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TV's "Remedy" and the History of Eccentric Canadian Medical Dramas

03/03/2014 12:58 EST | Updated 05/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Mondays, Global TV airs a new medical drama, Remedy. Despite CTV's medical drama, Saving Hope, enjoying solid ratings, I'm not sure Remedy has left the gate with the same audience support. I wonder if that might reflect a phenomenon I've speculated about before -- the added mystique, or simple media coverage, a Canadian TV series enjoys when it's marketed as having been picked up by an American network.

Saving Hope aired on the U.S. network, NBC. And even though NBC cancelled Saving Hope, it continues to enjoy strong audience support in Canada

Remedy, so far, has announced no American broadcaster. And yet despite some recognizable name stars like Enrico Colantoni (Flashpoint, Veronica Mars) I'm not sure it premiered as strongly.

Yet I'd argue Remedy has started out the superior of the two (I say this based, admittedly, on only having seen the premiere -- which was highly enjoyable).

A side point is that Saving Hope, in order to sell to American networks, deliberately obscures its Canadian setting -- even calling the hospital Hope Z (using the American pronunciation of "zee") whereas Remedy has chosen the deliberately Canadian-resonating "Bethune General" as its fictional setting.

I was tempted to write a whole piece about Remedy -- though Denette Wilford has already covered it in her enthusiastic review of the premiere. And though there's nothing wrong with multiple posts (how many pieces has Huffington Post presented about The Americans? Or Girls?) I thought I'd take a moment to focus on Remedy's uniqueness within the much tilled soil of TV medical dramas -- arguably a theme linking a number of past Canadian hospital series.

Whenever assessing a TV show there's the question whether, above and beyond simple professionalism, it brings something new to the table. A fresh perspective. A revisionist idea. And every viewer has something different they prioritize: style, concept, characters. One person's fresh & edgy is another person's tired & trite.

So what does Remedy bring to the TV medical drama -- a genre that pre-dates the medium (with radio and B-movie series)? Well one is an extended family of medical professionals -- Brothers and Sisters: The Medical Years. Not sure I've ever seen that before.

The more radical is the Upstairs/Downstairs view of a hospital.

Most medical dramas focus on doctors. In such series a nurse or two might be a significant supporting character. Occasionally a series will focus on the nurses (usually with a lot of change room scenes!)

In Remedy the "main" characters range from the Chief of Medicine to an immigrant porter, from nurses to cleaning staff. And the hospital, instead of just being a magic kingdom where the sick are miraculously cured by state of the art procedures performed by the best (fill in the blank) specialist in the country, is instead a social microcosm of sometimes unconscious classism. The result is (and can be) scenes and storylines you've probably not seen in many medical series before.

Based on the pilot, I'm liking Remedy. I'm liking the ensemble of actors. I'm liking their characters. I'm liking the scenes, the pacing, the mix of comedy and drama.

And I'm not even a big medical drama fan.

Let me re-phrase that. I kind of hate it when a reviewer tries to covey how great a series is by stating they aren't normally a fan of the genre. Like reviewers who will praise a science fiction series by insisting they don't watch (and so, we infer, are too good for) science fiction, so this show must be good -- when it can equally imply the reviewer just isn't aware of how stale and cliche it is. Or like a comment I saw posted on the IMDB by someone insisting a series was the best thing on TV and he didn't normally watch TV -- leading one to wonder to what is he comparing it then?

So let me say: I've enjoyed medical dramas throughout the years. From Grey's Anatomy to Trapper John, MD. It's just I don't have an especial passion for the genre.

Canadian TV is, curiously, populated by past medical dramas that tried, in varying ways, to offer something a little different from Hollywood medical dramas.

Canada's first major medical drama was the 1960s TV series Wojeck -- about a coroner! I'm not sure there had ever been a coroner-focused series up to that point (though there have been some since).

In the 1970s there was Dr. Simon Locke, starring American actor Sam Groom as a small town doctor. Nothing unusual there -- except it then morphed into the crime series, Police Surgeon, in an effort to boost ratings, mixing medicine with malfeasance (neither version was a critical success). While Corwin took as its hero, not a traditional GP, but a psychiatrist.

In the 1990s, when American networks had two big hospital dramas -- ER and Chicago Hope -- wrestling for ratings supremacy like dinosaurs out of a Ray Harryhausen flick, the CBC offered counter programming with Side Effects, a series about a community clinic.

Jozi-H employed a more traditional setting: a bustling, big city hospital. Except the big city in question was Johannesburg, South Africa, bringing with it the cultural stew such a setting implies. South Africa not exactly a typical setting for a North American, prime time series.

Probably Canada's most audacious medical drama was the Canada-U.S. co-production, Combat Hospital, about an army field hospital in conflict torn Afghanistan. Despite good Canadian ratings, it was cancelled because the American partner pulled out. Admittedly, Combat Hospital was basically just M*A*S*H without the laugh track -- but in the context of what was airing at the time, it was definitely atypical.

The French-language Trauma is perhaps one of the least "unique" of Canadian medical series, but maybe the language means the producers felt less pressure to distinguish themselves from Hollywood imports.

With Saving Hope the scenes, plots and setting are typical of most American medical dramas -- save one of the characters sees ghosts!

While Hard Rock Medical (of which I wrote more here) takes as its focuses a medical school specializing in teaching rural and Northern medicine. Both its milieu, and its eclectic characters, definitely gives it a distinct flavour.

Maybe the desire to exploit a popular genre like a medical series, but a recognition that they must distinguish themselves from the bigger budgeted, better publicized American versions has led to Canadian producers trying to find quirky spins on the conventions.

So go on, watch an episode or two of Remedy and decide for yourself -- don't be "that" guy who tries a Canadian series only after an American network has given it the A-okay. (And then simultaneously complain to your friends that American networks only air pablum!)

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