TELEVISION

The Ritual Of Disease, The Dance Of Death

HEATHER ROBERTSON April 1 1973
TELEVISION

The Ritual Of Disease, The Dance Of Death

HEATHER ROBERTSON April 1 1973

The Ritual Of Disease, The Dance Of Death

TELEVISION

HEATHER ROBERTSON

Doctor: “Excuse me nurse, I have to go up and save a life.”

Nurse: “I’ll tell ya what, Doc, give the patient a break and stay here.”

It used to be a joke that the little men in white coats were coming to get you. Too late. They’re here. A few more medical shows and they’ll have to carry me off to the place we used to call the loony bin. That was the word we used when hospitals were still places of terror and sickness was a private agony. Sickness is public now. Loony bins are called medical centres and the dance of death is gracefully performed by elegant people in make-up. Dying’s not so bad, when you can do it on TV.

I wonder what happens to people addicted to medical shows when they go to a real hospital and find themselves in a bilious green room attended by a fat doctor with hairy fingers and a crabby nurse who wears her iron grey hair rolled up in a bun. Are they surprised by the pain and the ugliness and the indifference? Do they cry out in their sleep “Where are you. Marcus Welby, MD?” Dr. Welby of course is out on a house call. Dr. Welby is the only doctor in North America who still makes house calls. There he is, sitting benignly by the patient’s bedside, telling her with tears of compassion in his eyes that leukemia really isn’t so bad after all. Dr. Welby’s bedside manner is the secret of his success. Combining the folksy charm of the small town GP with the technological mystique of the city hospital. Marcus Welby, MD (CTV — Tuesday, 10 p.m.) is high priest, father confessor, confidant and savior. The clergyman is discredited; in a pagan society it’s the medicine man who holds the power of life and death.

Dr. Welby bears a striking resemblance to the figure of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s movies, a fey personage with a round chalky face and long cloak who engages his victims in cheerful games. Medical shows are in fact medieval parables descended from 15th-century morality plays which used to be performed in the village square. .Simple and vulgar, the plays were intended not just to entertain but to point a moral and to enforce a standard of conduct by striking the fear of hellfire into the innocent audience. The TV medical shows replace the dogma of the church with the ritual of disease, the doctors deliver themselves of disapproving homilies and the horror of death still lurks behind the sacrament of the operating table. The medical shows make no attempt at realism. Marcus Welby, Emergency!, Medical Center, Police Surgeon are all alike with interchangeable characters and scripts. The hospital is Heaven, a sunny, protected place where bloodless patients float about in white nightgowns

smiling sweetly with suffering. Like archangels in long white coats, the doctors clomp the corridors searching for souls with their stethoscopes surrounded by a choiring host of joyful nurses. Hell, of course, is the real world, the world of pain and disaster from which people are rescued by the baying hounds of police vans and rescue wagons.

The popularity of the medical dramas reflects a continuing American fascination with the style and form of death. Westerns served for a while, but the cowboy myth of the showdown at high noon on Main Street no longer works in a complex urban society. Westerns are fading from TV; Gunsmoke is the only one left, aside from the late movies and the occasional Hec Ramsey special. Cop-and-robber shows have taken their place but many people find them too bloody and brutal, too far removed from the genteel and respectable violence of suburban life. Police Surgeon (CTV — Saturday. 7.30 p.m.) and Emergency! (syndicated by MCA Inc.) combine crime with the antiseptic bloodiness of the hospital. Marcus Welby smells more of the funeral home, which will probably be the scene of Robert Young’s next hit series.

THIS MONTH’S SHOWS Listen to: As It Happens. CBC radio, Mon.-Fri. 6.30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Watch for: Return of Monty Python's Flying Circus, CBC, March 22, 9 p.m. Tennessee Williams’ South, CBC, March 26, 8.30 p.m. Anne Murray Special. CBC, March 30, 9 p.m. Grand National Steeplechase, CBC, April 8, 2.30 p.m. Beware: Jack Paar.

Heather Robertson is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster

For people who aren’t turned on by sickness, the medic melodramas are ludicrous:

Father (choking back tears): “Doctor, do you think he’ll live?”

Doctor (gazing into sunset): “We’ll do everything we can for your son. You’ll just have to trust us. ”

Father: “Thank you, sir. ”

Doctor, turning to nurse: “You know, some days I’m glad I ate all those peanut butter sandwiches to get through medical school. ”

They have already produced a satire, a weird little farce called Temperatures Rising (syndicated by Screen Gems) starring a flock of birdbrain nurses and a jivy black doctor. It gets off some good lines, like the exchange which appears at the head of this column, but the show is too hysterical and farfetched to be a serious put-down.

Only outsiders are able to laugh at the bedpan bathos; for true believers, the cardboard characters are full of meaning and the medical jargon pregnant with significance. The hocus-pocus of respirators and electrocardiograms is a kind of folk mass; it’s important that the ritual never change and the magic words be always the same. The battle with disease gives people whose personal lives are hollow and boring a little synthetic emotion, a harmless shiver of vicarious fear. Through TV they are able to act out one of man’s primordial fantasies in a way which is both thrilling and satisfying. The medic shows are a celebration of America’s faith in technology: if enough money is spent and enough machines are built, the United States will lick Death.

This assumption makes the doctor shows highly political. By reinforcing authoritarian stereotypes of language and behavior, they reassure people who may be confused and frightened. Watch Richard Nixon. He comes on TV with a solemn expression of benevolent concern and speaks with a faintly condescending paternalism; his voice is unctuous, his eyes brim with tears. He looks and sounds exactly like Marcus Welby, MD. Nixon has consciously modeled his TV personality on the image of the saintly healer; he is physician to a sick and wounded nation. With his extraordinary sense of the common and the phony, Nixon has been able to latch on to the ideological and emotional longings that lie behind America’s worship of the TV doctor. Surrounded by his smiling women, he presents a stylized and carefully orchestrated religious pageant in which the President is carried along like a papier mâché statue.

The Soviets make the mistake of locking their social dissidents up in mental hospitals. Dr. Welby would never be so crude. He brings the hospital to us. ■