I decided to stop watching medical dramas a few years ago. Those regular ER story lines about horribly injured children and dying parents made me too conscious of the bad things that could befall my son, too wary of every discordant note in my body. That sore shoulder? A stroke! That headache? A hemorrhage! Then along come two very different new hospital series that keep illness firmly in the background: Grey’s Anatomy, a fizzy new American hit drama, and Green Wing, a British comedy that may just be the most deliciously surreal show on television.
Both dispense with pretense that patients are the central thing and instead zoom in on the more mundane elements of medical interns’ lives: bickering about who stole a yogurt from the communal fridge, who got the most prestigious operation, and who’s shtupping who. Unlike House (the other huge medical hit of the season), in which Hugh Laurie devotes all his cranky intensity to demystifying stubborn ailments, the ambitious junior surgeons of Grey’s Anatomy treat death and dismemberment like a Survivor challenge—an opportunity to flaunt, flirt, and score some brownie points. Green Wing goes even further. It picks up where The Office left off and drags it into the lunatic fringe, treating the hospital as a laboratory for human grotesquerie and emotion, with nary a glimpse of entrails or EKGs.
The two series launched with oddly similar tableaux: a fledgling female doctor caught in an awkward situation on the morning of her first day on the job. But Green Wing‘s Dr. Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig) is disheveled because she’s locked out of her house; with no place to shower or change before work, she resorts to rubbing her car’s pine-scented deodorizing tree thingie over her pits to mask her fierce BO. Grey’s Anatomy, on the other hand, features a tousled Dr. Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo, the missing link between the Olsen twins and Renée Zellweger) waking up with a hunky stranger in her bed. “We don’t have to do the thing,” she says curtly, “you know, exchange the details, pretend we care.” If she’d been a little more detail oriented, she might have discovered that the hunky stranger (Patrick Dempsey) was soon to be her boss—but then the show would’ve lost one of its central plotlines. This is one sexual blunder that just keeps on giving.
Grey’s Anatomy has a lot going for it, if you can get past Meredith’s sickly voice-over narrations, which mar the show like a bad rash. Intended to convey feminine intimacy, they actually serve as a transmission system for lame clichés. Maybe they’re also supposed to keep us from noticing just how calculating and rabidly ambitious the interns are—particularly Dr. Cristina Yang (Sandra Oh), a fabulously unsentimental striver who remarks of a comatose patient, “I wish he’d go into the light already so I can get on another case.” In one early episode, the ER was jammed after an illegal bike messenger race and the young docs literally scrambled over each other like hyperactive toddlers, battling over the most exciting injuries. Watching the gurneys fly past, Cristina deadpans, “It’s like candy, but with blood, which is so much better.”
It’s something I could imagine a character on Green Wing saying. Billing itself as “the antidote to TV hospital drama,” this is an astonishingly innovative series that practically invents a new genre. Cued by trip-hoppy musical motifs, scenes abruptly speed up like a crack nightmare, or else slow down to capture the excruciating drag of the workday. Episodes integrate prosaic story lines with absurdist physical-comedy sequences, whose beautifully choreographed insanity recalls the Marx Brothers or Monty Python at their most unhinged and Dadaist.
Amid the sublime madcappery, there are real plots and relationships, such as the torrid but rather gross affair between Joanna (Pippa Haywood), the cruel personnel director, and the odious Dr. Alan Statham (Mark Heap). Desperately snatching moments alone during office hours, they engage in strange sexual activities (he twiddles her nipples while she emits a high-pitched aria, for instance). Statham is a pompous fool, the butt of everyone’s jokes, and there’s something indescribably funny about watching him repeatedly prance down the hallway, practicing how to swoosh his lab coat behind him to create “an air of contained urgency.” In another fleeting but classic set piece, Statham gets so irritated with a cheeky junior doctor that he sticks his pointer into the young man’s mouth and clinks it noisily across his teeth.
As in Grey’s Anatomy, characters seem more motivated by competition than by altruism, but in Green Wing, the tendency is exaggerated to hilarious effect. Two of the doctors, Mac and Guy, spend much of their downtime thinking up challenges—not tests of surgical prowess, but juvenile stuff like daring one another to eat a raw spoonful of instant coffee. In another scene, set in the ladies’ bathroom, Joanna and a female staff member size up each other’s bodies with such intensity that it quickly develops into a vicious, silent boob contest.
But the real joy lies in the countless oddball interludes and sight gags crammed into every fold and crevice. Some are so fleeting they feel like hallucinations, such as the anonymous men in rain boots who march down corridors without explanation, or the office staff who switch desks repeatedly to play mind games with their bitchy boss. Combining giddy ensemble comedy with the kind of off-kilter epiphanies last seen in Twin Peaks, Green Wing is sui generis and sheer genius. It’s also quietly subversive, hinting, situationist-style, that behind the open-plan office and management structures lies a mutinous utopia of mischief and nonsense.