'Boston Med': Compelling but sterilized real-life drama

The new reality series explores hospital life -- from the caregivers to the wounded -- at three facilities based in Boston, Mass. The series premieres on June 24 at 10 p.m. ET.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010

A day or night in the life of a hospital is one of the oldest journalistic ideas around, because there's almost always something to see in an emergency room and because everyone loves a cliffhanger (Will she live?) and a weepy miracle (She will live!).

And the strengthened stomachs of the American television audience have allowed medical shows -- fictional or real -- to become far more graphic. By now, we've all had close looks at intubations, open-heart surgeries, colonoscopies, births and everything else on trauma documentaries. The fictional dramas got bloodier, too. It's almost as if we watch medical shows superstitiously, as a way of staying out of hospitals personally.

So "Boston Med," an eight-part prime-time documentary from ABC News beginning Thursday night, is nothing new. From the same executive producer, Terence Wrong, who was behind the similar Baltimore-based docu-series "Hopkins" that aired a couple of summers ago, "Boston Med" spent four months intimately chronicling life and death inside three Boston hospitals -- Massachusetts General, Children's, and Brigham and Women's.

The results are, of course, compelling but also assiduously sterilized. I'm not talking about the viscera and blood, although it's fairly light as these things go -- a few open chest cavities, some needles, a drunk college student ralphing all over the floor. (And if you stick around until episode eight, you can watch a face transplant!)

I'm more put off by "Boston Med's" avoidance of the nitty-gritty that comes with hospital bills and insurance coverage. It's as if the entire past year of heated talk about health-care reform had never happened. For a documentary created by a news division, "Boston Med" is curiously devoid of claims forms, administrative paperwork and worries about paying. The only dollar amount uttered in the first four episodes comes from a Harvard med student, who wants us to know that he got a $300,000 scholarship.

It's as if "Boston Med" is afraid to show us anything we don't already know about hospitals: The ER sees a lot of whacked-out loonies; parents in waiting rooms fervently beg a higher power to make their child better; every second counts once the donor lungs are in the ice chest and on the helicopter; doctors and nurses yell at one another when things get tense and flirt a lot when things cool down.

"There are no McDreamies or McSteamies working around here," says ER nurse Amanda Grabowski, explaining the concept of "hospital cute," where a man can seem so attractive in the heat of a 15-hour shift and then not-so-cute when he takes her on a date. Nevertheless, the cameras go along when a hot doc takes her tango dancing. Grabowski is definitely hospital cute, and therefore one of "Boston Med's" favorite people to follow around, because she's intense and funny. A script doctor couldn't write her lines any better.

In fact, everyone on "Boston Med" has clearly watched some "E.R.," "Chicago Hope" or "Grey's Anatomy." They probably watched "Hopkins," too. They know too much about what a TV documentary in a hospital should look like, and they aim to provide.

Mindful of the fickleness of the prime-time audience, "Boston Med" seems to focus on the easiest and most dramatic stories it can tell, those with conclusions -- which makes it definitely something you can sit back and eat ice cream to. It is suffused with good cheer and get-well-soon, and I wouldn't be surprised to find copies of the DVD next to the bouquets in the hospital gift shop.

It is pro-doctor, pro-hospital and pro-sunshine. It follows a template set forth by decades of fictional medical dramas: Three or four patients with varying degrees of life-threatening illnesses or injuries are cared for by three or four doctors (or nurses) of varying experience levels -- and the whole thing is stitched together by sweeping aerial shots of skyscrapers and rivers and freeways.

Oh, and rock ballads: You know you're going to live when the producers have spliced an upbeat rock ballad into the background. But if you're hearing too much soft piano, well, I'm sorry. We did everything we could.

Boston Med

(one hour) premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on ABC

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