Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Familiar Formula: Fox’s The Resident

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a doctor on a network drama seems like he’s kind of an asshole, but his unconventional approach ends up getting results that no one else can achieve. He’s also sexy and brooding, clearly haunted by a past that he won’t open up about, but which has turned him into the person he is today. If that sounds familiar, you’ve hit on the central problem with The Resident, Fox’s new medical drama. In an era of so-called “Peak TV,” where there’s a show for virtually every taste, this one (co-created by Amy Holden Jones, Hayley Schore, and Roshan Sethi) feels too generic to stand out and merit the requisite investment of time and attention.

That’s too bad, because in this case the asshole doctor in question is played by Matt Czuchry, who’s distinguished himself through his work in supporting roles on Gilmore Girls and The Good Wife. Cary Agos, his character on the latter show, was a fascinating combination of conflicting impulses, someone whose aggressive ambition concealed unexpected complexity and humanity. He brings much of the same charisma to his role here as Dr. Conrad Hawkins, the titular resident. When new hire Devon (Manish Dayal) arrives for his first day on the job, Conrad’s predictably awful to him, but Czuchry lets us see how he’s testing this inexperienced and overconfident naif (Devon’s straight out of Harvard) to make sure he’s not going to get someone killed.

To its credit, The Resident sometimes succeeds in offering a twist on some of the usual medical-drama tropes, at least in its two premiere episodes. Rather than inadvertently kill someone, Devon lets himself go too far in the other direction, reviving a girl from a drug overdose, only to have Conrad point out that she’s been gone too long to ever regain brain function. Now they’re stuck with an ethical dilemma: how do they convince the girl’s parents to take her off life support? Not only are her family members filled with false hope, but their understandable willingness to use extraordinary measures to keep her alive means that they represent a potential cash cow for the hospital, which can continue to bill them while they wait for a miracle that will never occur. If there’s anything that sets The Resident apart from the glut of similar medical dramas on network TV, it’s this willingness to consider how Conrad and his fellow doctors’ actions occur within the context of financial as well as medical considerations. The second episode drives this point home in an arc that sees Conrad fighting senior doctors for a heart transplant that’s been diverted at the last second from his patient, a young high school teacher, to an ailing, elderly politician.

Bruce Greenwood and Matt Czuchry in The Resident

The emphasis on how business considerations often secretly trump medical ones might make for an interested, complicated series, but unfortunately The Resident botches it by turning Conrad’s superior, Dr. Randolph Bell (Bruce Greenwood), into a villainous caricature. Bell is a celebrity doctor with an international reputation, and his image adorns the hospital’s exterior. However, in the opening scene of the pilot, we see him manage to kill a patient during a routine procedure and proceed to orchestrate a cover-up. Greenwood gets to work against the solid, upstanding type that he played in the rebooted Star Trek franchise, but he’s limited by the role, which mostly requires him to act as the foil to the virtuous Conrad. Nor do the writers seem to know when to stop: as if we weren’t already sufficiently convinced that Bell’s thoroughly bad, he proceeds to blackmail a subordinate, Dr. Mina Okafor (Shaunette Renèe Wilson), by threatening to get her deported back to Africa if she doesn’t perform a high-profile operation for him and let him take the credit.

The Resident compounds the problem of turning its antagonists into cardboard villains by essentially replicating the same trope in another subplot, this one featuring tension between Conrad’s sometime girlfriend Nicolette (Emily VanCamp) and the more senior Dr. Lane Hunter (Melissa Kanakaredes) over the latter’s treatment of a patient. While prestige dramas like Breaking Bad could sometimes lay it on a bit thick with the murky morality of their main characters, The Resident manages to fall between two stools in trying to retain some of the ethical ambiguity of darker, more complex shows within the familiar context of a network medical drama. The Resident wants to offer a new take on a complex and timely issue, but in order to do so, it needs to embrace a degree of ambiguity and be more generous to its antagonists. In most other respects, it’s a rote medical drama, with patients of the week and intra-hospital romantic entanglements that will likely play out in a Byzantine fashion over multiple seasons. At a time when there’s so much else to watch, the prospect of tuning in every week to see what Czuchry and his castmates can do with such material simply isn’t enticing enough.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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