bad medicine

It’s Time to Retire Some Doctor-Show Clichés

Photo: CW; ABC; NBC; FOX

Quiz time: What doctor show is this scene from?

[Doctor and charming young patient engage in gentle chitchat until the patient suddenly begins seizing and then loses consciousness completely and falls back on a pillow, wan and limp, while a monitor screech-beeps insistently.]

NURSE: She’s coding!

DOCTOR: Don’t do this to me, patient!

NURSE: She’s in V-fib …

DOCTOR: Paddles! [Grabs defibrillation paddles, purposefully rubs them together.] Charge 150!

NURSE: 150.

DOCTOR: Clear! [Shocks patient by placing one pad on each pectoral muscle, just north of the nipples.]

We hear the still-monotone bleep of a heart monitor.

DOCTOR, cont’d: Charge 200.

NURSE, reluctantly: 200!

DOCTOR: Clear! [Shocks patient again.] We’re losing her! 250!

NURSE hesitates.

DOCTOR, cont’d: Charge 250! [Suddenly notices patient’s family members, who are staring on in horror.] And get them out of here!

NURSE: … 250!

DOCTOR: Clear! [Shocks patient again and listens as the bleeeeeep turns into a gentle bleep-bleep-bleep] She’s back. [Sighs deeply, rips latex gloves off, marches from room victoriously.]

That was a trick question, of course. That’s from every doctor show.

Oh, it’s dramatic to shock people back to life and all — or it was when ER made that move its bread and butter back in 1994. But now that scene, that process, the clear! and the loud kuh-thunk sound that follows it? It’s not a mystery anymore or even a narrative technique: It’s a stalling mechanism. We all know the outcome.

Last night’s premiere of Emily Owens M.D. had that scene, of course, because it had every scene you’d expect an unoriginal doctor show to have. The higher-ranking doctor who barks orders and tells you how seriously you’re supposed to take your pager? Grey’s Anatomy had that scene in its pilot, too, back when Meredith and Cristina were still calling Bailey “the Nazi,” but it also has Peter Benton written all over it. How many episodes of ER were about Benton scolding Carter because that’s how you learn, dammit? Many, many episodes. Same goes for Dr. Cox and J.D. on Scrubs. We get it!

Emily trotted out the precocious tween with a life-threatening condition who, through the haze of her illness, was still able to toss off truisms about her doctors’ personal lives and not-so-secret feelings. That was a go-to move for House for many years — why just have a pediatrics patient when you can have a sage pediatrics patient?

Oh, but Emily Owens gave us the clichéd geriatric patient, too: a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s. A character with dementia immediately ratchets up the emotional stakes of any scene: Everything becomes tragic and agonizing, even when it’s perfectly pleasant. Nip/Tuck did this; ER did this twice; Grey’s has done it twice; Chicago Hope, Everwood, Picket Fences, St. Elsewhere — it’s not that doctor shows should never do Alzheimer’s story lines, but it would be nice if they were less redundant. (Scrubs is the exception here: Their Alzheimer’s stories were actually different and, in the case of Johnny the Tackling Alzheimer’s Patient, kind of funny!)

Every episode of Law & Order involves someone being read his or her Miranda rights. Every episode of a family-set sitcom will have a character experience a sudden onset of wisdom. Every newsmagazine show is about a pretty girl getting murdered or murdering someone. Genres have conventions. But Emily Owens M.D. shined a frightening light on just how rote the medical genre has become. You might even say it’s flat-lining. Clear! [Kuh-thunk.]

It’s Time to Retire Some Doctor-Show Clichés