At first glance, the idea of a TV series that takes place in a hospital and follows doctors’ daily routines can feel quite unappealing. The list of the many reasons why including the raw and unattractive reality of what physicians really have to do, imminent deaths, the sight of blood (or worse), complex medical jargon, and so on… But despite those points that would, theoretically, make them an unpleasant and tedious experience for viewers, the past decades have proved that, when it comes to stories taking place in a medical environment, the results often meet with success.
A notable example is NBC’s widely acclaimed TV series, ER, a show following a group of doctors working in a busy emergency room who try to keep their heads above water as they face many challenges while struggling with their own personal matters… The series, created by Michael Crichton in 1994, became the longest-running primetime medical drama in American TV history, and went on to win 23 Emmy Awards, collecting 116 various prizes altogether.
While highly successful, ER was not the first, nor the last, TV drama taking place in the medical world that made audiences crave for more. Among its predecessors are many very popular programs, like General Hospital (still running since 1963) and M*A*S*H*, one of the highest-rated shows in U.S. television history. As for its legacy, series such as Grey’s Anatomy, House, Scrubs, Nurse Jackie, Private Practice, and the more recent Pure Genius, Chicago Med, and Code Black make the list seem endless.
So, how can we explain such a wide appeal?
An Abundant Source of Stories and Dramas
The stakes in medical dramas are much greater than those in most other shows, which consequently helps keep the tension high, and, to a certain degree, almost omnipresent. Essentially, hospitals are an endless supply of engrossing stories, whether they lead to a tragic fate or not.
“It felt like there were a thousand stories in every room and there is something really great about that idea.” – Shonda Rhimes
And to fathom the success of such productions, we also need to grasp what drove writers to create them in the first place. Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey’s Anatomy (whose 13th season will soon come to an end on ABC), described what sparked her interest as follows: “There’s something fascinating about the medical world – you see things you’d never imagine.” She added: “It felt like there were a thousand stories in every room and there is something really great about that idea.” While, for his part, David Shore, who is the man behind ER and the highly praised series House, explained: “I was fascinated about the whole intellect vs. emotion.”
But, ultimately, in order to understand why such environments that open the door to numerous dramatic situations are so fascinating, we need to go back to the main definition of what makes a great drama: “An exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances.”
Moreover, if we focus on his work on dramatic theory, the Greek philosopher Aristotle described the “best plot of a tragedy” as one that “should imitate actions arousing fear and pity”, detailing that “the aim of tragedy is to bring about a ‘catharsis’ of the spectators – to arouse in them sensations of pity and fear so that they live the theatre with a heighten understanding of the ways of gods and men.”
What better stage, then, than the place where men and women have to fight to make a difference as to whether people live or die?
And let’s not omit the all-important caliber of the parts. What makes brilliant characters, whether they rise or fall, is their abilities to overcome obstacles through actions/choices, which eventually unveil their weaknesses, strengths, complexities, and eventually lead to their maturation. Although it’s sad to say, medical dramas offer plenty of space for damaged personas, to which audiences – consciously or not – just love to relate to.
Ordinary People We Can Easily Identify With
“It is more to do with learning about ourselves from other people.” – Professor George Ikkos
While some might be tempted to call it voyeurism, the real reason why viewers don’t switch the channel goes beyond the grim enjoyment of witnessing others experiencing pain and distress. The truth is, we like watching people facing problems we fear we might face, too.
Interviewed by the BBC back in 2012, Professor George Ikkos, President of the Royal Society of Medicine’s psychiatry section, pointed out that “it is more to do with learning about ourselves from other people,” before adding: “It’s not like watching something about nuclear physics or stamp collecting.”
Does that make us eager spectators of other people’s misery? Absolutely. But in a less morbid manner than one might think. Take the 2016 Netflix short documentary Extremis (nominated for an Academy Award this year) as an example. Even though the film, shot in the Intensive Care Unit of Highland Hospital in California, only lasts 24 minutes, it has had an undeniable powerful impact on audiences. Why? Extremis follows doctors, families, and patients as they make end-of-life decisions. Does it mean that people love to watch others dying? Absolutely not. While it exposes the amount of stress doctors face when they have to make dramatic decisions, the documentary is also a long stare in the eyes of death itself, leading to a frank confrontation with something that fascinates most of us and affects everyone dramatically.
It’s therefore no wonder why many writers of medical series tend to find inspiration in real-life cases to come up with their scripts. Furthermore, real-life problems are also an opportunity to shed light on many overlooked social issues. Simply take a look back at some of the most talked-about or impactful past TV episodes from famous shows. Many covered problems that are too often disregarded by society, like mental illness, costs of care, family abuse, rape… which are, ultimately, contentious matters that countless viewers can truly empathize with.