Mighty Med meets Nurse Nation
2013 Fall TV preview
September 2013 -- The fall TV landscape has plenty of physician-centric health shows, but nurses are in the mix. Sure, ABC's popular Grey's Anatomy (premiering Sept. 26) will be back for its 500th season with a dozen brilliant, sexy surgeons and some almost-invisible handmaiden nurses. Mindy Kaling's Fox sitcom The Mindy Project (Sept. 17) will return for a second season with three quirky but skilled OB-GYNs and three demented and/or nasty minor nurse characters. The CW's Hart of Dixie (Oct. 7), about a young New York physician in a small Southern town, will be back. And the cable arts network Ovation will offer A Young Doctor's Notebook (Oct. 2), a "darkly humorous" new series about the travails of a young physician at a remote hospital during the Russian Revolution. But ABC's Private Practice and Body of Proof are gone, and all four of the godlike-physician hospital dramas that premiered on other networks last year failed (Do No Harm (NBC), The Mob Doctor (Fox), Emily Owens, MD (CW), and Monday Mornings (TNT)). CBS will offer the thriller-drama Hostages (Sept. 23), in which a rogue FBI agent kidnaps the family of a surgeon who has been chosen to operate on the President and demands that she kill the chief executive in surgery. An equally plausible new tween sitcom called Mighty Med, about the "superhero" wing of a local hospital, will appear on Disney XD (Oct. 7); it's not clear yet whether superheroes need physicians or nurses. Other shows will clearly have nurses. MTV has a new reality show called Nurse Nation (now called Scrubbing In) that "follows nine twenty-something travel nurses all assigned to work at a new hospital in a brand new city for 13 weeks." NBC's Parks & Recreation (Sept. 26), the local government sitcom with respected nurse and public health official Ann Perkins, returns. Ricky Gervais's new Channel 4 "comedy-drama" Derek, available in the U.S. on Netflix (Sept. 12), focuses on the "quirky" staff and residents at a nursing home, whose director Hannah is sometimes described as a nurse. Channel 4's documentary 24 Hours in A&E has just finished its third season in the U.K., with skilled nurses among its cast, but only the first season has aired in the U.S., on BBC America. Also in the U.K., ITV Studios is filming a new drama called Breathless (early 2014) "about a group of doctors and nurses working in a London hospital in the 1960s, a world in which everything and everyone has their place." In spring 2014, Showtime's powerful Nurse Jackie will return for a sixth season of clinical expertise, creative patient advocacy, and perhaps more unfortunate suggestions that nurses report to physicians. And returning for a third season on PBS will be the BBC drama Call the Midwife, which focuses on eight (!) skilled, autonomous nurse midwives caring for poor women in 1950's London. So on balance, the new season could sound worse for nursing. Join us in tracking it!
Looking briefly back at this past summer, there have been a few significant shows for nurses, in addition to 24 Hours in A&E in the U.K. Fox and NBC burned off the remaining episodes of The Mob Doctor and Do No Harm, keeping broadcast network viewers current with the brilliant-but-tortured physician narrative that will carry them through to the Grey's Anatomy premiere later this month. On those shows, like the other failed network dramas from last year, there were no major nurse characters, and those who did appear were peripheral subordinates to the physicians who saved lives. The USA show Royal Pains just completed its fifth season portraying the exploits of the awesome MacGyver-like Hamptons concierge physician Hank Lawson. The show has rarely had any nurses, but this past summer a couple did appear in hospital scenes, and as you might expect, they were nice physician helpers with little evident expertise. And the summer menu included the fourth season of A&E's The Glades, on which the lead detective character's girlfriend Callie Cargill is a nurse with occasional chances to show clinical skill. But she has always been a medical student, reinforcing the wannabe physician cliché and making it unclear if viewers will credit nursing for any of her expertise. This season, Callie's skills seemed to revolve even more around physician-like care, for example in her treatment of a professional basketball player who was abusing cortisone.
Nurse Nation (now called Scrubbing In)
Nurse Nation is a new MTV reality show about the personal and professional lives of a group of young travel nurses on a 13-week contract. The MTV website says:
'Nurse Nation' is a new docu-series that follows nine twenty-something travel nurses all assigned to work at a new hospital in a brand new city for 13 weeks. Some of them have been doing this for years, while others are on their first tour. Cameras will be there every step of the way as they take on the unique challenges and intense pressures of working in the medical profession as they face life or death decisions every day. But it's not 'all work and no play.' On days off, they take advantage of all that their host city has to offer, meet new people and potential new loves while often trying to keep previous relationships and friendships alive. It's the ultimate 'work-hard/play-hard' lifestyle.
It's hard not to think there will be a lot more "play" than "work," but other press reports suggest that at least some of the nurses involved are concerned not to get "too wild" so as not to jeopardize their licenses. There is some precedent for a reality show about travel nurses, in particular the online series 13 Weeks (2005-2006), whose value was pretty limited. But as far as we know there has never been one as prominent as Nurse Nation. It would certainly be possible for such a show to convey helpful information about nursing and avoid damaging stereotypes. See more in a piece about the show in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and on the show's website, where you will be able to watch episodes online.
Breathless is an upcoming U.K. series, apparently to air in early 2014, about physicians and nurses working in London in the 1960s. The ITV site describes it this way:
This stylish and compelling new ITV medical drama, Breathless starring Jack Davenport, follows the lives of a group of doctors and nurses working in a London hospital, a world in which everything and everyone has their place. But underneath the shiny veneer simmers a cauldron of lies, deception and guilty secrets, driven by love, ambition and sex.
Other reports say the show's focus will be on gynecology, in an era before the pill and the legalization of abortion. So the show might have something in common with Call the Midwife, although the bits about the simmering cauldron and everyone having "their place" do make us wonder just what the nurses' place will be. The six-episode first series will be shown on PBS in the U.S. See more information at ITV and Hollywood Reporter.
Derek is a new mockumentary-style "comedy-drama" by Ricky Gervais about the "quirky" staff and residents of a nursing home, especially the guileless lead character Derek. Originally airing on Channel 4 in the U.K., the show has seven episodes in its first series and a second series has been ordered. Netflix, which will make the entire first series available on Sept. 12, explains the basic set-up:
Derek's sunny outlook comes in handy with his quirky coworkers and friends as they struggle against prejudice, government bureaucracy, and constantly shrinking budgets to care for the elderly residents who depend on them.
One of the four main characters in the show is Hannah, an ally of Derek's who has apparently worked at the nursing home for many years and is now the director. She is described in some media about the show as a nurse, although sites linked directly to the show don't seem clear about it. To the extent viewers do see Hannah as a nurse, it would certainly be helpful for her to be presented as a skilled professional. See the show's website, or see the Netflix page on the show.
Hostages is a new CBS drama about a brilliant surgeon who is slated to operate on the President, but the night before the operation, she and her family are kidnapped by a rogue FBI agent who demands that she kill the chief executive in surgery. There do seem to be a few clinical scenes, but there don't seem to be any other health professionals among the main characters, and the show appears to be pretty much a twisty 24-style thriller. So it seems unlikely there will be a lot of health care. Still, when you put a physician character in the middle of a show with illness, guns, and violence, the potential is always there. See the show's website.
A Young Doctor's Notebook
The cable arts network Ovation will offer this series based on short stories by the playwright Mikhail Bulgakov about a new physician at a rural hospital in early 20th Century Russia. Some critics are amazed that this show even exists, but like Call the Midwife before it, the series was a big success in the U.K. The Ovation site explains:
It is a darkly humorous account of the turbulent experiences of a newly graduated young doctor (Daniel Radcliffe), artfully told through the eyes of his older, opiate-addicted self (Jon Hamm), who narrates the action from his own notebooks. The young doctor lands a post at a small hospital in a remote village during the Russian Revolution. Dealing with superstitious and poorly educated patients creates for the doctor a brutal, panic-inducing introduction to his medical practice, causing the young doctor to struggle with doubts about his own competence.
We don't see any major nurse characters--the show seems to revolve around the two leads--though some of the clinical scenes do seem to include nurse-like characters introducing the new physician to some nasty part of his new reality. We doubt these characters will do much more than act as foils for the Important Physician Character, but we'll see. See more information here.
Mighty Med is a new Disney XD live-action half-hour comedy aimed at tweens that will reportedly focus on two comics fanboys who stumble on the special "superhero wing" of a local hospital. Presumably that means they find the wing where superheroes and other comic book characters are treated, though we might argue that most hospital wings on Hollywood shows are superhero wings, if you consider the physician portrayals. It's not clear if the Mighty Med superheroes need actual health professionals--none of the actors reported to be involved in the project so far seem to be adults--or if they are instead restored to health by incantations or some other superheroic method. More information is available on the show's Wiki page, and Facebook page and in articles on Nickandmore.com and SuperHeroHype.com.
ABC's Grey's Anatomy remains very popular heading into its tenth season, and it now features about a dozen regular physician characters, every single one a surgeon (did we mention surgeons are brilliant?). Over the years, nurse characters have occasionally appeared on Grey's, usually embodying stereotypes, particularly the helpless handmaiden and the bureaucratic battleaxe, which contrasts sharply with the professional path that the show's modern female stars have chosen. The show still indulges in the occasional nurse insult, as in the May 2013 season finale in which surgeon Miranda Bailey, struggling to regain surgical confidence after a couple patients died, tried to make herself useful by taking blood to the OR. The chief of surgery mistook her for a nurse (!) and had to apologize. And because the show includes no identifiable nurse characters, physician nursing abounds. In that same finale, after a huge storm knocked out the hospital's power, surgeons and parents ventilated 12 NICU patients with no nurses in sight, in stark contrast to the way things really happened in New York during Hurricane Sandy, events on which the episode was presumably based. Looking forward, we can hope, but we see no sign that Grey's Anatomy's portrayal of nursing will improve soon. See the show's website on ABC, or see our page featuring many analyses over the years.
Mindy Kaling's Fox sitcom The Mindy Project, which is set at a small obstetrics practice in New York City, returns for a second season. Kaling's lookin'-for-love OB-GYN character and the other physicians are quirky, but they do seem to provide skilled care. Meanwhile, the practice's main nurse characters are demented and/or nasty. Nurse Morgan Tookers is a goofy ex-convict. Well-intentioned but ignorant, very odd, and a little scary, Morgan doesn't show much health expertise, and he seems to be based mostly on The Janitor from Scrubs. That means his role consists mainly of sincere but absurd assertions (e.g., "I'm not paying $10 to check a $5 coat"). The other main nurse character in the first season was Beverly, a dangerously inept and hostile nurse the practice fired early on, then re-hired as an office assistant, work at which she has proved just as inept, if less dangerous. In a December 2012 episode, after a holistic midwifery practice led by two New Agey men was "stealing" patients, Mindy got the patients back by telling them that midwives have no significant health skill and that only physicians can provide real health care to pregnant women. But wait! In the last few episodes of last season, as the Fox website notes, the "newest addition to the nurse station [was] Tamra...a girl who would rather dish gossip and dole out beauty tips than do anything resembling work." In fairness, the show gives the "girl" Tamra some strong insults to deliver--a bit of the Perry Cox role, if you want to stay with the Scrubs precedent--but that's not likely to help nursing much in the end. See the show's website on Fox, or see our page featuring further analysis.
This NBC sitcom about the freaks who run the government of Pawnee, Indiana, returns for a sixth season. The main character's best friend is Ann Perkins, a nurse who in recent seasons has been the public relations director of the local health department. There aren't many clinical plotlines, but the show has made clear that Ann has real health knowledge, and in general she is one of the show's saner, more intelligent characters. Her public health efforts are of course subject to the show's brand of squirm comedy. For example, in a fourth season episode, Ann's very reasonable idea to have the telegenic city manager do a PSA about diabetes ran into some trouble when he immediately began acting as if the spot was a major Hollywood production. On another occasion, after a city worker began sending a photo of his genitals to many employees, Ann noted that the enlarged genitals in the photo were consistent with a health problem like mumps. That led to a huge number of male city employees sending Ann pictures of their genitals; ultimately the city manager had to call a meeting to ask them to stop. See the show's website.
This CW comedy-drama about young New York physician Zoe Hart, who "inherits a local medical practice" in a small Southern town, returns for a third season. There are occasional clinical scenes, but the show focuses on the personal relationships between the lead character and the locals. No other major characters work in health care, and there have been no significant nurse characters, though in the first season there were some appearances by nurse Addie, who acted as an assistant/advisor at the star physician's practice. Addie asserted herself initially, noting how long she had been part of the practice, but as the season went on she seemed to appear only once in a while, briefly, to offer social advice to Hart. Thus, the show generally conforms to the standard Hollywood convention that physicians provide all meaningful care. See our webpage with an analysis of an episode, or see the show's website.
Showtime's veteran nurse-focused "dark comedy" will return for a sixth season in spring 2014. The show's last couple seasons were more about personal relations and workplace politics, and less about the clinical skill of New York emergency nurse Jackie Peyton, her gifted protégé Zoey Barkow, or the other nurses. But when there were clinical scenes, the show continued to present Jackie at least as a peer of the physicians in most respects, as she handled patients collaboratively with them and provided expert holistic care. Indeed, in the final two episodes of the fourth season, Jackie essentially took over the ER in the midst of a staffing crisis, running it expertly and showing what things could be like if she were in charge. But that brings us to the show's main recent problem--its tendency to suggest that physicians direct nurse staffing and nursing care, even though quasi-nurse manager Gloria Akalitus has been reinstated to her supervisory position. And last season there were a few awful scenes in which Zoey played handmaiden, transcribing for physician Fitch Cooper and re-organizing the office of physician Ike Prentiss. Still, the show did continue to feature sustained, credible, compelling interactions among nurses, and between nurses and physicians, both in clinical and social contexts--showing that nurses are three-dimensional, sentient beings. See our Nurse Jackie page featuring analyses of many episodes, or see the show's web site.
The BBC's Call the Midwife returns for a third season in the spring. The show is a dramatic look at the exploits of Anglican and lay nurse-midwives caring for poor women and babies in London in the late 1950's. The Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus and a group of young lay midwives--eight major nurse characters!-- try to cope with a high number of births and other health issues in the community. The central character is lay nurse Jenny Lee, whose "mature" self provides the narration for the series. In its first two seasons, the show presented the midwives as skilled and autonomous health workers whose ability varied in accord with their relevant experience. And all worked under the watchful eye of the authoritative but wise and gentle mother superior Sister Julienne. The nurses visited pregnant women to monitor their progress, delivered the babies under awful conditions, and advised the new mothers, in an environment without birth control where women seemed to function as baby factories and one-person day care centers. Physicians did appear occasionally when their special skills were needed. But for the most part the focus was on the nurses who provided the vast majority of the care, and physicians were marginal, in what amounted to a reversal of the standard Hollywood model. See our webpage featuring analyses from the show. Or see the show's website, where you can watch episodes online.
It's not clear there will be much in the fall shows that will really help nursing or counter the dominant awesome-physician narrative on U.S. prime time television. But if you count the spring shows, this could be one of the better years for nursing on television in recent memory. Please stay tuned and help us monitor the media, letting us know if you see a good or bad portrayal on any television show, anytime. And please join our letter-writing campaigns to speak out to show creators, especially those whose shows undermine understanding of the nursing profession. Thank you!