Heartbeat, Code Black, and Chicago Med display the new trends in medical-themed dramatic programming.
Since the birth of modern television, the world of medicine – and surgery in particular – has been a mainstay of episodic entertainment. This makes sense. What workplace could more lend itself to the form? From M*A*S*H and St. Elsewhere through to the present, medical shows have focused on a team of intelligent and attractive heroes (I mean, they’re doctors! Come on!), who are thrown into diverse and extraordinary situations where human life is always on the line, and they must use their hard-earned skills to save the day, or suffer the tragedy of loss.
This mainstay, however, has been experiencing a change in form on the broadcast networks, one that changes in turn what audiences and parents can expect to see from it. While usually not outstanding performers in terms of ratings, medical dramas are network workhorses. They dependably bring in a healthy, if not really luscious, number of viewers; and when they do work, they can work that plough for a long time.
Recently, though, this genre has begun to experience what could be the first signs of a weakness requiring change. It’s been years since a medical series has had the breakout success of an ER or Grey’s Anatomy, shows that can last for a dozen years and mint movie stars. Rather, audiences seem like they might be building an immunity to the same old rote drama. Or creators are. Either way, the change is happening.
To best test this might be to diagnose scientifically, as a doctor would. Take a sample – three of the newest releases – and then compare form and outcomes. Code Black on CBS, Chicago Med on NBC, and Heartbeat on NBC are three good choices, as they’re new, diverse, and provide examples of the hypothesis. Medical dramas have always featured, well, drama – be it in the form of violence (surgery, intense life-threatening situations) or sex (who’s sleeping with who, who likes who, et cetera). Rather than balancing this focus however, two of these shows ramp up one of these attributes each, probably in the hopes of separating from the pack, while one remains true to form. What are the potential effects?
The first to start with is the control group – Chicago Med. This show is a standard, by-the-book medical drama. Its cast of characters are diverse in talent, location in the work hierarchy, and background. They deal with a different specific problem each episode, but it always lends itself to their expertise in some way while putting their problem-solving skills to the test. Violence is minimal, nothing beyond the operating table, while relationships rarely end up under the sheets. The audience comes to Chicago Med for a “meat and potatoes” medical drama, and it gets one.
Then there’s Code Black. It’s as though someone turned the “violence” knob on Chicago Med up from a “5” to a “7,” while simultaneously turning the “sex” knob down from a “5” to a “2.” The show’s title tells you from the outset that the program is more intense — a “Code Black” refers to and instance when a hospital experiences an influx of patients beyond its capacity – and in this, the show follows through. Every episode features doctors scrambling to wash up blood, save people from an explosion, catch a murderer who’s loose in the building, and the like. The characters’ roles are all scrambled – nurses have to perform like doctors, doctors like surgeons, surgeons like administrators. Everything is hectic and meant to seem unpredictable. While ridiculous, the show is entertaining to the extent that it’s more intense than Chicago Med, and this is exactly its intention.
Third is Heartbeat, and for all intents and purposes it’s the inverse of Code Black in terms of the knob placement – less violence, more sex — while very similar in some specifics. The show centers on one main character, whose role at the hospital is vague. Is she head surgeon? Just another surgeon who’s really good? An administrator? The show’s answer to this is basically to say, “Who cares? She’s smart and she’s hot! Deal with it!” While each episode has a case that Alex, the main character, has to handle, the reality is that it focuses more on her relationships than on medicine. Alex is always handling a stream of men pouring into her life, while fending off the head of the hospital from having any say in her powers or decisions. There’s more sexual innuendo in a single episode than is probably in the first half of an entire season of Code Black; and rather than depending on intensity of the violence, the show focuses on the intensity of Alex’s romantic dalliances, and the question of just how far she’ll go to assert herself, along with the costs of both. It’s more light-hearted than Chicago Med (though sometimes has a hard time maintaining that tone, what with the pilot featuring a suicide and all), but with much more potential for juice.
Given this change in form, what are the outcomes, and why should audiences care? The answer is about expectations. The new shows are appealing to the extent that they’re different, but since this is new territory for an old form, how different will they be? Code Black and Heartbeat have only altered the knobs slightly so far, but what’s to stop them from going from “7” to “9?” Or, in the spirit of This is Spinal Tap, “up to 11?” And would an audience, parents in particular, expecting one thing, find they’ve wandered into material they hadn’t intended? While these shows have yet to test the boundaries of propriety to that extent, they’re unpredictable by design, and so the potential is there for today’s medical dramas to go beyond the expected in ways that aren’t desirable…to parents in particular.