It’s a shame that “reality TV” has been co-opted by shows that have little to do with reality; the term describes NY Med perfectly. Set in and around New York-Presbyterian Hospital, this eight-part nonfiction series has no agenda to push, no axes to grind. It just follows a bunch of doctors and nurses as they do their jobs.
The best-known person on it is Mehmet Oz, a.k.a. Dr. Oz, but while he deftly replaces a leaky mitral valve and shows off the bedside manner that made him a TV star, he’s just one recurring character in a densely populated show. NY Med (which airs tonight, and for several more Tuesdays, on ABC at 10 p.m.) is about the dirty details of a certain line of work (medicine) and the people who pass through its system — patients who at first seem like nothing more than case files that happen to have names, but are soon revealed to have distinctive personalities. Oz and his mitral valve patient Jack Abramson are but two examples: Early in the first episode, during an appointment to schedule surgery, Oz notices that Abramson showed up alone and insists he call someone to be there after the procedure. “I’ve made the mistake of operating on people who had no one who loved them,” Oz says. “So now I insist that my patient identify one person they love and who loves them back, because if you don’t have a reason for your heart to keep beating, it won’t.” Abramson phones his ex-wife Phyllis; it’s a joy to watch them interact because whatever caused their breakup, you can tell that there’s still deep affection there.
NY Med is filled with warm, honest moments like this — some poignant, others comic — and characters who would be plenty compelling even if they didn’t keep revealing surprising new sides. We meet a patient whose penis has locked up owing to an excess of Cialis, a young mother of two who undergoes brain surgery to remove a tumor and stays awake during the procedure, an ailing 92-year-old grandmother with a fondness for red wine and chocolate, and a young surgeon who did his residency in New Orleans in 2005 and continues to pay tribute to victims of the hurricane by wearing a black cap during his rounds. A transplant surgeon named Arubdi Mahendran heads for the hospital chapel after-hours to sing opera and pop standards in a strong, beautiful voice.
The show’s executive producer, Terence Wrong, is a bit of an unsung hero of American documentary filmmaking. He practices what journalism school teachers call “pure reporting,” meaning he’s not setting off to investigate a hypothesis or land a big scoop, but to hang out with interesting people while they do interesting things, then tell us what he learned. He’s made several TV series in the vein of NY Med, including Hopkins 24/7, about John Hopkins Medical Center; NYPD 24/7, about New York’s police department; and Boston 24/7, a layer-cake series about city life that often suggested a nonfiction Beantown cousin of The Wire. Wrong’s shows nearly always air during the summer when the ratings stakes are low, and if you watch even an hour of his work, you’ll understand why. This isn’t high-pressure storytelling. With a couple of stylistic exceptions — including novelistic cross-cutting that plays havoc with chronology, and some music cues that verge on Grey’s Anatomy–style cheese — Wrong’s series are laid-back and plainspoken. He seems to think that if he shows us recognizable people in situations we can relate to, we’ll be intrigued enough to keep watching. He’s right.