The people who pitched ICU to ABC have my respect. Getting the network to air a series about sick and dying children is the promotional equivalent of Shackleton’s Antarctic odyssey. Any sane individual would deem it suicidal. The idea, as executed, is this: ABC’s cameramen roved around the Arkansas Children’s Hospital for 15 months, capturing the loss and heartbreak of being and treating sick children. The network has repackaged the recorded crises and dramas into four one-hour episodes, compressing daily life and death into a glossy, strangely unreal product.
But the series is only peripherally about the patients. The real stars are the hospital staff members. The opening credits flash their pictures, along with their titles and names, accompanied by dynamic music. You might wonder if they’re real people or actors, until you hear the voice-over that is repeated during the show: “Everything you’re about to see really happened.”
The reminder is necessary, because the series is put together like a scripted hour-long hospital drama instead of a reality show. In keeping with the show’s jumpy dislocation of reality, during the tense operation scenes, the screen occasionally shrinks and floats around a black background like an enlarged Pong square. Sometimes printed explanations accompany the images; other times, the infrequent narration pipes up. The split screens and constant change of focus are jarring. Maybe the creators are trying to mirror in visual terms the uncertainty of the ICU team’s lives.
The head of the team, Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb, is more Garry Shandling than George Clooney, but if you are interested in a case study on the God complex, he’s your man. His wife, a former doctor, has given up her practice to support him in his life’s work. My biggest question, after watching the first episode, is, in what way can she support him? They don’t have children because, as his wife recites, “Jonathan always jokes that he doesn’t want to come home from work to more crying babies.” Nice. She rarely sees him because he spends seven days a week at the hospital, often sleeping in his office. He doesn’t appear to leave her with anything of himself that would require support.
The hypochondriac playwright George Kaufman once described the perfect doctor as “one who, when he’s not examining me, is home studying medicine.” If this is your ideal, then Drummond-Webb is the man for you. He calls the hospital constantly from home. When he does find some free time, he uses it to train for triathlons. Indeed, type-A personalities are over-represented on the hospital’s staff. Of the six doctors profiled on the first episode, three are avid triathletes, and, in the hypertensive tradition of go-getters, they compete furiously with each other. It would be a relief to see any one of them lie down, read a newspaper, or just relax for a minute.
You get the feeling that relaxation is a foreign concept to the staff of the hospital. The Learning Channel’s Trauma, PBS’Children’s Hospital and, now, ICU, all teach the same lesson: medical staff lead hard lives. I can’t imagine another profession that so abuses its workers. Maybe oil rig fire-fighting. But then, oil rigs aren’t always ablaze. People are sick all the time. Drummond-Webb admits to three hours of sleep during one 48-hour stretch. If anyone should be sleeping eight hours a night, it’s the person who cuts open your chest and operates on your heart.
Because of this grueling schedule, nobody on the series has any kind of home life, with the possible exception of Dr. Paul Seib, a single father who is shown playing basketball with his son — while wearing his scrubs! Even Dr. Seib admits to having trouble separating his experiences as a doctor from his feelings for his son. He tries not to worry about him, but working in the pediatric cardiology department, so plagued by everyday tragedies, makes it difficult for him not to view his son as a potential patient and source of additional worry. In fact, the work they do seems to be an effective method of birth control for most of the doctors we see on the show.
Aside from the light it casts on the demands of a medical career, the series raises other troubling issues. Most disturbing is the fact that, according to producer David Doss, the hospital actively solicited the network to come into its operating rooms and wards. What would possess a hospital to do such a thing? Free advertising could be the answer, I suspect. The Arkansas Children’s Hospital’s web page is now splashily promoting the show, and providing a link to the ABC site directly from its main page.
If questioned, the producers would probably tell you that they are responsibly showing the feel-good stories as well as the tragedies. Yet, it seems shrewd, at best, manipulative at worst, to save until the end a story about the one child on the first episode who dies.
The sad tale of 8-year-old Sawyer, the episode’s second heart transplant patient, is reserved for the end, where it has the most emotional impact. We’re spared watching his last breath, but not by long. Such decisions about pacing are fine and necessary for a fictional show, but when a real boy’s life has ended, there is something very disturbing about the producers making such a choice. ABC has anticipated such concerns by including pictures of children needing heart transplants during the commercial breaks. These images might be raising awareness of the need for donors, but the question remains: how many children can you watch die, or suffer, before becoming de-sensitized?
And this is a major problem: the show seems pointless. I can’t fathom the families’ motives for allowing the production crew to film their struggles and sorrows. It doesn’t teach anything we don’t know. Life is ephemeral. Kids get sick. Some heal, some find equilibrium, and some succumb. I’d rather watch ER, knowing that the actors can go home at the end of the day.