I did not think I’d ever see a better medical documentary series than the Emmy-Award-winning “Hopkins 24/7” that aired in 2000 or its sequel, “Hopkins,” which won a Peabody Award in 2008. The backstage access, immediacy and range of gripping real-life drama that ABCNews Executive Producer Terence Wrong and his team captured at Baltimore’s world-renowned medical institution were landmark.
But with “NY Med,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Wrong surpasses his earlier work in terms of prime-time storytelling without sacrificing any of the cultural seriousness or grand reach of the Hopkins series.
"NY Med," which is set at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, is still visual anthropology at its best with the ABC News cameras taking viewers deep inside a culture of competition, compassion and cutting-edge medicine. But the 55-year-old Wrong has grown into such a lean, clean and sure-handed storyteller that each of the first five episodes flies by. The emotional ride seems richer and more varied, too, with the addition of lighter narratives deftly used to set up and balance the deeper, life-changing events that Wrong’s cameras let us witness.
“I hope I have evolved since Hopkins, but none of this would have been possible without it,” Wrong said in an interview last week in which he credited his relationship with Johns Hopkins Hospital for the remarkable access he was granted to New York-Presbyterian and Massachusetts General, where he filmed “Boston 24/7” in 2002.
“Hopkins gave me the track record and credibility so that basically no hospital in the country can say, ‘Well, you know, we don’t care what they did at Hopkins, because we’re so and so.’” Wrong explained. “No, no, Hopkins is the big kahuna.”
The veteran filmmaker says Hopkins remains a force in his work — often in the choice of the surgeons he features.
“I have a doctor who does a wide-awake brain surgery in this show, Guy McKhann,” Wrong says. “Well, he grew up at Hopkins. His dad was a Hopkins surgeon, and he is completely in the Hopkins mold. ... The Hopkins culture is so profound that it permeates everywhere you go in medicine.”
The storyline with McKhann, whose father, Guy M. McKhann, is the founding chairman of Hopkins’ neurology department, is one of the most compelling in the first hour. It is also reminiscent of the stories in “Hopkins 24/7” — narratives that often move from darkness, terror and tears to operations of incredible delicacy and skill.
This one involves a young mother of two who finds out that she has a large brain tumor. To have the best chance of preserving speech and motor skills, the doctors have to operate with her still conscious and able to tell them what she is feeling.
As the operation is about to begin, she beseeches McKhann, “Just get me back to my babies.”
Wrong’s cameras, like flies on the walls of the OR, are there capturing all of it — from the patient asking why she feels a “burning” in her brain as the surgery begins, to the looks on the doctors’ faces when she stops responding to their words.
Gripping, absolutely. But that kind of intensity is hard to take non-stop for an hour at the end of the day.
And that’s part of what Wrong seems to have learned so well with “NY Med”: how to engage viewers at a more relaxed level for prime-time viewing.
Wrong begins “NY Med” in the ER with a man who says he took Cialis and has had an erection for more than 12 hours.
It’s a brilliant choice. Prime time is saturated with ads for male enhancement products and the myriad warnings manufacturers are forced to include. But what happens if one of those potential side effects kicks in?
While the patient is freaked, the demeanor of the medical personnel signals the viewer not to be unduly alarmed.
In fact, one can’t help but smile at a nurse’s wry comment or the patient’s reaction when he’s told that the procedure will involve a needle to extract the blood causing the erection. He doesn’t like needles — especially when he is told where this one is headed.
“I was playing around with different things in that lead-off slot, and I had this jumper, 30 stories high, [who] died on the table,” Wrong says. “I guess I’ve done too many of these shows in the sense that ... patient’s in the emergency room, they try to save the patient’s life, they can’t save the life, everybody’s a little somber and depressed.”
Wrong says he’s “been there, done that” — and he didn’t want to do it any more.
“Instead, this time, I kind of wanted to wink at the audience with the opening,” he explains. “We associate hospitals with life-changing, often-tragic, turning-point events. But they are also places of levity and humanity and great camaraderie between patients and doctors. It’s the human existence that we share in common. And it sweeps away race, it sweeps away age, it sweeps away culture. ‘You’re sick and you’re hurting, and that’s why we do this. We understand what you’re going through.’”
And no filmmaker understands the culture of medicine like Wrong. “NY Med” clinically explores the tolls, triumphs, values and debates among those who practice medicine at the highest levels.
“You’re going to see a surgeon talking about young surgical residents today who in his opinion just want vacation time and quality of life and balance of life, which is, in his opinion, a lot of bulls---hit,” Wrong says. “If you want to be a great surgeon, there is no such thing. ... That’s his attitude.”
Viewers will also see and hear from Dr. Mehmet OzÖ, the TV doctor and talk show host.
Some will surely pre-judge the celebrity presence of Dr. Oz as a ratings ploy. I had my doubts as I sat down to watch. But I came away impressed with both Oz and Wrong’s decision to include him.
“You can hate him for it if you want, but Oz is one of the five top mitral valve surgeons in the world to this day,” Wrong says. “I would go under his knife in a second. … I mean, he’s friggin’ great.”
Still, Wrong says, he didn’t commit to having Oz in the film until he saw footage of him in action.
“I was like, ‘I love this guy. I can’t stop watching him.’ And I don’t think anybody knows he’s still doing this stuff.”
If you watch
“NY Med” premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on WMAR (Channel 2).