BBC America's new program 24 Hours in the ER could easily have been named Red Phone, given the narrative importance of the device in the engrossing docu-series. Set in London's busy King's College Hospital, the show begins and ends with a tight close-up of the ward's ringing red phone as it signals ambulance drivers are headed toward the hospital with an injured patient in tow.
In order to obtain the footage needed for the 14-part series, the BAFTA-winning team set up 70 rigged, remote cameras to record over 28 days. The end result shows one 24-hour period in the ER per episode, allowing a breathtaking view of patients who are sometimes on the brink of death as they're tended to by the medical staff. Cameras peer down on gurneys as scared or unconscious patients look up, creating a kind of connection between the viewer and those seeking the help of the ER staff. And because King's College sees about 350 patients a day — many times the victims of violent crimes like stabbing and shootings — some of the injuries sustained are guaranteed to make plenty of viewers squeamish.
The premiere episode jumps right into the action, introducing the ER's consultant, Malcolm, who works as a sort of director of operations before and during a patent's time in the ward. His excitement over his wildly stressful job is readily apparent, even before he admits he finds deep satisfaction in his work at the episode's end. But to kick things off, he looks squarely in the camera and announces, "King's is extreme, isn't it?"
First up is an elderly man who has fallen off a ladder while attempting to paint his daughter's house. His injuries are nowhere near life threatening but for his white-haired wife and middle-aged daughter, the bruised cheek and cut-up forehead are difficult to take in. Before we can settle in too much with genial, old Tom and his family, a massive injury bursts through the door: a 30-year old man has been hit by a bus and pulled out from underneath after having been found conscious and completely doubled over, his face touching his toes. The medic workers from the bright, yellow London ambulance he arrives in explain the numerous injuries they ascertain and it's now Malcolm’s job to run down the list of to-dos in order to keep the man alive long enough to have his body scanned.
They're able to eventually get the bleeding and unconscious man to X-rays, where they find his pelvis has been shattered so badly that it resembles "puzzle pieces." It's the worst pelvic break Malcolm has ever seen and the fact that the man is Greek national with no family in the country means he must go it alone until his brother can fly out.
It's not all jangly nerves, thank goodness. In between the heart-pounding scenes of Malcolm and his staff skillfully maneuvering those critical first 15-minutes after a life-threatening injury enters the ER, there are scenes of the staff goofing around, naturally. One of the best moments is when a receptionist is made fun of by nearly every nurse and doctor on staff for fussing over a splinter in her thumb. One doctor even promises her the tiny fleck of wood is as big as a matchstick after plucking it out with tweezers.
Meanwhile, the broken-pelvis bloke has miraculously survived and, as the show's helpful epilogue explains, begun walking again after three months and 30 hours of surgery. What's almost as exciting is how exuberant Malcolm is about having helped navigate the man through his first moments inside the ER. His coworkers seem almost hilariously exasperated over how much he wants to relive the drama and celebrate their good work but it only proves how much the job means to him.
And as if the drama itself wasn't enough reason to check out 24 Hours in the ER, trust that that good folks at the BBC surely know what they're doing behind the lens. The show isn't filmed with traditional cameras but it still manages to be visually arresting all the same and scoring is thoughtful and reserved in a way that allows the real-life drama on camera to rightfully take center stage. That drama is plenty to absorb, too, and it looks like things only get bumpier in upcoming episodes. Time to pick up that ringing, red phone.