If it is humorously true that cemeteries are a place that people are dying to get into, hospitals are a place we hope to get of out alive. (Hospitals – they should call them inhospitables, am I right?) Still, we like to watch them on TV.
Tuesday brings two programs about what’s wrong with hospitals and what can be righted. NBC’s new medical series “New Amsterdam” is semi-factual fiction, based on a book about New York’s Bellevue Hospital; the PBS documentary “The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science” looks at the history, work and mission of the hospital all other hospitals want to be.
“New Amsterdam” was developed by David Schulner from “Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital,” by Dr. Eric Manheimer, the medical director at Bellevue from 1997 to 2012. Here Manheimer is transformed into Dr. Max Goodwin, who is exactly as young and handsome as Ryan Eggold, who plays him. Details from Manheimers’ own life pepper the series (the first two episodes were available to review), along with stories from the book. Bellevue’s actual, own impressive lobby plays itself.
The series, which is full of people feeling feelings, fits NBC’s Age of “This Is Us” ethos — like “The West Wing” of yore — that is, a drama of wish fulfillment.
“How can I help?” is Dr. Goodwin’s way of saying hello, and also, “Cómo puedo ayudar,” because he speaks Spanish, too, and is cozy with the janitors and nurses, whose work he wants to make “more rewarding, efficient and harassment free.” He has come to turn around a low-performing hospital with “the highest mortality and infection rates in New York City -- that’s like the Beyonce of performance, if Beyonce, you know, killed people.”
Soon enough, the regular cast coalesces around the mission, like a crime-fighting team – and isn’t disease just a crime against health? Sympathetic to Dr. Goodwin’s aims and elated by his methods, they are the ones who have an answer when he asks, “How can I help?” (You may tire of this admirable greeting, even after two episodes.)
The comrades include Tyler Labine as Dr. Iggy Frome (psychiatry) and Anupam Kher as Dr. Vijau Kapoor (designated older character), who also provide something like comedy relief – they bumble a little – but they have their doubts and demons, too, along with the sort of superior doctoring skills that can only come from caring too much. Even Freema Agyeman’s superficially haughty, jet-setting Dr. Hana Sharpe (oncology) will be seen to care too much, by the end of Episode 2.
Janet Montgomery plays Dr. Laura Bloom, head of Emergency, who wants to get rid of the waiting room and put everyone right in a bed. (Sure, says Dr. Goodwin, because it is apparently that easy.) Dr. Bloom is in what might or might not become a relationship with cardiac surgeon Dr. Floyd Reynolds (Jocko Sims), the only survivor of Dr. Goodwin’s mass firing of the hospital’s heart surgeons for their “rampant culture of inflating billable hours.”
“You do know the whole system’s rigged, don’t you?,” says Dr. Reynolds, who does not want anyone to see just how much he really cares. “They ‘re not going to let you come in here and just – help people.”
“So let’s help as many as we can before they figure us out,” says Dr. Goodwin. (Good. Win. Just saying.)
It is as baldly manipulative and corny as heck — the pilot ends with a Coldplay song — and even a little ridiculous. But the actors sell it, and the fact that the action can seem so unlikely oddly just makes it more compelling. If only!
Which brings us to “The Mayo Clinic.” Directed by Ken Burns, along with Christopher Loren Ewers and Erik Ewers, it tells the unlikely actual story of the world-famous medical center, born in the Minnesota farmlands in the 1880s, when a 53-year-old Franciscan nun and a 64-year-old agnostic country doctor came together in the wake of a deadly cyclone to make a hospital.
The film is a work of praise, not an expose; I suppose the directors could have found some disgruntled customers or ex-employees, if they’d wanted that voice. Yet everything connected with the Mayo Clinic does feel sort of ... pure. (Basically, “New Amsterdam” is about trying to turn Bellevue into the Mayo Clinic, while Bellevue itself makes a cameo in “The Mayo Clinic”: William Worrall Mayo’s first job in America, after arriving from England, was as a pharmacist there.)
We follow the birth and growth of the clinic alongside the progress of the Mayos themselves – founding father W.W. (voice of Kevin Conway), and his sons and successors Charlie (voice of Sam Waterston) and Will (voice of Tom Hanks) – whose lives were for all intents and purposes identical with the institution. So too was that of founding Mother Alfred Moes of the Sisters of St. Francis, whose original vision — in the religious sense — the hospital was.
A hospital of second opinions and last resort, it was always an unusual, inspirational place, cutting edge, not the least of whose innovations was to put the health of the patient ahead of that of the institution. (One nurse recalled that “when she went through the nursing school everyone was taught to look at every patient like Jesus Christ.”)
Patients were treated according to what they could afford to pay; the hospital eventually became officially nonprofit, and doctors were (and still are) paid a salary, eliminating the temptation to order four procedures where one will do. Teamwork is prized: “Our failures as a profession are the failures of individualism, the result of competitive medicine,” said Will Mayo. “It must be done by collective effort.”
Skipping into the present (and back again), we hear from doctors, nurses, historians and patients. Some are famous, including John McCain, the Dalai Lama, Tom Brokaw, and Roger Frisch, who made the news in 2014 when he stayed awake playing the violin during a brain operation to pinpoint the source of the tremors that threatened to end his career. Not all outcomes are good.
Indeed, the film is almost three-quarters done before narrator Peter Coyote admits that, “For all its innovations and success, the Mayo Clinic is not a perfect place. Access is problematic. Diseases are relentless, their cures elusive. Mistakes are made, patients are misdiagnosed, treatments fail, people die.” (It’s also noted that there was no African American doctor on staff until 1979.)
But by that time you will have been persuaded that even dying at or after leaving the Mayo Clinic is qualitatively better than dying at or after leaving any other hospital you could name. And it may be true.
‘The Mayo Clinic: Faith – Hope – Science’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd