Television shows about doctors have been on the air for decades now. Probably next to catching criminals healing the sick has provided the basis for more shows than any other profession. Unlike police shows where there’s the built element of danger our fascination with medical drams is based more on the mystery surrounding exactly what it is doctors, especially surgeons, do. Somehow or other these men and women cut people open and fiddle around with the internal workings of our bodies in order to fix things that have gone wrong. It’s no wonder we look on them as part miracle workers and part magicians. They do things few of us have the capacity to understand let alone carry out.
All of which explains why we want to watch shows which not only show them carrying out their duties but depict them in their off hours. What kind of person becomes a doctor? How does their work effect their lives away from the job? How do they cope with the stress of performing life and death procedures or the times patients don’t survive? We might look to medical shows for the answers to those questions. but is that really a valid source of information? Television exists to entertain us in the hopes of achieving high ratings so they can sell their advertising space. Out of necessity the scenarios they create for our viewing are going to emphasis the dramatic over reality. How riveting would it be to watch a surgeon performing twenty-five gall bladder removals and then go home to his nice family at the end of the day like any other professional? Therefore, since we’re not going to be getting reality when we watch these shows, the best we can hope for is the characters are as believable as possible and their actions and reactions consistent with the character as presented.
Judging by the six episodes of Monroe: Series 1 to be seen on the DVD being released by Acorn Media on May 29 2012 the creators of the show understand this concept far better than most other medical shows I’ve seen. James Nesbitt plays Gabriel Monroe, a gifted neurosurgeon working in medium sized British hospital. Within each episode we usually watch him dealing with one major procedure, interact with fellow hospital staff – specifically cardiologist Jenny Bremner (Sarah Parish) and anesthesiologist Lawrence Shepherd (Tom Riley) and then with what time left over his wife, Anna, (Susan Lynch) and son.
North American audiences will require a bit of time to get used to the differences between the way hospitals in England work and the way they do here. Surgeons like Monroe only see a patient after he has been examined by an admitting doctor and the surgery scheduled. In some ways they’re not even considered “doctors” because they only do surgery – you’ll notice that on most occasions Monroe is introduced to his prospective patient as Mr. Monroe, very rarely as doctor. It will seem slightly informal and odd, but once you acclimatize to the new environment (an environment which includes universal health care which explains why the patients come from all walks of life) the patterns of hospital life will take shape quickly enough viewers should have no trouble following the action.
As for the character of Monroe on the surface he seems confident and extraverted. Always ready with a joke or a sarcastic remark, the butt of most of his jokes in the highly reserved and seemingly dispassionate Jenny Bremner. As equally gifted a surgeon as Monroe she keeps her relationships with her patients strictly professional and never communicates anything to them other than information about the procedure she is about to perform. Monroe is just the opposite and does his best to reassure and comfort both his patients and their families. He isn’t able to resist making jokes about Bremner, both to her face and to his best friend on the staff, Lawrence Shepherd, about her being an ice queen. It’s hard to decide which is greater, his incredulity or his glee, when he discovers Shepherd and Bremner have started a relationship.
Yet, for all his apparent compassion, Monroe isn’t able to find time for his family. In fact he’s so out of touch with what’s going on within his own home that Anna announcing she’s leaving him now that their son has left for university catches him completely by surprise. Six years prior something happened which drove a permanent wedge between the two of them. He was able to lose himself in his work and caring for others, but he left his family alone, cut off from the emotional support they needed. For the first few episodes of the series he does his best to avoid dealing with these issues, but then something happens in the last episode which forces him to come to terms with it.
What I appreciated most about this series was that it managed to avoid the melodrama so many of these hospital dramas seem to rely on in dealing with either the personal lives of the staff or the surgical procedures they perform. Never having been awake in an operating room, I’ve no idea whether the depiction of what goes on is accurate or not, but everyone’s behaviour in surgery is consistent with what we know of their characters. Monroe is driven to try and rescue all his patients, and when a colleague has to undergo surgery to prevent an aneurism he skirts close to the edge of giving her permanent brain damage in order to save her. Yet, even this episode doesn’t make a meal of the topic and turn it into something over the top. There’s no dramatic recovery or sudden reversals – healing from brain surgery is a long slow process and there’s never any guarantees of a positive outcome.
Over the course of this first series each of the main characters and the various secondary characters are gradually filled out. The writers, and the actors, understand there’s no way for us to get to know somebody really well in only an hour, so they take the entire six episodes to let us get to know everybody. Even better is the fact that they don’t follow the obvious patterns with characters. Bremner doesn’t turn out to be hiding a heart as soft as a marshmallow beneath her hard exterior – she might not be the ice queen she pretends to be, but that doesn’t mean she can deal with people’s overt displays of emotions or has a sudden outpouring of compassion.
As Monroe James Nesbitt does his usual great job. The impish humour of his character is not just something he hides his troubles behind – its a genuine part of who he is. Yet he’s more than a one dimensional character and the other aspects come out gradually over the course of the season. As we see in his relationship with his family he can be self absorbed to the point of ignoring everybody and everything save for how things affect him personally. For all his compassion he is surprisingly ignorant of the impact his actions or words can have on those around him. It’s this type of carelessness that almost costs him his friendship with Shepherd, ends his marriage and almost alienates his son. As the series ends it appears that’s he’s beginning to understand this, and it will be interesting to see how his character is developed in any future episodes.
Maybe because Monroe is set in the relatively foreign environment of a British hospital it seems different from most of the hospital dramas that I’ve seen produced for television. However, the care taken with character development and the ways in which the show handles the surgical procedures its characters deal with gives it an air of realism that I’ve usually found lacking in other shows of this type. In the past I’ve never been interested enough in any hospital show to want to watch it on a regular basis, let alone watch six episodes in almost one sitting. This show was so well done I was disappointed there weren’t more than six episodes on the two discs and found myself wanting to watch more. I don’t know if its an accurate representation of life in a British hospital, but it sure is good television.