Why have medical shows been so successful on television?
The answer seems simple.
The hospital is a dramatic place.
Shows exploring the lives of medical personnel and examining the high-stakes decisions they make are naturally very engaging. The drama is practically ready-made. Without resorting to contrived or far-flung plot-lines, medical shows can access moments of great emotional strength (and weakness).
However, the medical shows that we remember and which move us most powerfully do more than tell stories of doctors and their patients. The medical shows we love take us somewhere or tweak the medical drama genre and bring something new to it.
One of the most famous and long-standing shows in American television history, M*A*S*H found an innovative way to tell stories about war without many explosions, guns, or scenes with people charging up hills to get shot. M*A*S*H starred Alan Alda who put all his skills of irony and humor into the show as Pierce – a great doctor who rebelled against authority.
The cast gelled around Alda’s sincerity, personality and charm making M*A*S*H a well-rounded, multi-faceted medical show with integrity at its heart. It wasn’t just drama, nor was it all comedy. M*A*S*H was good theatre on TV, a thing that remains rare and which probably explains the amazing run of 11 years that the medical show was on the air.
Doogie Howser, M.D.
Just when you thought kids couldn’t be doctors… Doogie Howser was a precocious teenaged boy who finished medical school when he was fifteen. They let him become a surgeon because he had passed all his tests.
Perhaps this is not the most realistic scenario for a medical show, but Doogie Howser, M.D.was a popular and funny show.
Awkward situations arose very naturally and drama was built into the impossibility of a kid this young being granted a position as a physician and surgeon, facing the rigors and challenges of doctoring in a hospital.
The former star of that far-fetched medical show, Neil Patrick Harris, disappeared from the scene for a while then returned to cameo in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. He can now be seen on the television show How I Met Your Mother.
If you’ve ever heard of George Clooney you have ER to thank. A medical show that eschewed much of the humor that was central to M*A*S*H and Doogie Howser, Md., ER maintained a high level of intensity from start to finish every week.
The drama of an emergency room was the setting and the subject of this weekly medical show, expanding to take in the philandering of its star doctors, the personnel conflicts and ego-battles of high profile doctors, and sometimes the quiet relief of a night away from all the blood and guts of the “ER”.
ER‘s gritty, high-intensity version of the medical show turned out to be hugely successful and the show ran from 1994 to 2009.
The interest in this show was not only its intensity, but also its focus on the emotional costs of failure and success for the doctors and nurses in the emergency room.
Though highly formulaic in its episode construction, House, M.D. has tapped into an interesting sub-genre of medical show. This Fox drama is a hybrid show, meshing the hospital setting, the life-and-death situations, and the ego conflicts of the hospital with the criminal investigation and witness interrogations of a police procedural drama.
In the case of this medical show, the criminal is sickness and the mystery comes in identifying the culprit before it’s too late.
Always funny in a darkly sarcastic way, House, M.D. takes Alda’s Pierce character from M*A*S*H and twists him into a person who is both more jolly and more depressed and…more talented.
The innovations of House, M.D. are not limited to the hybrid nature of the show but include also an examination of the legal and financial sides of running a hospital.