Medical drama smackdown: "Mercy" vs. McDreamy!

Which do we crave more, NBC's gritty hospital melodrama or the fantastical emotional Mad Libs of "Grey's Anatomy"?

Published November 15, 2009 2:01AM (EST)

The insertion of the word "drama" as a stand-in for emotional confrontation tells us a lot about our psychological state in this self-conscious, unenlightened age. While e-mailing, texting and tweeting are acceptable ways to communicate important feelings and ideas these days, shrugging, proclaiming noncommittally that "it is what it is" and outright avoidance are widely embraced means of signaling our shifting emotional needs. Conversely, by stating your feelings directly to another human being face to face, you risk becoming known as someone who loves "drama," standing in sharp contrast to "sane" individuals who "don't want any drama," i.e., would prefer that, instead of expressing yourself, you'd simply drop off the face of the earth, or at the very least have the common decency to boil your feelings down to 140 characters or less.

But in a world of passive-aggressive drama-avoiders, the tiniest understated droplet of emotion makes a gigantic splash. When everyone is cautious to the point of becoming polite, back-patting yes men with the same appreciative professional smiles plastered on their faces, see how easy it is to misinterpret a neutral gaze? When no one tells you what they're really feeling or thinking, when no one mentions being disappointed or disturbed by another person's actions, see how easy it is to misunderstand a gap between phone calls or a long-delayed Facebook response? When everyone coats their words in the same tone of supernatural friendliness and acceptance, see how tough it can be to word that e-mail in a way that doesn't cause offense?

We're all slowly backing away from each other, nodding and smiling reassuringly, our fingers poised over our hand-held devices, eager to tap out a few soothing parting words to smooth our transitions to the next impoverished non-engagement.

Bed-headed stepchild

Maybe this is why it's hard not to crave a good TV drama these days. The pace of adult life is hectic. And aside from occasional meaningful conversations with old friends (by phone, mostly) our lives are filled with idle chatter and niceties. Who can blame us for retreating to our beds at night, turning on the tube, and leaning in to the high stakes, weighty stares and tense exchanges as another hour of scripted catharsis comes to a rolling boil?

But what dramas are truly worth our time these days? "Mad Men" wrapped on Sunday, and Joss Whedon's "Dollhouse" just got canceled. (Yes, I was watching it regularly and, yes, I am seriously disappointed.) TNT's "Saving Grace" is being stretched out through next summer, but only because there won't be a fifth season.

Sure, there's FX's "Sons of Anarchy," CBS's "The Good Wife," Fox's "Lie to Me," CBS's "The Mentalist," Showtime's "Dexter" and a handful of other reasonably good hour-long shows. But if you're often bored by procedurals (I am) and don't always want to consider another brutal murder or climactic courtroom confession (I don't), then the possibilities are limited.

After browsing the sparse dramatic offerings on my DVR, I usually end up puffing uninterestedly on some medical melodrama. At least hospitalized soft porn has complicated women falling in and out of love, surrounded by supportive himbos and deeply soulful, expressive patients, bleeding and crying out in pain and dying in their arms as the camera circles, hungry for more wet eyes and heavy sighs.

Or maybe I'm just taking pains to express my continuing, somewhat shameful itch for a weekly dose of "Grey's Anatomy" (9 p.m. Thursdays on ABC). Despite countless highs (Torres discovering her love for Hahn) and lows (Izzie hallucinating making sweet love to dead Denny), this drama remains a brilliant manipulator of viewer emotions.

Now let's be clear: The staffing decisions on this show have defied logic. Get rid of the brilliant Brooke Smith, why? Because she's convincing as a self-possessed lesbian doctor? Hire Jessica Capshaw to play a perky, wrinkly-nosed, ultra-patriotic lipstick lesbian instead, because it makes the gay story line more palatable to the general God and country and lipstick-loving populace? And then, let T.R. Knight (who plays George) walk without a fight, but keep whiny Katherine Heigl (who plays Izzie) and build a big, soppy, tedious cancer story line around her? Pair her first with dead Denny (snore) then dull Alex (Justin Chambers)?

But the truth is, even the bad characters on this show are reasonably fleshed out, thanks to the fact that the writers make sure that every character's dialogue adheres very closely to that character's guiding principles. Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) is an obsessive surgical badass who hates touchy-feely bullshit. Alex is, as the Mercy West newbies so aptly put it, sort of a douche. Lexie (Chyler Leigh) is idealistic and naive. Owen Hunt (Kevin McKidd) is thoughtful and haunted and heroic under pressure. Somehow, as simple as these basic profiles are, they work. Even Arizona (Capshaw), with her rousing patriotic monologues (Do you sniff a little of stepdad Spielberg's "greatest generation" sentimentality floating into the mix here?), sort of works as a nurturing, courageous, principles-first girly-girl.

In fact, the only time characters drop their signature concerns and sound like a more generic Grey's Anatomatron is when they have some big, emotional message to communicate to another character, and then they slip into Grey's Anatomospeak, which I'll demonstrate using my Grey's Anato-Mad Lib:

"Look, I know you don't like the fact that I (past tense verb) your patient's (noun). I know that I (past tense verb) on your (part of body). But I care about (value or principle). I care about (same value or principle), and I can't just (verb) along knowing that (same value or principle) has been trampled on. (Same value or principle) makes you (verb). (Same value or principle) sometimes makes (noun) look like (noun). But (same value or principle) matters. It matters, and I can't pretend it doesn't. That's not me. That's not how I was raised. That's not the (woman, man, doctor) who is your (wife, husband, friend, boss, intern). (Verb) if you want to (verb), but that's not me."

As you can see, the Grey's Anato-Mad Lib produces exactly the sort of stirring monologue you need to get from the Big Relationship Crisis to the Vagina Music Montage. Formulaic though it may be, those thoughtful voice-overs and that repetitive emotional prose and that vagina music and that big, weighty value or principle du jour make us feel things that tweets and small talk and status updates can't touch.

As little as I care about whether Izzie and Alex get back together, or whether Chief (James Pickens Jr.) and McDreamy (Patrick Dempsey) stop clashing – and really, who could care? – this show continues chugging along like the little hospital tugboat that could, with new, almost-believable life-or-death battles and almost-moving romantic confrontations each week. Despite its very idealized, sugary take on the medical realm, I still find "Grey's Anatomy" emotionally engaging and relaxing at the same time. It's not a work of genius, no, but it's lively and clever and sweet and there are ideas and feelings in the mix that make it far superior to the more typical, flatly macho conflict we find on other dramas. Thus do I find myself, every week without fail, rolling this sweet medical melodrama into a fat doobie and smoking it until it's cashed -- or until the strummy love ballad seeps in and MerDer fall asleep spooning while the Seattle rain pitter-patters pensively outside.

Ming the Mercy-less

Despite "Grey's" high ratings, there are plenty of viewers out there who remain suspicious of the show and its sentimental formula of gorgeous, principled, smooth-talking upper-middle-class doctors who are not only, every last one of them, the very best (insert medical specialty) in the country, but who also care so deeply about their patients that they're right there, holding hands and tapping out e-mails to mommies and thinking long and hard about which expensive, highly experimental course of treatment makes the most sense for this or that terminal patient in spite of the fact that he or she is most likely going to die anyway. (And no, a few minutes of Chief shouting about costly tests isn't going to erase the inherent fantastical nature of this picture.)

Of course, anyone who has actually spent a little time in a hospital knows that the truth is a far cry from the soft-porn, professional-class velvet painting of "Grey's Anatomy." And as much as the sudden flood of shows about nurses has tried our patience with the same picture, maybe that's mostly because "HawthoRNe" was rotten enough that it got a little stink on the rest of them.

Also, the shows about nurses make being a nurse look seriously frustrating. It's not so much that we don't find ourselves relating to the nurses on these shows, it's that we relate to them so well. After a long day at work, carefully tiptoeing around the enormous egos in our midst, most of us can't handle settling onto our couches just to see nurses deal with the same bullshit from doctors that we encounter all day long. Bad enough to put up with bad decisions by supervisors and bosses who have power over you and think they know best. But to endure them in a setting where bad decisions lead to sickness and death? And to be surrounded by patients who underestimate your education, your intelligence and your expertise, day after day? It's almost too much to bear. No wonder most of us would rather shadow McDreamy as he thoughtfully scans X-rays than watch a frantic nurse make desperate calls to other hospitals for a rabies vaccine that might save a woman's life.

It should be noted, though, that unlike Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" (which was fun but retread the same ground each week without revealing anything about its characters) and TNT's "HawthoRNe" (which flatly sucked), NBC's "Mercy" (8 p.m. Wednesdays) presents a grittier, more realistic alternative to the "Grey's Anatomy" universe of privileged, gorgeous medical badasses.

"If you want to get right then you'd better get right with me!" the opening theme song insists in a tough-girl Stevie Nicks growl, and we see the three nurse friends at the center of our show, Veronica, Sonia and Chloe. Sure, these women advocate passionately for their patients when the doctors around them come and go distractedly, but that's at least a little bit closer to reality than the more typical TV drama's favored image, of doctors who stay up all night, poring over charts, while nurses scamper around them fetching IVs like anonymous waitresses. Later, the nurses of "Mercy" toss back shots at their favorite corner dive and, when the A.C. there fails, break into a city pool and float around in their underwear, sipping cold bottles of beer.

From Veronica (Taylor Schilling), who's still traumatized by her stint in Iraq, to Sonia (Jaime Lee Kirchner), who has a drug-dealing brother, these nurses are tough, straight-talking, self-possessed women who went into nursing precisely because they've been blessed with more than the average share of empathy -- not that this shows in their rough and tumble talk to each other. Take some of Veronica's recent declarations:

"I'm not the pope. It's not my job to keep the girl from humping."

"I don't care if it's Jennifer Aniston, I just kind of want a chick on my money."

"Kids are horrible. They fail math and crash cars and get arrested."

"I'm not really, like, a joiner. I mean, I don't really see myself trotting down to a church basement to drink bad coffee, all of that talking and sharing."

Veronica is a good character -- you could even say that she's a better Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) than Meredith Grey herself. Her bluster, her denial, her tomboy spirit, these things were apparent from her first scene on the show. She really loves her husband, but she's also in love with Chris (James Tupper), a doctor she had an affair with in Iraq. The scenes with Veronica and Chris or Veronica and her drunk, half-crazy family are always compelling and funny. "Think about how many people know," Sonia tells Veronica at a family party at her house, urging her to come clean to her husband about her affair. "Then think about how much those people drink." In the background, we see Veronica's brother stumble out her front door, burping loudly.

Unfortunately, Sonia and Chloe aren't nearly as interesting as Veronica so far. Sonia's tough, Chloe's shy, and that's about all we get. While "Grey's Anatomy" is often criticized for having too many characters to service, when you watch a few episodes of "Mercy," you start to want some new faces to break up the monotony. Seeing Veronica withhold her emotions while Chloe stutters nervously and Sonia lets loose a tirade over and over again isn't going to keep audiences coming back for more. The problem here is not that they're nurses. The problem is that they're boring nurses.

And then there's the dialogue. Half the time it's smart and funny. But when things get serious, the writers don't know how to pull back and keep things subtle.

"You put your ass on the line for strangers. That's why I love you," Veronica's macho, simple, good-guy husband tells her, even though we're obviously supposed to feel that Chris is her true soul mate. Do we feel conflicted? Yes, but only over whether or not this guy would really spell it all out for her that way.

"The universe hates love!" Sonia barks at a cooing couple, and like magic, the scene falls flat, proving that the universe also hates overly obvious, on-the-nose dialogue.

"You're using this hospital and its patients to fend off your own demons!" shouts Dr. Harris (James Legros), the insensitive dick physician, to Veronica, because -- little known fact -- insensitive dick physicians are nonetheless quite sensitive to the psychological demons haunting the nurses on their floors.

"How the hell did I fall in love with someone as stubborn as you?" Sonia's hot cop boyfriend Nick (Charles Semine) asks her as she refuses to get into his car after a spat. The real question is, how the hell do we suspend our disbelief at such clunky, awkward dialogue?

Worst of all is Chloe (Michelle Trachtenberg), who just isn't believable as a dorky, intimidated, shy nurse. This character fits Trachtenberg like a cheap suit. Maybe Trachtenberg is closer to the know-it-all, bossy bitch she plays on "Gossip Girl." Maybe it's the dialogue. All I know is that every scene with Chloe in it feels like an extended stay in a waiting room crowded with strangers coughing up lungs.

That said, every week "Mercy" gets a little better. The writers really do seem to be ironing out the kinks and playing to the show's strengths more and more. And if we were to look back at the first season of "Grey's Anatomy," I shudder to think of the awkwardness and badly scripted moments we'd find there. For every lackluster plot line (Sonia worries that Nick is dead, Chloe makes a pass at Chris, a stereotypical old couple relishes celebrating their wedding anniversary) there's a compelling one (Veronica struggles to tell Chris the truth, Veronica helps a cancer patient brave chemo, Veronica and Dr. Harris become unlikely friends in the wake of his wife's death). This show is getting steadier on its feet, Taylor Schilling is really fantastic in this role, and, well, who knows? Maybe one day before I float off to MerDer McDreamland, I'll get right with my girlfriends in Jersey City instead.

Until then, I back away from you slowly, nodding and smiling reassuringly, bidding you adieu until our next impoverished online non-engagement. 

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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