MDA: articles

Drama would benefit from a nip and a tuck

It might be said that if ever a network has its timing right, it's the ABC with this week's launch of MDA, the new Melbourne-made drama about a group of lawyers representing doctors sued for negligence or impropriety. After watching the first few episodes, I suspect many will have a greater understanding of why the medical insurance industry is in the financial hole that we have seen reported recently, and why there are fears that doctors' fees may have to rise to cover the growing number and cost of claims by aggrieved patients.

But, sadly, MDA (Tuesdays, 9.30pm), while topical and perhaps even educational, is not consistently powerful or even convincing in its exposition of the perils of the increasingly litigious nature of society. True, the series was conceived and, to a large degree, written before the extent of the problem was widely known. But in the current environment, it may have just missed the boat.

The problems encountered by the insurance industry and doctors are largely the result of claims for massive compensation payments for serious errors or omissions by doctors, and particularly surgeons—not trifling cases about nosejobs gone wrong or territorial disputes between suburban doctors. But most of the cases handled by the MDA team are in the minor league.

In Tuesday's first episode—the strongest of the three I have seen—there was the case of an obstetrician accused of causing brain damage to a young woman after a complicated caesarean delivery. This was the sort of case that could make MDA one of the finest dramas we have produced in Australia. It was strong storytelling, but I found the numerous subplots distracting and irritating.

There was the doctor accused of sexual misconduct, and two of MDA's younger lawyers caused a few guffaws as they tried to recreate the alleged offence in the office to assess whether it was physically possible. There was the brawling between two suburban GPs, and one of the MDA team was required to conciliate, and there was the love life of Dr Ella Davis. It all served to dilute what might otherwise have been an excellent hour of investigative and legal drama.

MDA is too soft around the edges. I would equate it with Family Law, a US series screened on Ten a couple of years ago that tackled contemporary issues about relationships but often dissolved into soap. Most of the cases in MDA are interesting enough, but they are sold short.

For example, too great a prominence for my liking is given to MDA youngsters Jamie Lawless (Angus Grant) and Caitlin King (Alice McConnell), moving ohsoslowly towards becoming an item, or Ella Davis playing deepandmeaningfuls with partner Nick after she discovered he had slept with her best friend. This latter subplot continues in coming weeks and I expect many will join me in hoping that the cheating Nick gets out of Ella's life—and the series.

It might be said that all of this is necessary so that we can get a better, closer understanding of the characters. But there's too much of it. Look at a show like Law & Order. The cases carry it almost singlehandedly. Over more than a decade, we have learnt—and needed to learn—little about the private lives of the detectives or those who prosecute the cases. In MDA, the opposite is true. We even get to learn that the MDA receptionist is of the Baha'i faith, which explains why her colleagues can never coax her into eating snacks at work. Do we really need to know that?

Among this extraneous material is some fine individual work. Jason Donovan stands out as the appropriately named Richard Savage, the series' bad guy, the humourless, competitive, calculating lawyer who makes his living representing patients seeking redress from doctors. Also, Shane Bourne, probably best remembered as a standup comedian working beside the late Maurie Fields on Hey, Hey, It's Saturday, is impressive as Bill "Happy" Henderson, MDA's boss and father figure. He brings logic and realism into play when those around him seem swayed by emotion. But when called into action, he is as cunning as they come.

MDA isn't a bad show. It's just not as good as it might have been. There is some interesting medical detective work, but not enough legal argybargy. Things tend to fall into place a little too conveniently. The MDA team is a happy little outfit, with no tensions in the office and never a hint of serious disagreement. I wish the producers would allow the cases to unfold with fewer frivolous interruptions—and a much greater presence for Savage, the show's best character.

July 25, 2002
The Age