Monday, October 2, 2023

TV medical soaps are bad for one’s health

Long lumbering medical sagas really came into their own in the noughties when the ‘soap’ phenomenon acquired a particularly HiBITANEish tinge – with ER and its various derivatives, writes Dr Seamus Kilby,  a GP working in Limerick City

I never had much time for medical soaps. Not because of their far-fetchedness  – quite the opposite: their believability was uncomfortably jarring.

In the same vein I used to think legal dramas were histrionic, Wild Westishly fabricated fantasies, and bore no relation to what actually went on in a courtroom — until I had some actual experiences of being grilled by rottweilerish Senior Counsels.

It is worth thinking through what underpinned this proliferation of medical and legal soaps. A sort of Venn diagram overlap model operates – medical and legal arenas being some of the few areas of humdrum everyday society where drama actually happens. Wars and natural disasters, fortunately, are quite rare.

And what is being discussed here is not spoofery like Scrubs, but the serious stuff like Grey’s Anatomy.

It all happened many years ago in St Elsewhere’s in the UK. I unthinkingly blurted out a dire prognosis to the watchful, waiting relations of an elderly gentleman — albeit with a pained expression which avoided a complete ‘grim messenger’ vibe. The anguished response was searing and predictable – and reverberating. Cue some serious self-recrimination. Like most of these things this was Kubleresquely processed, step-by-step, with acceptance at the end, and relevant insights taken on board. And no repeats.

But ‘repeats’ of a sort were eventually to be part of the problem – in other words, serially-recurring medical soaps. If you missed the first episode of whatever was flavour of the month, you were likely to pick it up sooner or later. Unless and until you decided to avoid them completely.

And so there duly followed, some years later, exposure to a full episode of Grey’s Anatomy which centred around the theme of one of the main characters (I think it was our heroine, Dr Meredith Grey) dishing out bad news, with no sugar-coating, with brutal suddenness, and with easily anticipated, unpleasantly dramatised, consequences.

The rest of the hour was taken up with a complex deconstruction of its aftermath: a verbal barrage of accusatory relatives, sermonising from morally superior colleagues, condemnatory self-analysis, and all the rest of it. ‘All the rest of it’ included painfully resurrected memories of St. Elsewhere’s in the UK.

This particular psychodynamic was most famously highlighted by Shakespeare all those centuries ago in the famous ‘play within a play’ in Hamlet (Act 3 Scene 2) where the title character validates the supernatural tête-à-tête with his late, murdered father and smokes out the assassin, Claudius.

To extend the Shakespearean images you are then saddled with the distaste of Caliban (The Tempest) on seeing his own image.

In general, with respect to medical soaps, much has been written about adverse patient effects (an over-optimistic view of CPR etc) and not enough about the negative doctorial overspill. It could be argued that it is a blessed relief to gaze, in an atmosphere of voyeuristic thrill, even schadenfreude, over medical crises, difficult medical personalities, ethical dilemmas etc, that are somebody else’s problem.

And, in fact, are not even real. That is until all those jarring resonances creep in. In fact, when you get down to it, it is probably not even fictional. It is quite obvious that the scriptwriters for Grey’s Anatomy source their material from actual doctors who (for a modest fee, I presume – and on condition of anonymity) recount in detail their actual experiences which are then meticulously translated into virtual visual reality by top-notch actors. (Eh, and writers! – Ed)

This being the case it could be seen as docudrama rather than drama: real, albeit skewed towards the exciting bits – long boring shifts where all is quiet on the casualty front are unlikely to be inflicted on the viewing audience.

The melodramatic confrontational dark side tends to be hyped up; nobody is interested in schmaltz; sweetness and light do not sell — hence the overemphasis on conflict, dissension, tantrums, and backstabbing.

For that reason, I think a modernised Dr. Finlay’s Casebook is unlikely to wash. Subscribers will not pay to watch a meek, reflective shrinking violet type of medic; unless he/she serves as a foil for a more belligerent member of the ensemble.

I recently decided to dip my big toe into Grey’s Anatomy and took it out quickly, in disgust, after about five minutes, when no less than three grating but authentic tropes emerged: an immature tyro on an ego trip vaingloriously ordering unnecessary investigations; a patient being paternalistically told off for not taking his meds; and a rather sheepish intern being execrated for some minor error.

The third item in this trio leads on to  one particularly off-putting exhibit in this gallery of fictional medics: the irritatingly passive Dr John Carter of ER –the classic put-upon intern who is everybody’s multipurpose punchbag,  who grovels like Fawlty Towers’ ‘Manuel’, and who has little choice but to suck it up from all and sundry. And who dishes out dollops of distasteful self-recognition.

And life can imitate art:  there is the phenomenon of the mouthy, overbearing type whose behaviour is obviously modelled on the latest (near obligatory) medical soap hospital megalomaniac.

The trick is not to get drawn in the first place – otherwise you risk being held there by a certain morbid fascination. It is possible that prolonged exposure could lead to a sort of diminishing returns of emotion but why put yourself through hours of ‘flooding’ with soaps to arrive at this stage of indifference when they could just be avoided from the start.

Most soaps tend to be just plain boring. Medical soaps are bad for your health.

Interestingly and coincidentally, there is another dimension of Hamlet which puts matters into perspective. Hamlet, commenting on a member of the acting troupe who got dewy-eyed about a doomed fictional character in a Greek tragedy (Hecuba by Euripedes), in which he participated, can’t understand why he could not remain emotionally detached:

“What’s he to Hecuba, or Hecuba to him, that he should weep for her?’

A good point. Why concern yourself about people and places that don’t even exist? Unless of course (as Hamlet himself had previously calculated) an event is played out which resonates with something that did actually happen.

Come to think of it a production based on a doctor character perpetually trapped in a vortex of serial medical drama in which he is compulsively drawn into a nightmarish kaleidoscope of personal flashbacks and painful introspection  – which are then played out in all their lurid glory for the delectation of the viewer — would form a lose template for a particularly riveting medical spiel: a fascinating cocktail of  Woody Allenesque satire, Beckettian monologue à la Krapp’s Last Tape), and Twilight Zoneism – with a bit of film noir thrown in for good measure.

If this ever materialises, I will claim intellectual property rights.

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