The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: Who Needs a Hero When We’ve Got Doctors?

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageWhen you are a columnist long enough, eventually you will find yourself running low on fresh new topics. Depending on your subject matter, this might take a longer or shorter period of time. This week, as I was racking my brain about which show to write about, I came up empty for inspiration.

A lot of my favorite shows have come back on air recently, like Friday Night Lights‘ fifth and final season (I cannot stress highly enough how much you need to watch this show!) or In Treatment‘s third season-outing, but I have written about these shows before and I don’t want to bore you. The truth is, if I haven’t made you want to tune into these shows before, I probably won’t do it now either.

So this week I am opting for less of a laid out critique of a particular show and instead present you with an intriguing idea I recently came up with and ask for your input to develop it further.

A bit of personal details about your beloved columnist is in order first: I recently picked up my university studies again and am currently working towards my Masters Degree in American Studies. A big part of this is the final Master Thesis I will have to write on a topic of my choice (well, technically it has to be related to one of the courses I take, but you can always spin it in a way that it does). Since I was never one for literary theory or linguistic analysis, obviously for my thesis I am gravitating towards my other field of expertise and interest: all things media, especially film and television related.

Some of you might know I already wrote my Bachelor thesis on a little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, excerpts of which ran as part of Whedon Week here on the site. I want my Masters thesis to be much in the same vein, but this time I am dreaming bigger.
The preliminary title I have come up with is “The Doctor as the (New) Hero: Representations in Popular Television.”

ImageNow do you get where I am going with this? There is a long standing tradition of medical shows in US television that goes back way further than Emergency Room and won’t stop with Grey’s Anatomy either. And despite the fact that superheroes have recently started a tremendous comeback and are blasting out of their comic books onto the big screens, when we look at “real” people who are portrayed as “heroic” and “the backbones of our society” —  not only in movies but especially in television — we quickly find ourselves with doctors and police officers of various ranks in our hands.

I contemplated writing about the plethora of cop shows out there and how portrayals of them has changed and shifted over the years, but it seemed to me so complex, inconsistent and deeply varying depending on the setting of a show (because every State in the US has different laws and so a cop show in New York is not the same as a cop show in L.A.) that I deemed cop shows too much of a land mine that could blow up in my face. Also, I simply haven’t watched enough cop shows in my lifetime to be any kind of an expert, so I would have to do a tremendous amount of research.

Medical shows, on the other hand, have been a staple in my viewing schedule for years, not only because I used to want to become a doctor myself and step into my aunt and uncle’s footsteps, but also because the medical profession just lends itself to beautifully to heightened stakes and stellar drama. It literally is about life and death every now and then when you are a doctor, at least when you work in the emergency room or the ICU, and every mistake you make could be fatal, so being human and having a bad day could literally destroy lives. Is it any wonder writers were drawn to this profession ever since television was created?

And it’s not even just pure medical shows that have put doctors up on a pedestal, to be respected and admired. Back in the days of “good old television” all you needed to do to establish a character as reliable, responsible, hard-working and virtuous was to give him the profession of “doctor” and you were set. Remember Dr. Huxtable on The Cosby Show?
Men who are doctors are also always prime dating material in television, as demonstrated on Friends, Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives and so on. The writers and the female characters seem to forget that doctors, especially those working in hospitals, have very little time on their hands and the craziest work schedules (come talk to me about it, my uncle hasn’t been able to spend Christmas with us ever since my cousins grew up and he no longer had the “I need to be home with my kids” excuse going for him to get him out of a shift or two around the holidays).

ImageHowever, it is also obvious the attitude towards the medical profession has changed in television over time, or shall we say it has become more three-dimensional and shaded. While the stakes remain as high as ever and life and death is part of almost every single episode of House, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and so on, our doctors are no longer perfect, morally unambiguous and demigods in white. Emergency Room was one of the first shows to really delve into this territory deeper, but it has been shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy who really have taken the “doctors are people too and they are just as screwed up as the rest of us” to whole new levels.

Given how screwed up Gregory House, Meredith Grey, Cristina Yang and Co. are, it is almost implausible they should be as good of doctors as they are. Or maybe it is BECAUSE they are so screwed up that they can overachieve? And if we believe that to be true, then what does that say about our society?
The scope of the medical show has furthermore been extended to cover more professions lately as well. There are/were a few shows dealing specifically with the contribution nurses make to the workings within a hospital, something Scrubs already hinted at, which has recently been fleshed out on such shows as Mercy, Nurse Jackie and Hawthorne.
Paramedics and EMTs are also shown as worthy of a ton of respect, territory Third Watch and Trauma have covered graciously.
Even the mental health professionals get their own shows now, see In Treatment and Web Therapy with Lisa Kudrow.

The shift from “unadulterated hero” to “human being with flaws and a purpose” has been progressive and long in the making when it comes to medical shows, so much is obvious, and I am determined to find out more and trace this gradual process.
I hope to also include background on the medical profession “in the real world”, meaning what training doctors go through in the US, how many med students actually make it to be doctors and why they chose the profession in the first place. This research would most likely include interviews with med students, medical interns, residents and established doctors.
I want to ask them about their values, question them on specific moral dilemmas “as seen on TV” and find out what real life doctors would do in some of the situations TV presents its doctors with every week.

So, there you have it, Phoebe Raven’s Next Big Project That Will Involve Watching A Lot of TV and Passing It Off as Intellectual Discourse. As of now I realize the themes are still weak and underdeveloped, but maybe you would like to help.
For example, comment in the forums on the medical shows you suggest I include in my survey of shows, past and present. Also tell me about instances on non-medical shows where doctors showed up or were pivotal and how they were being portrayed. Alert me to anything that strikes you as odd, interesting or flat-out unrealistic in any of the shows you are watching or have watched.

And in two years time you might just see excerpts of my Masters Thesis posted here, you never know.