From George Clooney on “ER” to Richard Chamberlain on “Dr. Kildare,” television’s long love affair with doctors and nurses shows no signs of letting up. Beginning in the 1950s, medical shows have moved quickly up the television ladder, becoming one of TV’s most popular genres and piquing the interest of millions of American viewers. Whether the plot revolved around the fast paced, heart-racing Emergency Room beat or the everyday dealings of a private practice, these gripping dramas have undoubtedly shaped society’s understanding of modern medicine.
In recent years, long-running medical dramas like “ER” and “St. Elsewhere” have embraced ultra-realist, documentary-style filmmaking techniques, incorporating long tracking shots and extensive medical jargon into the show’s production to convey a realistic sense of urgency and heightened intensity. Because medical dramas often depicted entire hospital staffs, many featured diverse ensemble casts and drew on relationships amongst the characters to advance storylines and keep audiences returning week after week. The doctors and nurses created by these programs became the face of the medical profession for so many loyal viewers, a legacy that dates back to the genre’s earliest incarnations.
Fascinating, compelling and always entertaining, medical dramas have worked to illuminate the darkest, most beautiful and most undeniable facets of the human condition: life and death.
Episode airs Tuesday, April 22 at 08:00pm (check local listings).
From the moment its very first scenes hit the airwaves on September 19, 1994, it was clear that “ER” wasn’t going to be a typical medical show. The series focused on a fictional Chicago emergency room, traveling behind the hospital curtain and deep into the inner dealings of the ensemble staff and their revolving door of troubled patients. While “ER” might have won accolades for its medical accuracy, it was the core cast of relatable characters that kept audiences tuning in.
For the show’s producers, evoking a sense of realism was top priority and key to the program’s groundbreaking success. Keeping with this, the writers consistently drew on the language of real doctors – even if the TV audience didn’t always understand every word. “ER’s” roving, uninterrupted shots were the show’s signature cinematographic style, expertly choreographed to ensure dialogue, movement and medical procedures fed seamlessly off one another during the camera’s lengthy journey. “The technical advisor, who is usually a board certified emergency room physician, would have blocked out the scene almost like a football diagram,” remarked “ER” star Noah Wyle. Needless to say, achieving the desired level of verisimilitude was a taxing process, one that was ultimately rewarded by countless awards and rave reviews. NBC aired “ER” for 15 complete seasons, making it the longest-running primetime medical drama in television history.
“St. Elsewhere,” designed as television’s first realistic medical drama, premiered on October 26, 1982. The series closely followed the exploits of a group of doctors, nurses and interns employed by a respected Boston hospital. By the time it wrapped after six seasons in 1988, “St. Elsewhere” had picked up 13 Emmy awards for writing, acting and directing and set the stage for the smash hit medical dramas of the 1990s.
Predating “ER,” “St. Elsewhere” pioneered the use of the large ensemble cast, featuring more than a dozen different characters in an era when most medical dramas relied on just two or three. Even more groundbreaking was “St. Elsewhere’s” production technique, specifically intended to mimic the look of a gritty medical documentary. The camera was tracked through the hospital corridors, moving from conversation to conversation with zero editing. While this process was incredibly difficult to execute, it proved particularly valuable to the show’s success, especially amongst medical professionals.
The extremely long takes weren’t the only factor that gave “St. Elsewhere” its realistic appeal. The show also fearlessly tackled the difficult, real life issues commonplace in any hospital staff, portraying the less glamorous side of a high-pressure career life.
“St. Elsewhere was first show that really got it right about medical procedures, and the way doctor’s live,” explained longtime star Ed Begley, JR. “The way they went through divorces and cheated on their spouses and did all that stuff and did drugs, and were highly flawed.”
The first major medical drama to truly soar to the top of the charts was “Dr. Kildare,” NBC’s 1961 foray into the newly established television genre. “Dr. Kildare” centered on the trials of Dr. James Kildare, a handsome young intern played by Richard Chamberlain, and his esteemed boss, Dr. Leonard Gillespie, portrayed by veteran actor Raymond Massey. “Dr. Kildare” saw five successful seasons before ending in 1966, owing much of its popularity to Chamberlain’s widespread heartthrob appeal.
While the medical community appreciated the increased public interest and understanding spurred by “Dr. Kildare’s” broadcast fame, not all off screen doctors and nurses were fans of the program. Because “Dr. Kildare” made little use of the documentary style so central to the genre’s later successes, real-life doctors and nurses grew concerned that the show was creating false expectations in the minds of viewers, setting a troubling social precedent. Worse, the public’s perception of doctors had become so influenced by television shows like “Dr. Kildare,” many fans assumed the actors actually knew medicine.
“Ray [Massey] would get into trouble with that sometimes,” remembered “Dr. Kildare” star Richard Chamberlain. “He was at table and having dinner at Chasin’s once and somebody in a neighboring booth had a heart attack; and people were very angry with him for not jumping in and helping this guy, but Ray didn’t know what to do.”
Marcus Welby, M.D.
Picking up where “Dr. Kildare” left off, ABC’s 1969 drama “Marcus Welby, M.D.” was unabashedly willing to blur the line between actor and doctor, a decision that launched the program’s star Robert Young into the limelight as America’s favorite doctor. The actor, who began his career as the doting father on “Father Knows Best,” so relished playing a doctor on TV that he regularly gave speeches at medical conventions and was known for offering health tips to his fellow cast and crew on set. While the medical community was publicly displeased with the show’s illusory portrayal, Young didn’t see the problem, offering medical advice in interviews and going so far as to encourage real doctors to be more like his fictional Dr. Welby.
While Young may have enjoyed skirting the medical establishment’s control, his co-star Elena Verdugo was much more responsive to their demands and happily adjusted her performance in response to community feedback. Verdugo, who quickly took her place next to Young as America’s favorite nurse, also made waves as television’s first professional Latina character. A pioneering program for myriad reasons, “Marcus Welby, M.D.” received consistently high ratings throughout its seven-year run.
The day after “Marcus Welby, M.D.” premiered in 1969, CBS released its own pioneering doctor drama, “Medical Center.” The series starred Chad Everett as Joe Gannon, a young, ambitious Los Angeles surgeon. Storylines often focused on the tension between Everett and his older superior, Dr. Paul Lochner, played by James Daly. While “Medical Center” mirrored “Marcus Welby, M.D.” in span and popularity – both enjoyed seven highly-rated seasons – the two medical dramas had little in common, especially when it came to a commitment to realism.
“We were medically correct; we were required viewing for a lot of schools of nursing,” remarked Chat Everett. “Never did we not have at least one technical advisor, and usually two or three depending on the equipment we were using and the procedures we were involved with.”
Understanding the power of their social influence, “Medical Center’s” producers decided to do more than just entertain audiences. The program took on several controversial issues throughout its seven-year broadcast run, including workplace discrimination and national politics. When “Medical Center” was canceled in 1975, it held the title as the longest-running medical drama on television.