The history of the medical drama: the evolution from Doctor Kildare to Grey’s Anatomy

If they continue to renew it, it means that the public – despite everything – continues to follow it. Grey’s Anatomy will have a 20th season: why don’t the cast changes and all the narrative developments that alienate the favorite characters from the public count? What is its magic formula? To answer this question, we must briefly retrace the stages of the genre to which it belongs.

Birth of the medical drama

In the beginning it was Dr. Kildare. Not on the small screen: on the big one, with the film saga that saw him protagonist from 1937 with the beauty of 9 films and 4 different interpreters including Richard Chamberlain, who would also give life to TV. But the first official medical drama is City Hospitalof 1951. A first attempt that did not attract attention, like the subsequent ones, until 1961. In fact it is at Doctor James Kildareand his colleague Ben Casey, which is responsible for the great popularity of the genre. Two rivals, same scheme, similar approach with two different characters.

Quincy's poster

Quincy’s poster

The history of the medical drama often goes like this, with a head to head, two to two: two contemporary series that change the cards on the table. With one that always excels over the other. One doctor, one point of view. There are colleagues, nurses and patients, but there is also only one absolute protagonist, a single vision of the narrative world. In 1963 General Hospital made its debut which, taking possession of the medical drama, created a soap opera – still on air today – which demonstrates how in a hospital one can move in a choral context. Delving into more characters and offering more points of view. The Rival Soap (The Doctors1963-1982) sent a doctor to trial for negligence, opening another narrative sub-strand.

There would be many titles to mention, but we are interested in innovative ones. Titles that evolved the genre like Marcus Welby (1969-1976) with Robert Young and James Brolin, which dealt with hot topics for the time such as impotence, rape, depression, breast cancer, juvenile obesity, Alzheimer’s and sexually transmitted diseases . The years went by and the censorship widened the mesh, not fast enough to save Welby from the controversy for an episode of ’73. The protagonist forces a patient to resist homosexual impulses, as if he could choose, with the consequences we can imagine. Three years later Quincy (1976-1983) with the great Jack Klugman mixes medical and detective drama. The trained Los Angeles County medical examiner solves cases by himself, performs better than anyone and pisses everyone off: cops, detectives, his boss…

a nice photo of Denzel Washington

a nice photo of Denzel Washington

Another great innovation comes with Open Heart (St. Elsewhere, 1982-1988), the excellent series that launched Denzel Washington representing a first, successful attempt to bring many voices to life with equal attention, delving into many characters and their interpersonal relationships in an old Boston hospital with a bad reputation. We can call him the ancestor of ER, on many points of view. While Doogie Howser, MD (1989-1993) is the forerunner of The Good Doctor: a very young Neil Patrick Harris was a boy prodigy who graduated at 14 and at 15 went to work at the Eastman Medical Center in Los Angeles. While he still lives with his parents and by the hand of the creator David E. Kelley welcomes us in ripe times to speak seriously for the first time about AIDS, homophobia, sexism, racism and all those social ills that accompany diseases.

The origins of the medical drama: Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey

1994: the revolution arrives

promo image from ER Season 3

promo image from ER Season 3

The real revolution in medical drama came in 1994. Chicago Hope (1994-2000) premiered on September 18, 1994, one day before the other big news expected for that season: ER – Aired from September 19, 1994 .
Respectively airing on CBS and NBC, the two new series marked the birth of the modern medical drama, with the latter destined to outclass the former although Chicago Hope was a series of considerable importance. Again signed by David E. Kelley, it told the story of surgeon Jeffrey Geiger (Mandy Patinkin), with a difficult family situation (his wife had psychiatric problems). His innovation was the setting: an imaginary public hospital in Chicago. That is, a structure that offered care to all those who, in America that did not welcome people without medical insurance, took care of those who were rejected by all the other structures.

ER - Doctors on the front lines: George Clooney and Anthony Edwards in one scene

ER – Doctors on the front lines: George Clooney and Anthony Edwards in one scene

Also ER it was set in Chicago, but in a University Hospital, and even its protagonists fought publicly to cancel the spending restrictions to which poor patients were subjected. But behind the scenes of _ ER there was no prestigious screenwriter, but a great writer with a medical degree. And that was what made the difference. Michael Crichton he adapted his book Cases of Emergency inspired by his real experience and Spielberg’s Amblin Television produced.
The parallelism between the two rival series ends here, because the good _Chicago Hope
could not compete with the best medical drama of all timeand it was already clear from the pilot episode. ER he provided all subsequent series with the basis for skilfully mixing medical emergencies, personal stories of doctors and patients, love interests between colleagues and current events.

The cast of Scrubs in a promotional photo from season eight.

The cast of Scrubs in a promotional photo from season eight.

To be original again, to be attractive in the eyes of the public, after ER, one had to be daring. Thus comes the brilliant Scrubs, which mixes sitcom and medical drama in an excellent way. Here comes the curmudgeonly Dr House, half drug addicted and grouchy genius incarnate, another completely drug addicted woman, the extraordinary nurse Nurse Jackie – Shock Therapy (Edie Falco) with the point of view of someone who suffers the errors of doctors, the super addicted doctor of the costume series The Knick, who tells the beginnings of modern medicine with the face of Clive Owen. But none of them, before or since, equal the success of Grey’s Anatomy. Why?

The history of the medical drama: the ER case – Doctors on the front line

Take inspiration, make it fruitful

A promotional photo from Grey's Anatomy

A promotional photo from Grey’s Anatomy

Grey’s Anatomy it is the very essence of contemporary medical drama. Renewed for the twentieth season, in the first few seasons it has perfectly inherited the legacy of ER recounting the debut of a group of residents – with rivalries and friendships, loves and misunderstandings – grappling with the terror of the operating room, the first emergencies, the difficulty of not getting involved with patients. The beginning of Grey’s Anatomywith that night of fire between Meredith (Ellen Pompeo) and Dr. Strangelove Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey) is just the premise in a series that takes very seriously the example of ER in the very first seasons. Great attention to medical practices, involvement in the stories of patients but also in those of doctors, more or less young and experienced, who have to save their lives. The generational passage between Richard Webber (James Pickens Jr.), Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and the interns is the fulcrum of a beginning full of stories that they excitemove, make you think.

Sandra Oh plays Cristina Yang, in the TV series Grey's Anatomy, episode 'When the going gets tough'

Sandra Oh plays Cristina Yang, in the TV series Grey’s Anatomy, episode ‘When the going gets tough’

Then interpersonal relationships begin to emerge, the story between Cristina (Sandra Oh) and Burke (Isaiah Washington), friendship with Meredith, and the peculiar characteristics of the protagonists, from the shy and loyal George (TR Knight) to the arrogant and too sure Alex Karev (Justin Chambers). That air of camaraderie at first turns into rivalry, but it also cements them friendships true and deep. Beautiful Dr. Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) challenges prejudice against her appearance while Dr. Bollore Mark Sloane (Erica Dane) challenges the hospital’s female staff to stand up to him.
In short, everything is there: there is the great doctor everyone looks up to, the head physician, mentor for some and terror for others. There is the heir of the legendary doctor who has to make her way on her own but feels the weight of the legacy. There are residents who switch off as soon as they leave the patient’s room and those who take their work home, tormenting themselves to find a solution. Above all, there are so many beautiful characters, so many. An ensemble series that takes a lot from ER, With an open heartuntil returning to Doctor Kildare and at that pinch of General Hospital that keeps the audience glued.

Greys Anatomy 18 Focus Mhntz1N

Grey’s Anatomy 18: an image from the series

There are many, they are all good and naturally beautiful. Took every element of strength from previous medical dramas, they put it together and gave it color, a captivating soundtrack and a branch of medicine, surgery, which divides them between cold scalpel masters and empathic doctors who want to treat and heal patients, even after the exit from the operating room.
Il secret of the success of Grey’s Anatomy, complete with spin-off (Private Practice) assets is all here: her name is Shonda Rhimes, she studied the history of the genre and made it her own, mixed it and added a generous dose of drama. Also in ER there had been major accidents, but no one has ever challenged the public like Grey’s Anatomy, between armed massacres in the hospital, unprecedented bad weather and plane crashes. Nobody. This is why the public is still there, 18 years after that March 27, 2005: because they know that, as in ER, things will change with the cast changes but someone who loves will always be there. He will always find it there, as the years pass and the seasons alternate. He knows that someone interesting will come along, but more importantly he wants to find out how far, after all the great dramas lived, the writers will push their characters. We are here, still. Why ER is gone and because none of its contemporary heirs has the same amount of attractions as Grey’s Anatomy.

Leave a Comment