Doctors on TV

What America learns about health care from watching Mercy, Three Rivers, HawthoRNe, and Grey’s Anatomy.

In an America where police procedurals warp jurors’ expectations of forensic science and Dragnet’s Jack Webb taught kids their Miranda rights before civics teachers had the chance, it must be the case that TV shapes popular ideas about the health care system. What does this mean for the current debate and ongoing spat about health care reform? I can just barely contemplate it, preoccupied as I am by working on a treatment for a reality-competition/game-show hybrid provisionally titled, with apologies to Betsy McCoughey and Sarah Palin, Death Panel. (It is loosely modeled on The Dating Game.) In any event, this much is clear: The viewing public loves a good brain death.

Preferably, the pulling of a plug is followed by the fleet delivery of donated organs to a good-looking or otherwise compelling person. An end, a beginning, an Igloo cooler—these are a good start for a show, and for evidence, we need look no further than last week’s Grey’s Anatomy. At the close of last season, the lives of both George and Izzie hung in the balance. Would she die? One hoped so, as she is terribly annoying, but it was George whose brain activity ceased. No one knew whether he had opted to donate his organs, but after an agonizing emotional struggle persisting through one or two commercial breaks, the team at Seattle Grace did the right thing. Miranda immediately demanded to know where George’s kidneys were going. They would save the life of an 8-year-old, of course, and we all felt a twinkle of hope for the world.

There were no organ transplants on House last Monday, nor was there any nod to bureaucracy, as is usual. True, a medical drama addressing the topic of insurance company approval would be commercially unviable and artistically undesireable; it would be something along the lines of a homicidally torpid production of a Beckettian anti-drama. Still, this week’s House seemed particularly ridiculous to an occasional viewer of the show. A patient needed a mercury test, spinal stimulation, an MRI, chemotherapy—no sweat. Perhaps all red-tape complications were sublimated into the tortuous romance between Foreman and Thirteen.

We might find a marginally less unrealistic depiction of such matters on TNT’s HawthoRNe, whereJada Pinkett-Smith portrays the head nurse at a Richmond, Va., hospital and does half her acting by peevishly sucking in her cheeks. We might, but we don’t. However, inasmuch as HawthoRNe addresses issues, it speaks to real-world frustrations, even while inspiring fake-world frustrations with its persistent silliness. On last night’s rerun, the emergency room was overwhelmed after the government slashed another hospital’s funding. “Standard nurse-to-patient ratio is one-to-four,” a whistle-blower said to a journalist preparing a hush-hush exposé. “Now it’s one-to-six here.” The second half of that quote is a paraphrase. I couldn’t take notes properly at that moment, distracted by this allegedly sneaky reporter following his source around the hospital while carrying a notebook. Elsewhere, seeking information about a homeless mother, Pinkett-Smith’s character bribed an administrator with the promise of treating her to a mani-pedi.

Last week’s premiere of Mercy (NBC, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET) introduced us to a trio of nurses at the core of what will be the best new drama of the fall unless FlashForward starts making sense. There was doe-eyed Chloe (Michelle Trachtenberg), who is the naif misguidedly garbed in Hello Kitty scrubs; saucy Sonia (Jaime Lee Kirchner), who is superfluously hot; and complex Veronica (Taylor Schilling), who was shaped from the tough-but-inwardly-fragile template of TV saviors. Veronica has recently returned to a Newark, N.J., hospital from Iraq, so when she scorns doctors as arrogant fools—that sine qua non of nurse shows—she gets to bark righteously about how she and her mates did things “on the front lines.”

When Chloe could not rise to her first nonbedpan-related task—pulling the plug on one Mr. Weintraub, who is just a beep on a medical monitor—Veronica stepped in to take care of the job briskly and brusquely so that they could go out for drinks. She had a family history of alcoholism to attend to, and happy hour doesn’t last forever. Later, Veronica squabbled with a doctor about their respective counseling of a woman dying from cancer. “She wants to try all available treatments,” he said. “That’s her kids talking,” she countered, positing that the lady just needed permission to give up. Then they went behind a closed door and made out. Sometime after reapplying her lipstick, Veronica told the patient, “If you want to stop treatment, all you have to do is say so.”

This was a graceful moment for the character and, less predictably, also a graceful one for the actress in the part. Though Schilling is a gifted comedian and a good flirt, she can’t quite stoop to the correct delivery of the show’s more ploddingly somber lines.

Three Rivers

This weekend sees the debut of the somewhat competent Three Rivers (CBS, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET), which is a bit dull despite making the most promiscuous use of the walk-and-talk of any new show of the last couple of seasons. Near the outset, Dr. Andy Yablonki (Alex O’Laughlin) strides the halls of the best transplant hospital in the United States, coolly receiving exposition from his colleagues. One relays that someone is waiting for Andy at the front desk—a young man who, needing a new heart, has traveled all the way to Pittsburgh from Omaha to butter him up. The prospective patient is a Somali refugee, one of America’s 9.5 million uninsured noncitizens. However, the guy has a story so sad and a smile so beatific that he might even melt the heart of Joe Wilson. Andy can’t make any promises, but he’ll do what he can, possibly by employing the magical powers of his tremendously handsome cleft chin. His nonpromise provokes the consternation of his operating assistant: “I don’t have any insurance information on him.” All but winking, Andy replies, “You’re clever. You’ll think of something.” Andy doesn’t play by the rules, as we already know from the fact that he doesn’t tuck his shirt in.

Meanwhile, a man lays brain-dead in Cleveland. “Another thing to consider at this stage is organ donation,” someone says to his wife. The Cleveland hospital places a call to Pittsburgh so that they can retrieve his ticker for an ailing pregnant lady. Then the man’s daughter vehemently wonders, “How do you know they did everything they could to save him?” A new assistant at Three Rivers, having just walked into the Cleveland hospital while a colleague talked about that city’s fabulous cheeseburgers, flies off the handle upon learning that the daughter had ordered a new set of tests, furiously confronting her about the potentially ruinous delay. This earns him a reprimand from his boss: “This is not how we do it.” The kid, not yet knowing the rules, doesn’t know properly how not to play by them.

Meanwhile, a surgical fellow grapples with the case of a well-connected child who has been swallowing metal objects, as demonstrated by deluxe graphics on the computer screens possibly borrowed from the CSI crime lab. The case has stirred some daddy issues for the surgical fellow, and she needs to track down the surgery chief to work them out. “Doctor, do you have a second?” The doctor, running late for a meeting, talks quickly: “Walk with me.”