➕ new.amsterdam ➕

New Amsterdam is a mediocre vodka, New Amsterdam is a bad TV show. I can’t stop watching it.

I made a conscious decision in college to stop hate-watching things because I was spending a lot of time with a friend, let’s call him Trip, that only seemed to hate-watch things that he thought was bad and it made me feel like I was only ever choosing to watch things I didn’t like. This is five or seven years later and I feel good about the movies I’ve watched since then.

In Trip’s defense, there were some common themes to the bad movies that he liked to watch. He loved movies where filmmakers were un-self-aware in various ways: uncool movies that unconvincingly treat uncool things as cool, movies where the screenwriter thinks they’re a god and too good for an editor and the actors are always a little confused, movies from other countries trying to introduce a new genre, movies with jarring and inexplicable shifts toward adolescent-boy lecherous tone. He loved what came when a creative team team was in a little over its head, like the faces you make when reaching for a dish on a shelf just out of your reach.

When I hate watch, I look for something different. I love to hate-watch movies and TV shows that are trying to copy something else but don’t seem to understand what made the original good. Sometimes formulas are copied and the copy is pretty good, or better than the original. If it works, I don’t care that it’s a copy. There’s an clunky uncanny valley that I find frustrating when part of the formula is right and part of it is wrong (here’s looking at you, Netflix originals and the entire Greg Berlanti TV universe). And then there are the copies that miss it completely. Complexity is simplified, the specific becomes generic, and characters are flattened like a pancake. Any part of the show that provokes the viewer to consider something differently is repurposed to cut a deeper groove into our preconceptions.

Which is what draws me to New Amsterdam. It’s a really, really bad copy of a copy of ER.

Hospital dramas are TV staples and will never go away because the setting lends itself so well to episodic stories. The stakes are inherently life and death, there are a lot of different things that motivate doctors, medical care touches people from all strata of society, and medicine is always at the center of our political and moral battleground. Patients come in and out, and doctors and nurses make new relationships with them in every episode.

ER premiered in 1994 and made a huge leap forward for hospital shows because of two special advantages. First, Michael Crichton, the series creator, was a doctor who had been a resident and was a perceptive enough observer of emergency rooms to get the emotional tone right. Second, Jurassic Park-era Steven Spielberg was the first executive producer, and it seems that his production choices led to better medical special effects than had ever been on TV. ER invested deeply in its cast, too. Certain characters got most of the attention, however background characters played by regular guest stars got to be real too. Different characters worked day shifts and night shifts. Malik, Jerry and Heleah all managed the intake stations and answered phones differently. Most importantly, ER understood what was dramatic about a TV show and (at least in the early seasons) did not underestimate its audience. We always got glimpses into character’s lives outside the hospital, but that was never the most interesting part of the show. What we knew about the rest of their lives allowed viewers to decode the emotions underneath the surface as characters went about their work.

New Amsterdam gets this hilariously wrong. It’s based on the fairly sober seeming and workmanlike memoir Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital  by Eric Mannheimer, but its hard to imagine him recognizing his work in the show. Doctors almost never practice any medicine. Background characters get no lines so even though the show is shot on a giant set with lots of extras, we only ever interact with about six doctors. Instead of exploring any number of inherently dramatic scenarios that happen in hospitals, all the drama is interpersonal and involves two characters conflicting then slowly telling the other four characters what is going on while ignoring the patients in front of them. Maybe the writers knew they were working with a turkey because the main character is (and I’m not joking): taking over the largest public hospital in New York, while mourning the death of his sister at the very same hospital, while his wife is having complications from a pregnancy, and also he has brain cancer.

But the worst thing of all, and the car crash that I can’t turn away from, is that it is the most blatantly cynical or un-self-aware (or both) White Savior story I have ever seen. I am surprised, and also not, that this got made in 2018. The implicit message of the show is that all of the ills of modern medicine: high medical bills, impersonal care, corporatization, lack of mental health care; all could be solved by a white man with unlimited authority. It’s Trump, M.D., and if you think that I’m overstating, the very first act of this incoming medical director is to fire all tenured doctors. [This is after an excruciating scene where the hospital’s janitors are gossiping in Spanish and the medical director responds in Spanish because he’s Down Like That™️ and Not That Kind of White™️]. His plan to turn the hospital around? I don’t know and neither does he because his only instruction to his doctors is to give a shit. This is meant to be inspiring.

It’s racist and cynical, but the reason I can’t look away is that it so deluded about what the challenges of the day are. Climate change, economic collapse, infrastructure deterioration, these are all big problems that are going to require big thinkers. But this show is so nakedly wishing for a simpler time when someone powerful like a doctor at the top of the pyramid could just order the reality he wanted and all the people in the jobs that don’t get lines on this show: the nurses, the janitors, orderlies, billing techs, patients; they all have to fall in line and make that reality. Through that lens, this show may be a part of white America coming to grips with the failure of the Trump presidency. New Amsterdam believes that the system we had in the past was pretty good, as long as you had someone goodhearted running it.

I don’t think it’s coming back.

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