By Matthew Gilbert
June 24, 2010
Unless you have Munchausen syndrome, or you’re a “Grey’s Anatomy’’ addict, you probably aren’t thrilled by the sight of IV poles, exam gloves, and steel gurneys. Generally speaking, childbirth aside, you’re not visiting a hospital unless you or someone you care about is sick. It hardly seems inviting to call ABC’s new docu-series “Boston Med’’ an honest, unvarnished look at hospital life.
But truly there can be something rich and lovely about hospitals, and there is something rich and lovely about “Boston Med.’’ Hospitals are where doctors and nurses and patients rise to heroic moment, where people find perspective about what and who really matter to them. In hospitals, life is at stake, from the tragedy of a fatal stabbing to the rebirth of a woman whose lungs are quickly failing. Life happens in double and triple time in those long, sterile, white-lit halls, and “Boston Med’’ effectively captures that raw human intensity.
The eight-part series, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 5, is produced by Terence Wrong of the extraordinary Baltimore hospital docu-series “Hopkins’’ in 2008. Like “Hopkins,’’ “Boston Med’’ is a respectful portrait of caregivers and patients in extreme situations, chiseled down from miles of footage. There is no cheesy narration or fanciful editing imposed onto the material; the series is closer to documentary-style storytelling than the forced arcs of reality TV. Wrong throws in a few unnecessary dramatic flourishes — a doctor fighting to make his daughter’s recital, for example. But mostly, the episodes jump among both routine and unusual cases at three local institutions — Mass. General, Brigham and Women’s, and Children’s Hospital — without hokey manipulations.
The show’s most news-making material comes in the final episode, with the country’s second face-transplant surgery. Wrong and his film crews capture both the case of Joseph Helfgot, who died after heart-transplant surgery, and the case of James Perry Maki, who receives Helfgot’s face after his own was severely damaged in a third rail accident. There are many big scenes in this story line — Helfgot talking about his love for his wife, Susan Whitman-Helfgot; her meeting with Maki after the surgery that gave him her late husband’s face; Maki’s first look in the mirror; Maki meeting another face-transplant recipient. But none of these moments seems artificially sweetened. These “characters’’ aren’t actors, like those on reality TV, and awkwardness is sometimes in the air.
The less historical cases that precede the face transplant are no less powerfully dramatic, including a pregnant woman who learns her baby will need a series of heart surgeries, and a Framingham cop whose co-workers watch over him day and night. Tonight, “Boston Med’’ tracks two lung transplant recipients and their families, as they gather in cautious optimism at the hospital — one daughter actually bringing along a man with whom she’s having a third date. The doctor, Daniel DiBardino, heads out into the night with a cooler to pick up the lungs like a kid going to buy his first video game.
Lest they come off as mysterious magicians, “Boston Med’’ lets us get to know a few doctors and nurses like the wry DiBardino, whom a colleague teasingly calls “Dr. McDreamy DiBardino.’’ In one sharply focused moment, an ambulance driver looks askance when DiBardino asks him to use his lights and siren to drive the lungs from the airport to the hospital. “We are not kidding,’’ DiBardino strongly admonishes the driver. “This is a pair of human lungs.’’
Not all of the cases are successful, and a few of the medical mistakes — a Do Not Resuscitate order that was ignored, a sloppy intubation — hang in the air like loose strings. After all, the truths in “Boston Med’’ would be undermined if Wrong did not tell the less-than-happy stories, too, with the same generous amount of honesty and sensitivity.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.