Are Medical Dramas Doomed? 

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 6 2013 12:21 PM

Are Medical Dramas Doomed? 

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Are medical dramas doomed? Last Thursday, Do No Harm, NBC’s new Jekyll and Hyde series about a brilliant surgeon with a creepy alter ego, earned the dubious honor of becoming “the lowest-rated in-season premiere of any 4-network scripted program ever” when it attracted just 3.9 million viewers and a dreadful 0.9 rating among 18-to-49-year-olds.

This week, Monday Mornings, TNT’s brand-new doctor drama organized around a hospital’s weekly mortality and morbidity session, also bombed, failing to attract enough viewers to put it in the top 100 cable shows for the day. In a series of tweets, Vulture’s Joe Adalian listed the cable shows that earned higher ratings in the 10 o’clock hour. They included Teen Mom, WWE, Pawn Stars, Lizard Lick Towing, American Dad, Family Guy, Vanderpump Rules, Tiny Tonight, Swamp Hunters, House Hunters, Intervention, an FX movie, Cake Boss, South Park, and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. As Adalian noted, many of those shows were reruns.

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White coats have failed to catch on elsewhere on the schedule. Back in November Fox and the CW announced that they had canceled freshman shows The Mob Doctor and Emily Owens, M.D., respectively, though both networks aired all the episodes they’d made for lack of anything better to replace them with. Last year, CBS’s A Gifted Man was killed after one season with poor ratings.

There’s no evidence to suggest that viewers have given up on TV doctors because they’ve lost respect for the medical profession. But they seem to have lost patience with overcomplicated premises. The Mob Doctor (which I kind of liked) was a Frankenstein’s monster of a show: half overwrought Mafia thriller, half medical-procedural. Do No Harm’s failure may prove nothing more than that TV isn’t the place for split-personality dramas. (Last year, NBC couldn’t draw an audience to the far-superior Awake, which also had a better-known cast.) Emily Owens was too twitchy and insecure to be a believable doctor—and besides, it isn’t clear that any show can make it on the CW if it lacks cute guys bearing their killer abs at least twice an episode.

Monday Mornings has a good pedigree. It was created by David E. Kelley, based on a book by CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, and the casting agent apparently made a bulk order of likable actors with a small but enthusiastic following: Jamie Bamber, Alfred Molina, Ving Rhames, Bill Irwin, Jennifer Finnigan. But the format—a showdown in which surgeons defend their clinical decision-making processes to a senior physician—has all the excitement of an hour in small-claims court. The show’s title also gives no clue that it’s a medical drama (that didn’t help Do No Harm, either).

A look at the medical shows that are thriving suggests that viewers want simple, soapy goodness from their TV doctors. Grey’s Anatomy, now in its ninth season, is heavy on interpersonal story lines, as was Private Practice, which recently aired its final episode, but did manage to last six seasons. Royal Pains, USA’s concierge-doctor-in-the-Hamptons hit, is an old-fashioned small-town GP story with added sunshine. ABC’s Dana Delany medical-examiner vehicle, Body of Proof, which returns with some personnel changes on Feb. 19, uses its doctors as crime-solvers. It also dilutes the medical focus by spending lots of time on family drama.

So it’s not time to declare the medical drama dead. But if you’re working on a new one, maybe call in a script doctor to cut away unnecessary complications.