Traffic is backed up in the tunnel heading into respect
September 23, 2009 -- The series premiere of NBC's drama Mercy presents a group of attractive young New Jersey hospital nurses as downtrodden working girls, failing to get the respect they deserve from physicians or patients. Lead character Veronica Callahan displays advanced psychosocial and life-saving skills, though the show attributes the latter to her tour of duty in Iraq, rather than nursing training and experience. Like the leads on Showtime's Nurse Jackie and TNT's HawthoRNe, Veronica is a fighter, telling physicians off and doing what she thinks best to protect patients. As on both other nurse shows, this lead nurse character "treats the patient," while the physicians merely "treat the disease" (here characters actually say that). Unfortunately, the show seems to think she reports to the physicians, a major flaw. As in the premiere of Jackie, Veronica warns a young physician that a patient may have a critical problem; he ignores it, the patient dies, and the nurse tears into him. As on HawthoRNe, Veronica's disregard for protocol repeatedly gets her in trouble with superiors, in her case the apparent chief of medicine. Like Jackie, Veronica is self-medicating, in her case with alcohol and "delicious Paxil" for what seems like PTSD from the war. As on Jackie, Veronica's nurse sidekicks include a smart but clueless novice who favors mockable patterned scrubs, as well as an apparently gay, wisecracking man. So two of the three significant male nurse characters on the new nurse shows seem to be gay, which is not representative of the profession as a whole. Veronica is separated from her pugnacious contractor husband, who persuades her not to divorce him, though she still has a strong thing for a hot physician she hooked up with in Iraq--and who has pursued her to the hospital. So as on Jackie, Veronica looks set for a love triangle involving her working class husband and a colleague with more education; unlike on Jackie, the colleague here seems a lot more promising than hubby. Her nurse friend Sonia connects with a nice, funny police officer, but she is desperate to escape what the show sees as the violence and unpaid bills of the working class; she wants a wealthy Manhattan lawyer.
So it's not hard to see these nurses as blue-collar strivers, "bridge-and-tunnel" women who dream of physicians and lawyers, but may have to settle. One female media critic suggested that the show is a step backward from NBC's ER because the nurses seem so desperate, and because they do not aspire to be physicians, as smart modern women must. Yet the clueless new nurse has a masters degree from Penn, we learn, where she graduated near the top of her class; presumably she only has book knowledge. The show isn't Jackie, but it has attracted more contempt than it deserves from critics who seem tired of what they see as a glut of nurse shows with smart nurses pushing back against flawed physicians (just as the critics quickly tired of the roughly 279 Hollywood shows that have featured brilliant physicians ordering dim nurses around over the last 50 years). It seems that many people can't take too much narrative that runs counter to their deeply-held assumptions.
Mercy has some problems. But like the two summer nurse shows, it raises important nursing issues other hospital shows rarely have. And the premiere ("Can We Get That Drink Now?"), written by show creator Liz Heldens, drew 8.2 million viewers--millions more than the other two shows combined. Are these shows the product of an Obama-era interest in underdogs? Are recession-weary viewers responding to the shows' criticism of the flawed U.S. health system? Whatever it is, we urge nurses to watch Mercy (the premiere is at the NBC site and free on iTunes), and use the show to help people think about nursing.
Please post your comments on our discussion board here. We will be encouraging the show's producers to follow your comments.
We have a tiny staff at our international headquarters and cannot monitor all the media before us. We plan to watch every episode of Mercy, Three Rivers, Miami Trauma and Private Practice, since it appears that each of these shows will have at least one significant nurse character. But we don't have the resources to watch every episode of the remaining shows. We are looking for dedicated monitors to watch any one (or more) of the other shows and report back to us if there is a notable depiction of nursing. We will record the shows, but will probably not watch unless you alert us that there is something of interest. Please help us build our cadre of media observers! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you can volunteer. Please send us your name, credentials, and contact information. If you wish, we will post your name as our monitor for the show; of course we will keep your contact information confidential. Thank you in advance for your help!