Grey’s Anatomy, on the other hand, is a different strain altogether. It is a sudsy, soppy, girlie soap of a drama (tagline: Operations. Relations. Complications.) The patients and stethoscopes are incidental props in between chats about dreamy surgeons and “oh-migod, being an intern is like, SO hard, you know?” But because I love you people, my reader(s), I put my Y-chromosome away, wondered which top I should wear to catch my consultant’s eye and watched it with some Haagen Dazs.
House really is a one-man show. That is not to belittle Hugh Laurie’s supporting cast (Dr House does enough of that himself), they’re easy on the eye but bland. Neighbours stalwarts (i.e. all British students) will recognise Jesse Spencer (Billy Kennedy) who insists he is Australian despite House telling him “you put the Queen on your money. You’re British.” He makes up the team with Omar Epps and Jennifer Morrison. But House is the star. He’s a git and you love him for it, because for every foot he steps on, he saves a patient’s life. The fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital seems to attract the most weird and wonderful medical conundrums, which can only be solved by the man who played Bertie Wooster. Naphthalene poisoning, acute intermittent porphyria, EBV-phenytoin-epilepsy or tic-tac induced stroke (only 2 calories). Now I don’t know about you, but these things come into my hospital all the time. The team toss up the possibilities, write some stuff on a see-through markerboard, run some tests and House eventually gets it right. What makes it so eminently watchable are House’s glib one-liners. A bright orange patient comes in, but only complains of back pain.
“Unfortunately, you have a deeper problem. Your wife is having an affair.” “What?” replies the patient. “You're orange, you moron. It's one thing for you not to notice, but if your wife hasn't picked up on the fact that her husband has changed colours, she's just not paying attention.”
A pretty medical student is trying to present a history to House, who seems less than interested. “You’re reading a comic book.” House: “And you’re drawing attention to your bosom by wearing a low-cut top…oh I’m sorry, I thought we were having a state-the-obvious contest. I’m competitive by nature.”
House’s first season stayed fresh by introducing new cast members and not falling into the trend of diagnosis-of-the-month, but thankfully the total absence of House’s personal life has meant the relationship-tripe that mars many a British show is avoided, similar to the way Grissom’s geek has made CSI so fascinating.
Grey’s Anatomy has, like House, been doing extremely well across the Pond, consistently getting higher ratings than Lost. Much of its success can be attributed to savvy producers who recognised a gap in the market, women. Grey’s Anatomy revolves around Meredith Grey, a first year surgical intern played by Ellen Pompeo. In the opening episode, Meredith shags some sexy dude and like, he totally turns out to be her boss. I like horny hospitals and ridiculous romances but it is the dialogue that makes Grey’s Anatomy unbearable. The plotlines are mindless fun, interns are humiliated by tyrannical attendings, syphilis epidemics are caused by surgical interns, doctors do nurses, surgeons shag physicians and interns enjoy residents. Hell Meredith even snogs a patient. All this makes Grey’s Anatomy sound like the grown-up O.C., but try sitting through dialogue like this:
“8 of you will switch to an easier specialty. 5 of you will crack. 2 of you will be asked to leave. This is your arena. How well you play - that's up to you.”
“Your first shift starts now and lasts 48 hours. You're interns, grunts, nobodies, bottom of the surgical food chain. Run labs, write orders, work every second of your life until you drop and don't complain.”
“If I hadn't taken the Hippocratic Oath I'd Kevorkian her with my bare hands” (talking about a patient)
“I can’t think of any one reason why I want to be a surgeon. But I can think of a thousand reasons why I should quit. There are lives in our hands. I could quit. But here’s the thing. I love the playing field.” (so you just thought of one reason then, you silly moo)
“Did you let me scrub in for this operation because I slept with you?” (well all right, I did say the same thing to my consultant the other day)
“This is a good day to save lives.”
“We're women! We have vaginas! Get used to it!”
“You try eating after performing 17 rectal exams”
“The bad news is that we gave your penis to the cops.” (okay, that one’s funny)
But what medics really want to know is the answer to the ultimate question – can they be justified as studying? Strangely enough, I just sat written finals after having watched a helluva lotta medical TV and can honestly say one show has helped me more than any other. I ought to add that I’m probably not the best person to ask as in my head I justified watching the entire Ashes series before finals by the fact that they talked about Simon Jones’ injury. For about a minute.
Both shows have their howlers. A common theme in medical dramas is that one doctor does EVERYTHING. House’s team even visit dying patient’s houses to look for clues. Grey’s Anatomy spends so much time throwing clichés and romance around, there is little medicine to speak of. But House has some interesting, if very rare, medicine. One sometimes wonders how non-medics can fully enjoy the show, as it has long exchanges about therapy, investigations and diagnoses, with little explanation. The science is generally sound, but occasionally they stray from the bizarre to the inane, like tattoos erupting in MRI machines due to metal in the ink.
Both shows seem set to return for at least a few more seasons and whatever one’s thoughts about them, they are good stuff for one important reason – programmes about doctors make doctors look cool. We all want to look cool, right?
So what was that show I mentioned that helped me through finals more than any other? It’s not ER and not House. To dismiss it is as simply a comedy is to sell it short. As long as the writers don’t get too saccharine, it is an inspiring, thought-provoking, funny and thoroughly realistically-observed series. It is one of the best American TV shows to invade our fair shores and one you all know about already, the sublime Scrubs.
This was published as my column the October issue of the greatest medical newspaper in the world, Medical Student.