Clear! Old-School Medical Drama, Stat!

A once-popular medical drama reveals how much has changed in America's health care industry -- and its television medical dramas -- and how much remains the same.

Medical Center: The Complete First Season

Distributor: Warner Archives
Cast: Chad Everett, James Daly
Network: CBS
Release date: 2011-8-30

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.

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