctor or Surgeon (or even Orderly!). Patsy Garrett, Evelyn Frank, and Lisa Moore show up as nameless nurses in about five or six episodes, while several others appear twice or thrice. Featured in three to five episodes are Virginia Hawkins as Nurse Evvie Canford, Sheila Larken as Nurse Anne Wittley, and Tani Guthrie as Nurse Oberley. Some of these characters aren’t mentioned in the standard reference books—which is why your tireless if bleary correspondent bothers saluting them here, Dear Reader.

Frank Glicksman, who produced the pilot movie, and Al C. Ward, who wrote it, are credited on the series as the creators, with Ward as producer and Glicksman as executive producer. They’d previously handled the abortive one-season drama The Long Hot Summer, based on the film of that name and a William Faulkner story, and many behind-the-scenes personnel from that show worked on this one. Glicksman and one of Medical Center‘s most prolific writers, Ben Casey alumnus Don Brinkley, developed and produced another successful medical series, the M*A*S*H spin-off Trapper John M.D., which might be seen as the last of this particular strain of medical drama.

Other writers in this set include Robert J. Shaw, drawing on his soap experience in Peyton Place; Shimon Wincelberg, who worked the morality tales of Have Gun Will Travel; and John W. Bloch, who scripted the episodes with Tyne Daly and Mercedes McCambridge. Other directors include hardy TV vets Earl Bellamy, Harvey Hart and Charles S. Dubin (later the main director on M*A*S*H).

This series ran seven seasons from 1969 to 1976 and has more or less perished from cultural memory along with its contemporaries Emergency and Marcus Welby M.D. Frankly, I’d rather be watching the older Ben Casey or Dr. Kildare than six more years of Dr. Gannon curling his lip and beaming his baby blues, although it’s reasonable to suppose there are more interesting episodes in its future as TV opened up its content. For example, the final season premiered with a two-parter in which Robert Reed plays a doctor getting a sex change, and it would certainly be interesting to compare this 1975 dispatch from the front lines of transgender topics with how the issue is handled today.

What came next? St. Elsewhere reinvented the genre but limped along in the ratings, forever on the verge of cancellation, and this proved one source of its go-for-broke originality. I doubt today’s handsomely peopled hospital shenanigans have surpassed it for sheer chutzpah, because they have taken their lessons from what turned out to be the next big hospital show: E.R., which combined serial stories and post- Hill Sreet ambience with a slickness that extended to a hottie cast.

As far as ratings were concerned, that turned out to be the best medicine, and it’s where we are today. That’s why to modern eyes, Medical Center feels like a message from a more orderly, neatly arranged world that’s more subdued and paradoxically more far-fetched, a drama more on the order of a careful sponge bath than the jazzy jolt of a defibrilator to the heart.

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