Sure, cancer and car accidents are a relatively grim way to celebrate the return of docureality to the summer TV lineup. But some of us have missed the genre, which has been overwhelmed in the past few years by reality competitions (or "game operas," to use Steve Beverly's felicitous coinage) and B-list celebrity voyeurism. ABC has decided to go the classy route by reviving the premise behind its six-hour miniseries Hopkins 24/7 from 2000.
Hopkins, the 2008 version, is essentially the same concept: a six-week limited-run series following doctors at Johns Hopkins in both their professional and personal life. Back in 2000, the documentary was billed as "real-life E.R.." How Times Have Changed Department: Now the show is a "reality version of Grey's Anatomy."
And indeed, the first episode features many of the staples of fictional hospital shows. There's a doctor whose marriage is in trouble. There is a patient with a sex-related ailment. And there's a life-and-death surgery. But the sober approach of the ABC News crew that produced Hopkins creates a different kind of tension. Hopkins captures both patients and hospital staff at their most vulnerable moments. They talk frankly about their fears, and the high stakes of the operating room are evident underneath the professional, even routine demeanor of those who work there.
Two of the doctors profiled in the first episode have arresting stories. Dr. Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa crossed the border from Mexico illegally as a boy, and was told by his family that he would spend the rest of his life as a migrant farm worker. As he cuts a pituitary tumor out of the brain of a working-class patient, he can't help but contrast his life as a doctor -- and the respect he receives for it -- with the conditions endured by other Mexican-Americans and undocumented immigrants. Brian Bethea, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is dealing with the imminent breakup of his marriage and trying to stay connected to his three young daughters. He works long hours, socializes with drinking buddies, and wonders tearfully how he ended up in this situation.
The third doctor in Episode 1 is Karen Boyle, a urologist who is reversing a man's vasectomy. Her segments inspire somewhat different sorts of reflection and drama than the stark issues raised by the male doctors' stories. The man who's trying to get his mojo back is motivated by a young fiancee who wants kids, and it's never entirely clear that the surgery, recovery, and pressure to have lots of sex in an attempt to get her pregnant were what he wanted.
But the brain tumor patient provides the unexpected pathos of the episode. He's alone in the hospital -- he hasn't seen his three children from his first marriage in years, he says, and doesn't even know where they are. If he makes it to age 54, he says, he'll have beat everyone else in his family. Finally he gives his doctor the name of a cousin to call to be with him. After a surgery fraught with the risks inherent in poking around in the brain, he seems newly determined to live a long life and renew the connections that make it worthwhile.
One innovation since 2000 is unwelcome: The show is peppered with pop songs that the show's website will helpfully identify and sell to you. Some viewers might be expecting hard-hitting journalism, but it's doubtful we're going to see any malpractice here; the phone number to make a medical appointment at Johns Hopkins is included in the credits. Nevertheless, there is a frankness and intimacy to this particular documentary that provides a very welcome contrast to the manufactured sensations of the current reality crop. Episode 1 was strong, offering both an intriguing insider's look at an endlessly fascinating setting and moving depictions of the inhabitant's hopes and fears. I'll be back for Episodes 2-6 in the coming weeks.
- Dr. Quiñones-Hinojosa calls himself "Super Q" when he's trying to get himself psyched up for surgery. He comes across as an especially thoughtful and committed doctor, and so it's a little painful when the brain tumor patient tells the camera doubtfully, "He's supposed to be one of the four best in the country," and you wonder whether the fact that the doctor is Mexican is having any effect on the patient's perceptions.
- There are bloody shots of surgery, if you're squeamish about that kind of thing. At one point a surgeon gets blood in his eye when the artery busts, and although the patient doesn't seem the type to have the typical blood-borne diseases, the doctor points out that the patient has been hospitalized several times before and has had blood transfusions ... so you never know.
- If you work a nine-to-five job or have any semblance of a normal schedule, you'll appreciate your life more after watching Dr. Bethea try to get his daughter to go sleep in her own bed, over his cell phone.