Baltimore, unscripted

June 22, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Two legendary Baltimore institutions are featured in national, prime-time TV productions this week, and at first glance, it might seem as if they could not be more different.

Frederick Douglass High School, one of the first black high schools in America, is the focus tomorrow night of Hard Times at Douglass High, a two-hour HBO documentary by the Academy Award-winning husband-and-wife team of Susan and Alan Raymond.

With an astronomical dropout rate and shockingly low math and reading scores, the aging high school has major problems - and the Raymonds are not the kind of filmmakers to sugarcoat the truth. Working in the cinema-vertite style they helped create and define, they offer an unblinking look at the reality of a troubled urban school, which can't even afford books for all its students, as it struggles to comply with President Bush's No Child Left Behind education reform act.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, meanwhile, which has become a world-renowned model of excellence, is explored in a six-hour documentary series, Hopkins, starting Thursday night on ABC. No shortage of resources here - nor any lack of accomplishments by those who walk the high-tech halls of this institution as the filmmakers track heart transplants, brain surgeries and many lives saved.

And, yet, because the best documentaries help us see the world in new ways, the Raymonds also find and capture moments of triumph at Douglass, while the ABC News team led by executive producer Terence Wrong explores the limits of what even Hopkins medicine can do when faced with some of the fallout from the social ills of the city outside the hospital doors.

Two compelling documentaries, two very different sides of the city, but never a simplistic, black-and-white depiction of life in Baltimore.

'Hopkins' beats any fictional hospital drama

Less anthropology and more Grey's Anatomy - that's the big difference between Hopkins, the six-hour documentary series starting Thursday night on ABC, and Hopkins 24/7, the award-winning look inside Baltimore's world-renowned hospital that aired in 2000.

The deeper bow to the dictates of prime-time storytelling in this return to Hopkins by executive producer Terence Wrong and his ABC News documentary team isn't a bad thing. In fact, the choices made by Wrong and his digitally armed filmmaking troops result in a faster-paced, more engaging series - and that's no small accomplishment since Hopkins 24/7 drew as many as 12 million viewers a night, a phenomenal audience for any documentary.

But you are struck by how attractive, engaging and representative of larger issues in the culture virtually all the Hopkins doctors are in this new version - and how closely they resemble the kinds of characters who populate prime-time medical dramas like ABC's Grey's Anatomy.

In Thursday's first hour, there's Dr. Karen Boyle, a young female urologist who describes herself as "perpetually pregnant" and cracks jokes about her mother's attitude toward the focus of her medical energies. There's also Dr. Brian Bethea, a handsome young resident on the verge of becoming a star surgeon - and possibly losing his wife and two children to divorce.

The intimate drama of Dr. Bethea's troubled marriage plays out across several hours of the series - with as much of his personal as professional life explored. He is not exactly Dr. McDreamy, but he's as close as an honest filmmaker is going to get while working with the stuff of real life rather than pure Hollywood fantasy.

No Hopkins doctor gets more screen time Thursday than Dr. Alfred Quinones-Hinojosa, who explains at the start of episode 1 how he entered the United States illegally from Mexico by climbing over a fence. His first American job was picking fruit; he is now one of the leading brain surgeons in the country.

The story tracking Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa is one of the most compelling. It is also the one most reminiscent of the strategy that drove the original Hopkins 24/7: find accomplished surgeons and follow them through their most dramatic cases to the deepest corners of the medical culture at this teaching hospital. Not all the corners are perfectly made.

As unflappable as Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa is in the operating room, viewers see him become visibly angered when he finds out that a patient with a confirmed brain tumor waited several weeks before getting his calls returned from Quinones-Hinojosa's office. The doctor demands an explanation from staffers on the spot - and nobody has one.

ABC's fly-on-the-wall cameras also capture intensely private moments while following the brain surgeon's cases.

"I'm scared to death. It's all I can do to keep from crying," one of Dr. Quinones-Hinojosa's patients confides to the camera in the privacy of his room late at night on the eve of surgery to remove a large brain tumor.

Later in the series, viewers see Dr. Benjamin Carson telling a mother and father that it does not look as if their 11-year-old daughter will ever recover full consciousness after a swimming accident.

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