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The life and death here is all too real

'Hopkins' features hip music and attractive doctors. But the suffering is genuine.

June 26, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

It's tempting to describe "Hopkins," the six-part ABC News series following the lives of a handful of doctors and surgeons at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, as "Grey's Anatomy" meets reality television. But that's not what's going on, or at least not quite, for the simple reason that the people who die on "Hopkins" are actually dead, as opposed to voted "off the island." This makes watching "Hopkins" a powerful, unnerving and at times manipulative experience.

Eight years after its precursor, "Hopkins 24/7," presented a more straightforward documentary -- narrated by a reporter, driven by then rare behind-the-scenes footage -- "Hopkins" reflects shifts in the entertainment and news industries, both of which require a new breezy intimacy, the sort of easily digested themes and instant emotional bonding made popular by bloggers and modern memoirists.

So along with the journalistic credibility of unprecedented access, "Hopkins" also has an indie-pop soundtrack and appealing "cast" of young, attractive doctors and surgeons. They serve as their own narrators, often speaking directly to the camera about marital breakdowns, professional shortcomings and the need to urinate at inopportune moments, even as they harvest hearts and lungs or struggle to save the life of a child hit by a car.

Various themes and stories are sculpted in the editing room -- the triumph of illegal immigrant turned brain surgeon Alfred Quinones-Hinojosa, the marital strife of cardiothoracic surgeon Brian Bethea, the straight talking of urologist Karen Boyle -- which gives "Hopkins" the familiar and compelling air of an episodic drama. But they are not actors or participants in a reality show, they're real people (you can tell this instantly by all the glorious flat Baltimore O's). Which means the life-and-death tension wasn't crafted by writers as a necessary ingredient for the dramatic arc. It's actually life or death. Of another human being.

So when we meet, for instance, the nice, young pediatric transport nurse, it's difficult not to shiver a little and reach for the remote. Children in peril are hard enough to bear on made-up shows; watching a young mother try to keep it together as her infant is airlifted from a routine checkup to Hopkins because there's something the matter with his heart definitely takes it out of you.

Which is OK, of course. Nothing wrong with being reminded of the frailty of human life or the pressures doctors face from all sides. But whereas the fantasy element of "Grey's" or even "ER" allows us to invest most of our emotion in the main characters' love lives or career ambitions, as opposed to the patients who come and go week to week, that's not the case with "Hopkins." It's hard to share in the elation of an intern who has managed to tell the guy with the huge, inoperable liver tumor that he will need more tests without letting him know the severity of his situation when we know the poor guy is probably dead now. Likewise, the joy another intern feels after being able to perform a certain procedure on a child who has been hit by a car seems more than unsettling -- yes, we know it is important for people to learn, but that was a kid, man, who just got hit by a car.

"Hopkins," it must be noted, is not for the squeamish -- you may be used to blood and guts from a variety of medical shows, but there is something very different about watching a lung transplant knowing that those are lungs from an actual now-dead person going into an actual living person whose children are crying in the waiting room right this second.

All of which is why I found the "Grey's"-ish soundtrack almost unforgivable. But that could just be me.

Still, it is undeniably refreshing to see doctors and nurses depicted as hard-working professionals who don't have affairs or near-death experiences at the drop of a hat and still manage to be pretty interesting. Their personal lives take a back seat to their jobs, often to their detriment. The story of Bethea's troubled marriage arcs through several early episodes. But even as he's trying to put things right, he still has to interrupt phone calls and work days-long shifts. No sympathetic chief or supervisor steps in to help him out (though his friends do take him out and get him drunk occasionally, which I don't imagine helped the situation).

Mercifully, no doctor at Hopkins is looking to their patients to provide insight into their emotional quandaries, nor is anyone more concerned with the diagnostic process than saving a life. There is banter, of course, and a few patients become mascots of a sort, but no one's making a bedside proposal or proposition. Because this is, after all, a hospital.

And that too makes watching "Hopkins" a bit unnerving. There's something about the terrible lighting, those horrible curtain dividers, the washed-out gowns that makes every patient seem extraordinarily vulnerable. Which, of course, they are, as are we all, including the men and women who provide our last line of defense in this life. This is precisely the stuff of great drama and of great documentary, but it gets a little troublesome when combining the two.




Where: ABC

When: 10 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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