White Coat, Black Art

TV MDs: On life support or alive and kicking?

Doctors on TV have been around almost as long as TV has. From Ben Casey to the soapy-goings on at Seattle Grace, seems there's always been an audience for medical shows. So why are ratings flagging? We'll look at that and what TV teaches us about medicine. Plus, find out what it's like to play an MD on TV when Brian has coffee with Eric Johnson, aka Dr. Everett Gallinger on The Knick.
Eric Johnson as Dr. Everett Gallinger in "The Knick" and in real life, with Dr. Brian Goldman. (Mary Cybulski/CINEMAX /Kevin Van Paassen for the Globe and Mail )
Listen to the full episode27:29

Doctors on TV have been around almost as long as TV has. From Ben Casey to the soapy goings on at Seattle Grace, it seems like there has always been an audience for medical shows. But in 2015, must-watch prime time TV medical dramas as a genre have hit a low. To find out what happened, Brian talks to  Professor Joseph Turow, a Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of  Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power. Professor Turow traces the evolution of the TV doctor, from the likes of Marcus Welby, M.D. to today's cast of Grey's Anatomy. We talk about Code Black, the latest TV medical drama inspired by a riveting documentary of the same title.  And why, despite their best attempt, these TV shows don't always reflect the state of our healthcare. 

Professor Joe Turow, author of "Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling and Medical Power" talks about the enduring appeal of TV doctors. 8:12

While prime-

time TV medical dramas are flagging, cable channels are successfully resuscitating the medical genre. Cinemax's The Knick is a historical drama set in a turn-of-the-century New York hospital. Directed by Steven Soderberg, it stars Clive Owen as Dr. John Thackery, a brilliant, ambitious and drug-addicted surgeon. It also stars Edmonton-born Eric Johnson, as Thackery's entitled but struggling protege. Earlier this year, Brian talked to  Eric when The Globe and Mail's Dave McGinn brought them together to chat about their favourite TV doctors. You can read his article about their meeting here.  The conversation took some fun and unexpected turns! 

Brian talks to Eric Johnson, who plays Dr. Everett Gallinger on "The Knick." 7:25

And for the last word, we go back to Dr. Joe Gabriel, also known as the rap artist the Egyptian Prescription with his take on how he sees medical TV shows now that he's an MD. Lyrics below. 

Dr. Joe Gabriek, aka The Egyption Prescription lays down exactly what he thinks of TV docs. 2:11

Lyrics by Joe Gabriel

A patient said, your job must be just like Grey's Anatomy

I smiled and tried my best to take the comment as flattery

Every actor on that show seems to have the angel glow

Meanwhile I got a voice and face that's made for radio

On the other hand the comment almost comes across offensively

Cause half the stuff they do on the show just don't make sense to me

How're you gonna operate objectively

When you're yappin' about your love life through half the appendectomy

And why is the destiny of each episode incessantly

Presenting just immensely intense sexual chemistry

Y'all need to act more professionally

And I'm in a place to say this 'cause I am who you pretend to be

A young doctor, like Shad K, I come proper

Lemme take a second to tell you how my job is

I ain't a renegade, I like to think I ain't a jerk

And if I saved your life I probably did it through my paperwork

House yells at people cause it adds to the theatrics

But I try to only have short patients on Pediatrics

I mean, I'm kinda jealous cuz I know it'd be so dope

To cure LL Cool J with a bottle of SoCo

If I suspect you've been infected with a louse

I'll just ask you some questions, not break into your house

I might even do a physical exam

And unlike television, I'ma sanitize my hands

Now if my job sounds dull, at least it's a true story

So if you need more than that, you can get it from Hugh Laurie


When a real doctor and an actor who plays one on TV meet for coffee, the conversation goes to some unexpected and revealing places. Brian and Eric Johnson, who plays Dr. Everett Gallinger on the Cinemax series The Knick had a lot of questions for one another. We couldn't fit all of their conversation into the show, so we'll be posting some of the out takes this week. In the meantime, you can still enter our contest to win a copy of season one of "The Knick" and Brian's latest book,"The Secret Language of Doctors." Read the rules here. You can enter below until Monday, Oct 26, 2015 at 9 a.m EST. Send an email to whitecoat@cbc.ca telling us who your favourite TV MD is and why and you'll be entered to win a prize pack. 


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