I grew up on medical dramas. I was too young to really appreciate Drs. Kildare and Casey, but by the time Medical Center premiered on CBS in the fall of 1969, I was in high school, and the weekly drama around the fictitious California university medical center captivated me. (And like a lot of teenage girls, found Chad Everett as Dr. Joe Gannon pretty cute.) The medical jargon fascinated me with its exotic disease names and diagnostic tests, probably inspiring me—in some small degree—to major in biology as an undergradand, and at least consider becoming a doctor.
But 1969 was also in the midst of social upheaval. Richard Nixon had recently become president; we were still deeply embroiled in Vietnam (and in the anti-war movement); the country was still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy only the year before. (And you think 2011 is a mess?)
The Warner Archives is releasing the complete first season on DVD August 26, and the set is well-worth buying on several levels. Nicely presented in a flip case, the six-disc collection includes all 26 first season episodes. It does not, however, include the series pilot, which starred Richard Bradford, and not Chad Everett, as Joe Gannon. There are, unfortunately, no extras or bonus features.
For those of us who remember the show, or perhaps, like me grew up on it (it aired from 1969 to 1976) it’s a lot of fun to relive those great—if overly melodramatic—episodes. (Although I have to confess, I hadn’t remembered much about the episodes themselves, but I had remembered many of the guest stars from their Medical Center patient of the week turns.)
It’s always amusing to see actors in early roles, who later went on to bigger and better (or whatever) things. O.J. Simpson guest starred in Episode 1 as –you guessed it—a college football player (a star running back). It was his first major part on TV or in the movies. And we all know that he went on to much bigger film fare…and other things.
And the coach? Ed Asner (Mr. Grant a few years later on that other ‘70s hit, The Mary Tyler Moore Show). And who shows up in Episode 6? Sheila Larkin, playing a nurse. Who’s that? None other than Scully’s mom on The X-Files. The list goes on.
But Medical Center is a worthwhile addition to your video collection for more than a trip down nostalgia lane. People still get sick, and with the same ailments they had 45 years ago. And it is amusing to me that the patient in Dr. Gannon’s very first case in Season One suffered from a feochromocytoma, a little adrenaline-secreting tumor that occasionally turns up on my favorite 21st Century medical drama House, M.D. Of course Dr. Joe Gannon didn’t have House’s MRIs, CT Scanners and DNA tests to help him diagnose his patients. And it is more than a little disconcerting to watch Gannon, without a second thought, perform multiple X-Ray studies on the pregnant patient in a later episode.
But the fundamental social issues, in many cases, have changed as little as the medical ailments. Everybody lies. Patients lie to cover their symptoms out of ignorance or fear; families lie to protect their loved ones. And it all gets in the way of a good diagnosis.
The first episode on the DVD set explores the lure playing pro football as a ticket out of poverty, as an impoverished, but gifted athlete from the poorest of neighborhoods covers up serious symptoms so that a pro scout won’t change his mind. If he wins the pro football lottery (otherwise known as the college draft), it will be his ticket out of the ghetto; he’ll rescue his mother and sister from a life of poverty.
It’s a story that’s been told in literature, movies and television as long as those media have been in existence. In fact House, M.D. did a more modern take on the same story in its sixth season episode “Moving the Chains.”
But the episode also explores the way in which a few innocent words to a reporter can blow up into a Page 1 conflict, affecting hundreds of people and several bank accounts. It’s an issue as relevant now as then—if not more so.
Episode 6 takes on abortion, as a middle-aged pregnant woman exhibits symptoms of a heart problem. Is it worth the risk to the pregnant mother to perform surgery on her heart (she has mitral stenosis)—or is it safer to abort and then operate? It’s a conflict not only between the husband and wife on the nature of life (and when it starts), but a bone of contention between two doctors with opposing views. Who’s right? And who has the right to make that choice? These are questions still being debated today in 2011, in bedrooms, doctors offices, and in State Houses across the country.
Although the Medical Center seems a little melodramatic, and hence a bit dated, I found myself not wanting to miss a minute of what is still pretty compelling drama. I can’t wait for Season 2!