This 'n' That

Friday, October 28, 2005


The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert likes the BBC's 'Bodies' and so does This 'n' That. It airs Thursday nights here in the U.S. on BBC America. Beware, though, it is frank and realistic in its depiction of surgical procedures and sexuality. So it may not be suitable for viewing by the faint of heart. Unfortunately, the last episode of the limited series airs Thursday, 3 November 2005 . But watch for repeats. It is not to be missed.

BBC's 'Bodies' doesn't flinch at grim realities others avoid
By Matthew Gilbert, Globe Staff | October 20, 2005

''Bodies," BBC America's gripping medical drama, does something American MDTV doesn't do very well, if at all. It presents us with long scenes of human suffering, of hospitalized patients groaning in mortal pain. In the first hour of the six-episode series, a woman dies and dies and dies endlessly of cervical cancer, crying out in physical torment. A normally reserved person, she can't suppress her sharp agony as her doctors falter in indecision.

The British import gives us none of the quick cutaways from her distress that characterize the American medical dramas of today, including ''Grey's Anatomy," ''House," ''Nip/Tuck," and the post-heyday ''ER." Her harrowing finish extends beyond our own medical-TV boundaries, providing viewers with no easy relief or distraction from grim reality. ''Bodies," which airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m., is a proudly unblinking look at health care, revolving around a fickle OB-GYN who botches surgery after surgery. In Dr. Hurley's most horrifying mistake so far, he lost the life of a baby and let the mother lapse into a coma.

Certainly ''Bodies" is a harsh view of what happens to patients once they've laced up their johnnies and signed their consent forms. The show is a reminder of how affirmative and hopeful our own medical dramas are, despite their melodramatic twists. It reveals that other Thursday hospital series, the 12-year-old ''ER," as the action-packed, super-doc soap it has become. ''Bodies" even makes Fox's misanthropic ''House" look like a prime-time vision of positivity, heroism, and shiny tiles.

Yes, Hugh Laurie's sadistic, grumpy Dr. House is part of the bright American spin, because when all is said and done he offers safe shelter to patients with puzzling ailments. ''Bodies" isn't a dark view of health care because its doctors -- particularly Hurley (Patrick Baladi from ''The Office") -- have obvious character flaws like House does. Flaws don't knock TV characters down from their pedestals or make their shows into downers. Indeed, since the days of ''Hill Street Blues," America's TV heroes have been required to have personal flaws in order to be believable. No one wants to be treated by Dr. Marcus Welby in this age of realism; he wasn't messy enough to be a genius. ''House" makes it clear that House's contempt and addiction are well worth suffering to benefit from his virtuosic diagnoses.

The doctors and nurses of ''Grey's Anatomy" are abundantly flawed, too, enacting their ''Ally McHeal" soap opera while making eyes -- or averting eyes -- over incisions. The lead couple, Meredith and Derek, do their distracting romantic tango, while Cristina is sidelined by her own work affair. But en masse, the Seattle Grace Hospital staffers don't kill an inordinate number of patients. Mostly, they heal. Even Derek's vindictive wife, Addison, whose arrival cut our heroine to the quick, is a ''world-renowned fetal surgeon." The show offers a secure view of a hospital, if not of love affairs. It gets higher ratings than ''ER" because it's fresher, and strategically slotted after ''Desperate Housewives," but also because it's cozier.

What makes ''Bodies" such a Paddy Chayefsky-ian nightmare is the way it mercilessly zeroes in on flagrant incompetence. It's not just not cozy, it's malignant. The ''Bodies" doctors aren't just flawed personalities; they're flawed doctors. They actually make their patients sicker, then cover for one another with a Mafia-like loyalty. The reason Hurley's errors go unnoticed is that he's a star researcher whose work brings money and attention to the hospital. You're just not going to see a Hurley on ''Grey's Anatomy" or ''House," because those shows are more invested in encouraging us to feel safe.

Hurley makes even the promiscuous plastic surgeons of ''Nip/Tuck" look rosy. Sure, they're highly unstable emotionally; they're also among the best in their field, and they can miraculously erase the brutal knife work of the murderous ''Carver" from victims' faces. In their bedrooms, Drs. Christian Troy and Sean McNamara are undependable, but in their sleek surgical theater, they're stars. They expertly sew up ravaged flesh and torn self-esteem.

The ''Bodies" surgeons don't similarly redeem themselves with the patients -- many of them pregnant -- who go under their knives. They're cold, and the show buffers them with almost no comic relief, no background farce, no Dr. Archie Morris of ''ER" putting his big foot in his big mouth. The overall effect is sobering.

I don't mean to suggest that American medical dramas, now undergoing a wave of popularity, don't make good TV. ''House" certainly has its absorbing moments, thanks to Laurie's tart performance. ''Grey's Anatomy" is a distracting late-Sunday brain vacation. And ''Nip/Tuck" doubles as a brilliant essay on self-love, self-loathing, and sexual identity. There's no reason these shows have to scare us into realizations about what can happen when we entrust our bodies to strangers. We need the promise of heroes, now as always, and we need romantic escapism, too. Why not set stories of American dependability amid the threat of dangerous viruses and, in the case of ''ER," bombings, shootings, and floods?

But a show like ''Bodies" also carries a broad subversive punch, as it gestures at how personal mistakes can escape our notice disguised as institutional error. With its taut storytelling, it pushes for spiky realizations about a system, and not just a few men and women in scrubs. It's a soberingly unromanticized point of view, tinged with paranoia and the urgency of worst-case scenarios. It's meant to provoke, and it succeeds.

Watching ''Bodies" is never boring, but it can certainly be an uneasy experience; it doesn't offer American viewers subliminal comfort while it entertains. Alas, sometimes a bitter pill needs to taste bitter to work.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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