The Surgeon: articles


A cut above… Justin Clarke (middle) in The Surgeon.

Prognosis positive

The big-budget hospital shows should be left to the Americans, but we've nailed heart-wrenching medical drama writes Ruth Ritchie.

Could a neat little half-hour offering really hold the key to the salvation of Australian TV drama? Could the funny little people at Ten have landed the critical and ratings winner that has eluded all others this year?

With all the best intentions in the world, Last Man Standing and The Alice failed to deliver drama that connected. Valiant efforts were made and terrific actors were cast. Both departed bravely from the Blue Healing Daughters formula we've come to expect from commercial drama but to no avail. (Cliches settle on axed shows the way a tiara rests lightly on Jackie O.)

Even the ABC's revamped MDA held on to devotees only. Nobody came to work on Friday all abuzz with the latest shenanigans of Happy and his medico lawyer crew. About 14 of us really liked it.

But Ten may have hit the jackpot with The Surgeon (Ten, Thursday). A half-hour medical drama that looks like RPA, at the same time as RPA; who knew that's what it would take? Of course, it sounds simple. And the Jon Edwards/Judy McCrossin combo (Secret Life of Us) goes a long way to explaining why The Surgeon is so wonderful. Shockingly, surprisingly wonderful.

After half an hour, we're left wanting more. There's enough graphic detail to make the cases and the staff at this fictional Sydney hospital intriguing, but not a moment of padding. The half-hour format works for an episode of Scrubs, not ER, but then, this isn't ER. We aren't keeping several balls in the air, several cases, soap operas and sub-plots. This isn't Steven Bochco, or Jerry Bruckheimer. This is The Surgeon and from the opening credits it smells, sounds and looks thrillingly different.

It helps that the patients really look sick or fat or, well, dead. It doesn't hurt that the dialogue is more Wildside than Blue Heelers. The cast turns out some astounding performances. This week, Justine Clarke made me cry. As for smouldering anaesthetist Sam Worthington, he could have a column all to himself.

And it seems that the best ideas are deceptively simple. If RPA churns out such high drama every week, why not turn it into a drama? The original RPA, same night (Thursday) and time, but on Nine, has returned in dazzling form, sharing some cases/story lines with The Surgeon's first episodes. There's something in the careful manner of these real doctors and the trepidation of their patients - everyone seems so vulnerable. There's no escaping the fact that real life-and-death decisions and treatments just feel different.

This week a young patient with cystic fibrosis was forced to deliver by caesarean section, at 30 weeks, and when that tiny red baby girl came kicking into the world, for a moment this woman wasn't terminally ill, or afraid - she was just a new mother. (The caesareans on both RPA and The Surgeon made challenging viewing.) Between the graphic surgical incisions and the gulping and sobbing (from my couch) RPA is definitely an after-dinner show.

Oddly, the most successful of the international medical dramas lack the heart of RPA and The Surgeon. But House and Grey's Anatomy have little to do with medicine.

Grey's Anatomy is the sort of medical drama that we shouldn't try here at home. It has gloss and big bucks and cute doctors and a slick, current look that will date, in the way that LA Law or Hill Street Blues at first dazzled, only to fade. Remember that first season of LA Law when we were all caught up with Susan Dey and Harry Hamlin in the monkey suit? Well, the romantic entanglement with Patrick Dempsey and the honey-haired flirtatious narrator are more engaging than the surgeries.

They must live in an uncommonly healthy city because most of the patients at this hospital are doctors and nurses who work at this hospital.

We've only just made it through the first season and already most of the staff have operated on each other, or the guy from the bar across the road.

Insider-cutting aside, a gorgeous serendipitous chemistry is at work in Grey's Anatomy. Even though the entire cast is beginning to annoy, their cute predicaments, their loves, their challenges hit the balance of a satisfying Thai meal. Some sour, salt, heat and sweetness. Every corner shop Down Under can make a decent pad thai, we just can't seem to crack the big glossy medical drama. I like to think of The Surgeon as an original, authentic ugg boot.

By Ruth Ritchie
October 29, 2005
Sydney Morning Herald