MDA: articles

Hard calls

In the world of Australian television drama, MDA is a bit of a rule-breaker. It's not dark and brooding like the ABC's Wildside; or even genre-busting like America's Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. MDA doesn't go in for generic revolution or stylistic variation; it breaks rules in its own quiet way, with stories that are morally unclear, with characters who face real ethical questions, and with outcomes that are rarely happy and never straightforward.

Television drama often involves its audience by establishing an objective shared between the characters and the viewers. Catch the murderer, solve the crime, kiss the girl.

In Stingers or Blue Heelers it's pretty clear: we're with the good guys; our guys. The American cop shows demonstrate even clearer moral and political agendas: Law & Order has become almost propagandist in its reinforcement of the notion that "the system works", particularly since the events of September 11 (the entire cast now sports Stars & Stripes lapel pins); and the stylish CSI team never hold their breath when it comes to passing moral judgement on the accused.

Things are not so simple in MDA. When the victims of medical mishaps are pitted against the doctors who may or may not be responsible, the distinction between winners and losers soon becomes unclear. A farmer is freed from the flaming wreckage of his crashed car by a doctor who amputates his arm with an axe. He survives, but he can no longer work and his farm goes under. He sues the doctor who saved his life for ruining it, and we must balance, as the characters do, the merits of compensating him for his loss against the need to show doctors that they can and should stop and help someone in trouble.

So who do we side with? With MDA's Simon (Felix Nobis) and Amanda (Angie Milliken), who are looking to minimise their liability by limiting the farmer's payout? Or with their adversary, plaintiff's lawyer Richard Savage (Jason Donovan), who naturally wants to ensure the financial security of his physically impaired client, but at the expense of a doctor who did her best?

It's a tough call, and MDA puts its audience in the relatively unusual position of not only facing moral and ethical questions, but of having to ponder them once the show's hour has passed, a rare treat when so much television drama is ultimately disposable.

MDA script editor Rob George feels that this is one of the show's strongest elements: "I think the central dynamic of the show is the moral dilemmas faced by both sides. And that's where the interest is. Sometimes the MDA guys are the baddies, essentially writing off the poor victims of doctors' negligence; and sometimes doctors are being unfairly and unjustly maligned for a mistake they had no control over.

"The conflict in MDA is not simplistic. It's good, complex stuff and I think that's the real strength of the show, it's the layers and the textures and the complexities and the avoidance of simplistic solutions."

Simplistic solutions—frighteningly common, particularly in American imports like CSI—are a rarity in MDA. Jamie (Angus Grant) is the youngest of the MDA team and works part-time as an emergency doctor. On duty one night, he defies the wishes of a car accident victim's Jehovah's Witness parents and prepares a blood transfusion. The parents, and their priest, swear blind that the boy was carrying a "No Blood" card to alert doctors in case of emergency. Jamie denies this and orders the transfusion while hospital security removes the parents.

Only later do we find that Jamie took and hid the boy's card, and that the transfusion, while saving the boy's life, has led to exile from his church and, to a certain extent, from his family as well. So now, who do we side with? Who won? What does it mean?

George believes that posing these questions sets MDA apart from other television dramas. "The gritty storytelling is really the show's strength, and I think the fact that we have 52 minutes, as opposed to 44 on commercial networks, means that we can do those more complex, substantial stories."

But it is still not known whether these complex, substantial stories will be enough for the ABC to commission a third series. It is conceivable that 2004 will see our national broadcaster in the reprehensible position of not carrying any original Australian drama. However, George thinks that things like MDA's nomination for an International Emmy award for best drama will certainly help swing the balance towards a third series.

"I think there is also an expectation that it should get a few AFI nominations. And it has been very well reviewed, so from a creative point of view one would hope it would get renewed, because I think this show absolutely deserves it. I think it is far and away the most interesting Australian drama."

I couldn't agree more.

By Peter Mattessi
November 13, 2003
The Age