A growing practice on TV

Hollywood catches medical fever from baby boomers who are increasingly concerned about health.

January 17, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One of the fastest growing segments of the Hollywood population is the number of actors who can say, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." Doctor dramas and sitcoms are multiplying almost as fast as newsmagazines these days, and they are finding big audiences.

The popularity of shows like "ER" is no accident, say the creators and network executives responsible for putting them on the air. The folks in Hollywood say such TV series, as well as feature films like "Patch Adams," speak to concerns and anxieties that many of us have about health and medical care in this era of the HMO.

"ER" is the most popular series on television and one of the most successful dramas in the history of the medium. The series, which commands $13 million per episode from NBC, is enjoying its highest ratings ever this year.

"Chicago Hope," on CBS, is also having a strong season of quality drama and impressive ratings.

Another CBS medical franchise, "L.A. Doctors," is the second highest rated new drama of the season. It was No. 1 until last week, when another new doctor show, "Providence," set rating records in its premiere. "Providence" follows a young plastic surgeon (Melina Kanakaredes) who returns to her hometown in Rhode Island and works as a general practitioner in a clinic.

Even Ted Danson's "Becker" -- a sitcom about a cranky, anti-p.c. M.D. -- has found an audience Monday nights on CBS, despite its poor critical reception.

And we're going to be getting more spoonfuls of medicine with our prime-time viewing next season if the shows now in development are any indication. Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, for example, are working on a drama for UPN that focuses on the relationship between a brother and sister. He's a New York cop, and she's a medical intern.

"One of the things that's really attractive about the series is the way it uses the medical franchise in a new way by crossing it with the cop show," UPN entertainment president Tom Nunan said during the annual rollout of new shows last week in Pasadena, Calif.

Nunan says he thinks the appeal of medical dramas is that, like legal and police dramas, "They organically present life and death situations."

And he makes a good point when he says, "If you're not dealing with life and death situations, then you fall back into melodrama."

In a sense, some network executives see medical series as one of the bedrock genres of prime-time drama programming, along with cop and courtroom dramas.

As Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Television, said in an interview last week, "I think doctor shows have probably been the greatest staple in the history television.

"I mean, look all the way back to Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Marcus Welby or 'Medical Center.' And now you have the 'ER' and 'Chicago Hope' genre. But it's also continuing in new and different ways with other series."

Moonves thinks part of the appeal of most of TV's earlier medical dramas, as well as "ER" and "Chicago Hope," is that, "Everybody is looking for heroes, and a doctor can be heroic."

But he said other forces are also starting to feed the trend.

"I think one of the reasons 'Becker' is working is [that he's] the anti-doctor. And, in this day and age, more and more people can relate to that.

"Remember the scene in the film 'As Good as It Gets,' when Helen Hunt's character says in no uncertain terms how she feels about the doctors and HMOs that are denying care for her sick child?" Moonves asked, referring to an angry speech far too profane to print.

"In the theaters, people would literally applaud and cheer the speech," he said.

"We were in development on 'Becker' when the film came out [December 1997], and we heard the cheers for her angry speech. And that's part of the spirit in which 'Becker' is created. And that's what I think we're tapping into with our show," Moonves explained.

Dr. Michael Brody, a psychiatrist who writes about television and film for the Journal of Popular Culture, said he thinks there is a connection between the popularity of doctor shows and widespread anxiety about life in HMOs and other forms of managed care.

But he also thinks that, in general, we are becoming "almost obsessed about health," thinking about it to the point of hypochondria.

And, once again, the group driving this cultural phenomenon is baby boomers, who are having more and more health problems and concerns as they age. They want stories that address those concerns, Brody said.

You can see one of those stories tomorrow night on "L.A. Doctors," a series about three doctors who have founded their own practice because they couldn't stand working in a managed care system. The doctors object to insurance company executives, not medical experts, deciding what kind of care patients would receive. "L.A. Doctors" has not been shy about ripping HMOs.

Ken Olin ("thirtysomething") plays one of the partners, Dr. Roger Cattan. In December, Olin's real-life wife, Patricia Wettig ("thirtysomething" ), appeared on the series in a guest-starring role as an old flame of Cattan's who has a brain tumor.

The viewer response to the relationship between doctor and patient was so strong that Wettig has been brought back for several episodes including tomorrow's. The other guest star in the episode is Robin Williams.

Television series like "L.A. Doctors" and "ER" are stories that we listen to at night around the campfire -- fictional narratives about conscientious and even heroic medical providers who care deeply about us as patients.

Such stories can make us feel better about the diminished care some of us are finding in the daylight of our real lives.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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