'This is Going to Hurt' is a deeply unsettling portrait of modern medicine
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our critic at large, John Powers, says you've never seen a medical show like the new British TV series "This Is Going To Hurt." It stars Ben Whishaw as a young doctor working for the National Health Service in a London maternity ward. The show premieres today on AMC+ and Sundance Now. Here's John's review.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Medical shows, like cop shows, are about finding a way to set the world right. Dr. Gregory House figures out the baffling disease. The staff at "ER's" County General saves the victims of that wintry freeway pileup. While the patients don't always make it, these shows make us feel that despite assorted snafus, our hospitals are staffed by sturdy doctors who will give us good care. Things take a very different turn in the new British TV series "This Is Going To Hurt." Based on a hit memoir by Adam Kay, who also wrote the script, this seven-part show stars the brilliant Ben Whishaw as a young doctor working in the OB-GYN ward of a London hospital. Although you may initially think the show a comedy, it deepens to tell a painful story about the assembly line nature of modern medicine. Whishaw plays Adam, a harried junior doctor who spends his days dealing with crises at a chaotically underfunded and understaffed public hospital. Smart, prickly and self-contained, he often talks directly to the audience. He's the sort of well-bred guy who overrates his own abilities.
Indeed, we're just starting to enjoy Adam's sardonic barbs when suddenly everything pivots. At the end of an exhausting shift, he makes a terrible mistake, a mistake so serious it could end his career. As if that weren't bad enough, he's essentially alone. Between his perpetual busyness and his bottled up nature, things are strained with his boyfriend, Harry - that's Rory Fleck Byrne - a man as sunny and loose as Adam is dark and impacted. Making him even more isolated, he still hasn't come out to his colleagues or his parents, in particular his mother, a woman so hypercritical that she's played by Harriet Walter, who you'll recognize as Logan Roy's icy-hearted English ex-wife on "Succession."
Adam spends most of his waking hours with an intern named Shruti, played by the terrific Ambika Mod, who's the British-born daughter of Indian immigrants. At first, she seems like an amusingly downtrodden sidekick. But as the plot unfolds, Shruti's role keeps expanding, and we grasp that in some profound sense, she is Adam's alter ego. Here, early on, she chases the striding Adam down a hallway in a desperate attempt to get him to mentor her.
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AMBIKA MOD: (As Shruti) Adam, Adam, do you think I'm rubbish?
BEN WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) Look, I wasn't great on my first week either.
MOD: (As Shruti) I've been here two months.
WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) Two months.
MOD: (As Shruti) Well, I just haven't had a chance to do much hands-on stuff yet.
WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) How many babies have you delivered?
MOD: (As Shruti) Um...
WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) No babies have needed delivery in two months.
MOD: (As Shruti) Everyone's always too busy to teach me.
WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) You just need to be less of a wallflower. It's dog eat dog in this place. And the dogs eat wallflowers.
POWERS: Now, "This Is Going To Hurt" is fast, superbly acted and stingley smart about issues like government-funded hospitals, the difference between private and public health care and what patients should reasonably expect of doctors. It's also deeply unsettling. Kay's portrait of a child birth ward has none of the reassuring coziness of, say, "Call The Midwife." Frazzled doctors, annoying patients, emergency caesareans and rivers of blood - this is not a show I'd urge a pregnant woman to tune in to.
What makes it dramatically unsettling is that Adam is not very likeable. We expect him to be, but it is played by the endlessly watchable Whishaw, who's known for creating sympathetically vulnerable characters, from the poet John Keats' in Paddington the bear to Shakespeare's Richard II and Q in the James Bond movies. It takes a while for us to realize it, but Adam hides his own vulnerability beneath a shell of entitlement and intellectual superiority, which can be toxic for his loved ones, his colleagues, his patients and himself. In fact, Adam's unlikeability isn't a flaw in the show but one of its reasons for being. At one point, he says that he used to think he was good at doctoring but bad at everything else in life.
Over the course of the series, Adam learns that if he's to survive in the cauldron of a public hospital and to be genuinely good as a doctor, he needs to get good at being human, too. Of course, it's hard to stay human and sane when every day you encounter a tsunami of patients with needs, pains, fears and often angry demands, and you are responsible for their well-being. That's why this show isn't ultimately about Adam and Shruti. It's about the mental health of medical professionals who often work to the bone with insufficient support, must constantly make fast, life-altering decisions, then keep themselves from becoming psychologically ravaged. "This Is Going To Hurt" reminds us that the people getting hurt in our medical system are also those giving care.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new series "This Is Going To Hurt" on AMC+ and Sundance Now. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interview with David Sedaris about his lifelong conflict with his father or with David Gelles - his new book, "The Man Who Broke Capitalism," is about Jack Welch, GE's former CEO - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. And if you haven't subscribed to our newsletter yet, check it out. You can subscribe via our website at freshair.npr.org.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.