But One Plays Me on TV

This fall, Slate presents reviews of new fall TV shows by people with real-life knowledge of the experiences the shows depict. Our fourth installment is from Jennifer Walser, an E.R. physician, on the ABC show Gideon’s Crossing, premiering Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET (click here for the first “Dispatch,” on NBC’s Deadline, here for the second on Fox’s Dark Angel, and here for the third on NBC’s Ed).

Last night I was escorting a girl into the gynecology booth because, as she put it, “It broke and I think it’s still in there.” She never actually said what it was, but I’ve done this enough to know that it was a condom and it was probably stuck in her fornix, a sneaky little back pocket of the vagina, hard to get at without the help of a speculum. Just before we got to the room, a man walked out of the bathroom, did a belly-flop onto the floor in front of us and started twitching.

“OH MY GOD,” shrieked the already traumatized girl, “what is happening?”

“Seizure,” I said as I pulled a pillow from a stretcher and put it under his chest and head, which were bumping against the floor. I looked at the nurse responsible for that area. “Ativan?” she asked. I nodded, then the girl and I continued on our way. The seizure had stopped by the time I closed the door to the room behind me.

This, my friends, is how seizures happen. They’re nothing like the one you’ll see on Gideon’s Crossing, this season’s new hospital drama. A seemingly healthy man collapses to the ground and starts twitching violently. But then an intern sprints over, flops to the ground next to the patient, and holds tightly to his arms and legs, while three nurses materialize from nowhere. The (new) intern looks up and fires off, “StartalineDiazepam5milligramsIVslowpush.” I think I’ve seen the exact same scene on ER, and it’s no wonder: Seizures make for great entertainment because they are so violent, so dramatic, so sensational. But the secret truth is they aren’t that big a deal.

Gideon’s Crossing depicts a Harvard-trained “wizard” of a doctor who specializes in experimental treatments at a prominent hospital in Boston. The show has all the makings of fine entertainment. Andre Braugher is a wonderful actor, the cinematography is excellent, and a few of the storylines have the potential to be touching and even inspirational. Unfortunately, all this promise is buried up to its neck in cliché, blurred by inauthentic dialogue, and undermined by an awkward juxtaposition of storylines.

As you can probably guess, Gideon’s practice is nothing like a real hospital setting (I know: I went to Harvard and I worked in the hospital this show is intended to depict).

The chief resident in pediatrics walks away as the intern scampers down the hall talking to his back, a terribly unprofessional and rude thing to do. Interns on the show steal patients from each other. A group of residents sit outside at 4 a.m., talking about how terrible their lives are. Three of the four of them are smoking. (This part, unfortunately, is accurate.)

There are no characters in this drama, only caricatures. The patient in the main story is a cancer-stricken venture capitalist who detests his wife, ignores his kids, lives for golf, and unabashedly voices his appalling prejudices. He wasn’t present for the birth of his children. Every word that comes out of his mouth reinforces his evil nature. The point would be less obvious only if he were dressed in a red outfit carrying a pitchfork, with little horns sticking up through his gelled hair.

In contrast, Gideon himself is perfect, as a man, a father, and a doctor. A “wizard” in high demand, he waits with his patient outside of the radiology suite (yeah, right). In his free time—the dead of night, of course—he goes running in a cut-off DHA sweatshirt. (A secret Harvard wink, that’s the monogram for Harvard Department of Athletics.) Gideon’s family scene at the breakfast table, complete with slow background country music, made me think that I was watching a commercial instead of the show. Gideon, a widower, makes waffles for his attentive, amusing kids. He wears an apron. His perfect kid spills perfect chocolate milk in her perfect lap.

Perhaps the least authentic element in Gideon’s Grossing is the dialogue.  Everyone has an immediate, snappy answer ready to launch. Some conversations are delivered so quickly that they’re difficult to follow. Perhaps the rapid-fire banter is an attempt to convey the frenetic pace of hospital life, but it ends up sounding as if somebody set the phonograph on 78 rpm for a 45 record. If I didn’t have the luxury of viewing it on videotape, I would have missed half of what was said.  “The Japs look at a nice lush fairway with all the lip-smacking, empty-stomached love of a herd of grazing cattle,” says our cancer-ridden capitalist pig.

When Gideon is discussing the radiographic appearance of his patient’s metastatic cancer, the conversation between him and the radiologist verges on the absurd. After citing The Iliad and Avon ladies, the radiologist comments (play this at 78 rpm):

“It’s an amazing cancer.”


“Beautiful, a pure predator.”

“You mean like a shark.”

“Like a pregnant cat, it’s a much more efficient predator than a shark …”

Is there a less pompous doctor in the house? Doesn’t it usually take longer than a nanosecond to come up with a spunky retort or metaphor? Doesn’t anyone ever say, “What?” Shouldn’t they shut up and diagnose the patient? ER for all its melodrama, doesn’t stray nearly so far from reality as this.

The drama’s gravity is further undermined by a storyline about a medical resident who admits a dog to the hospital. A dog. (The same dog, by the way, from As Good as It Gets. This little pup’s acting career is really taking off.) I guess we are supposed to be entertained, but instead the juxtaposition of the ultra-serious with the downright ludicrous is confusing and insulting to the cancer patient, us the audience, and even the dog.

This show is not all bad. The only reason I’m pointing out the ridiculous litany of clichés, the hyperbolic good guy/bad guy characters, and the spastically intellectual interchanges is that some really valuable points are lost in this mire. There are several truly poignant touches—the cancer patient’s wife hangs her head in despair when she learns he is doing better, one little boy’s mother refers to her child as “an eight year sentence for a one night mistake,” then adds,” they don’t give you that for armed robbery.” These are the makings of a fantastic TV hospital drama. Too bad they’re run over by an epileptic fit of forced medical cliché.

Photograph of Bruce McGill and Andre Braugher in Gideon’s Crossing by Frank Carroll © ABC Television Network. All rights reserved.