NBC’s new medical drama New Amsterdam belongs to a familiar type. There’s a Bad Boy Outsider who comes to Shake Things Up, questioning the conventional wisdom and breaking all the rules in order to do the right thing. On New Amsterdam, that’s Dr. Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold). He’s got “good” right in the name!
Things for Dr. Goodwin start simply enough for the rule-breaker’s code. He bikes to work. He changes in the gross locker room with the nurses who speak Spanish. He talks to the nurses! He’s a rebel. But then, in Goodwin’s first speech to the assembled medical staff, New Amsterdam makes it clear this isn’t just going to be a regular medical drama. This is going to be a very, very dumb medical drama.
Dr. Goodwin starts by informing the assembled staff that his sister died in this hospital. The death was due to a preventable infection, so fixing this hospital is now Dr. Goodwin’s dream. “How can I help?” he asks the doctors. “I work for you, so you can work for your patients.” No one volunteers, so he asks everyone in the cardiac surgical department to raise their hands, and then smiles before declaring, “Great! You’re all fired.” Cardiac surgeons, see, were “placing billing above care,” so they’re out. Goodwin’s next declaration is that he’ll be hiring dozens of new attendants, and this inexplicably causes half the room to leave in fury. His next two moves are to “get rid of the waiting room,” and put healthy food in the hospital.
Wait, you may be thinking, how would any of this … work? Healthy food sounds good, but surely the hospital needs some cardiac surgeons? Surely there’d be no need for a waiting room at all if the hospital had enough beds? Never you mind, foolish small-minded pragmatist. Dr. Goodwin is a man on a mission! He’s got dreams! He is not going to pick up that phone call from the dean of medicine, because he’s going to do some doctoring first.
Admittedly, the show’s underlying message is enticing. (Although “underlying” is a bit of a stretch, suggesting as it does that the show has hidden depths, which it very much does not.) As New Amsterdam indicates, the American medical industry is, indeed, a disaster. Every single part of it is broken, and it would be great if someone could walk in with a magic wand and undo the whole thing. I’m with Dr. Goodwin on that: The focus should be on patients rather than billing. A doctor should care more about health than about a department’s statistics. There should be healthy food options! In the show’s most bong-rip–worthy, “no bad ideas in brainstorming” moments, there’s something magnetic about imagining what might happen if the whole system were dismantled and brought back to first principles. What if, instead of hurting people, doctors helped people? Whooaaa.
But New Amsterdam couldn’t be any less interested in the complexity, magnitude, details, history, or causes of those problems, nor does it waste time with the real mechanisms for their solutions. No, this show is about big sweeping gestures. Why fire three bad cardiac surgeons when you could fire them all? Why reduce wait times when you can eliminate the whole room? This is not really a medical drama. In the dystopian landscape we currently call medical care, it is a medicine-flavored fantasy.
I get why this kind of fantasy is appealing, but I prefer when it doesn’t masquerade as a heartwarming insight. And if we must have a fantasy where one good-hearted white dude shows up and saves us all, it could at least be better written.
“You do know the whole system’s rigged,” the one remaining cardiac surgeon says to Goodwin. “They’re not going to let you come in here and just … help people.” If New Amsterdam has a thesis statement, this whopper of a line, a strawman so silly that it’s beyond self-parody, is probably it. But the show is blindly sincere, and to best appreciate a line like that, you should also imagine it playing above the swelling tones of a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” which, yes, does make an appearance in the pilot episode. Don’t worry, though, because if you miss the thesis that time, you have several other chances. One of my other favorite versions is, “If you can’t help her as a doctor, then just help her as a human being.” (The follow-up exchange: “Am I allowed to do that?” “You are now.”) There’s also a cheerful, nonsensical inanity to, “Let’s get into some trouble. Let’s be doctors again.”
I would like to send out an SOS for Drs. Laura Bloom (Janet Montgomery) and Floyd Pearson (Jocko Sims), who are acting as though their lives depended on it — and after a glimpse at the way medicine works in New Amsterdam Hospital, maybe they are. They seem engaged in a more nuanced level of storytelling than anything happening in the main plots, though, and it’s shame they get so squashed under the weight of Dr. Goodwin’s plan for the key to all medical mythologies. The pilot episode also has a few glimmers of Dr. Hana Sharpe, played by the excellent Freema Agyeman, and the best thing New Amsterdam could do in the future is turn her into a meaningful foil for Dr. Goodwin’s manic, bad-boy, dream-doctor madness. The first two episodes give us little sign this will happen.
In spite of all this — in spite of the unemployed cardiac surgeons, and the closing act’s revelation that Dr. Goodwin has put a farmer’s market where the waiting room used to be — the deeper trouble with New Amsterdam is what seems almost certain to happen ten episodes down the line. Based on a few “plot” “twists” that happen midway through the pilot and develop in episode two, it’s clear that Dr. Goodwin’s efforts to save the hospital will quickly become the outward mission, while the real work will be Dr. Goodwin saving himself. The show’s stated intent — to be a medical fantasy about doctors actually helping people — is beautifully dumb, but at least it’s occasionally funny. The opening salvos of Dr. Goodwin’s journey toward self-realization keep all of New Amsterdam’s over-obvious aphoristic messaging, but jettison what little the show had in entertainment value.
Grousing aside, I have to admit: That farmer’s market does look nice.