Dr. Ken refills prescription for nursing stereotypes
The final season of the ABC sitcom Dr. Ken presented nurse character Clark as the admiring “work wife” and clinical lapdog of the physician lead character. That portrayal reinforced damaging stereotypes about nursing. Clark did have one fairly good, if anomalous, scene in which he advocated against nurse understaffing.
March 2017 – The second and final season of the ABC sitcom Dr. Ken was probably better for nursing than the first one. But overall, it still told viewers that nurses were fairly pathetic physician helpers. The show focused on the work and personal life of the difficult primary care physician Ken Park, who practiced in a large managed care organization called Welltopia. But it also featured nurse Clark Leslie Beavers (yes, that was really his name), Ken’s fawning sidekick. In fairness, Clark did get his share of comic lines. The show worked to present his sexual orientation as normal; his plotlines tended to be mostly about his relationship with his boyfriend. And Clark had a brief shining moment in episode 6 in which he actually served as a union representative, arguing against understaffing and overlong shifts (albeit meekly). But he was still seen as Dr. Ken’s “work wife”—really a 1950s work wife. Embodying the stereotype of the wimpy man in nursing, Clark was also an easily bruised vegan, something that the show mocked repeatedly and that was a handy marker for his weakness and otherness. Clark displayed few health skills, in contrast to physician Ken who, while zany, did at times make clear that he was a health care expert. The show’s poor depiction of nursing was even less excusable in light of the fact that show creator Ken Jeong actually is a physician. On the whole, Dr. Ken reinforced the stereotypes that nurses are low-skilled physician handmaids and that men in nursing are weak.
The second season spent a lot more time on Clark’s personal life, especially his relationship with his boyfriend (who then became his husband). But some plotlines did touch on Clark’s clinical role. And that role was clearly to assist physicians, attend to them, bring them things; in fact, it was to be their possessions. In episode 2, Ken Park’s wife Allison, a psychiatrist, arrived at Welltopia to start a new job. Clark was typically lapdoggy, babbling about how the Parks were like the national parks. Ken welcomed his wife and clarified work roles. Ken: “And until you get your own nurse, Clark will help with patients.” It’s important to establish the ownership right away.
Besides wagging his tail, an important part of Clark’s clinical role was providing his workmates with mockable vegan treats. In episode 5, a Halloween episode, Clark brought in some “Hallo-vegan-boo-nana-bites.” Ken, disregarding a warning from the office assistant Damona, actually tried one.
Clark: “What do you think? Can you taste the lentils?!”
Ken (hoarse): “Yes, very dusty.”
Clark: “Ooh, that’s mushrooms!”
Later, Ken said he would need his “stomach pumped and  tongue sanded.” In episode 11, Clark brought in some vegan fudge, and then seemed shocked when the administrator Pat trashed it. Clark never really explained why he was a vegan, and he seemed oblivious of the contempt from everyone else. His aggressively clueless dietary practice reinforced his otherness and the sense that nurses are pathetic. Or at least male nurses. Clark’s veganism seemed to complement the other stereotyping in the character.
Although Clark was generally there for fleeting amusement, two of the season’s plotlines did throw his clinical role into such bold relief that they are worth special attention.
The union rep
In episode 6 of season 2, one plotline actually had Clark acting as the union representative negotiating a new contract for Welltopia nurses. Clark said he was thrilled to have been elected to that role. Damona was skeptical, but Clark assured her he was a “deft negotiator,” as he had convinced his high school girlfriends they should save themselves for marriage. But he seemed scared to face off against Pat, the management negotiator, who gleefully said it was “feeding time.”
Eventually Clark, dressed in a suit, met with Pat and three of Pat’s allies. Clark was clearly nervous, but he greeted the “Welltopia board members” and started to direct them to the union’s proposal, which he said called for “shorter shifts and a more reasonable nurse-to-patient ratio.” Pat interrupted with a dizzying array of comical over-reactions and word games, claiming to have studies and anecdotes showing the shift lengths were just fine, pretending to be offended that Clark was questioning the board’s integrity, and merrily accusing Clark of playing the “mind games” that Pat was himself playing. Clark tried to counter this barrage of gaslighting, but he ended up flustered.
Later, Clark told Damona how badly it had gone. Damona told him if he couldn’t stand up for himself, he should stand up for the hundreds of nurses counting on him. Clark agreed, and pumping himself up, said he had to do whatever it took, “even if it means a strike.” Damona didn’t like that idea, which would shut the place down and cost her money. And later, she complained that the “nurses’ newsletter” was indicating that “Norma Rae” (Clark) wanted a strike. Clark said he did not want that, but Pat would not budge. Ken and Allison agreed with Damona. Then Pat appeared, agreeing that no one wanted a strike and claiming that Clark stood alone.
Clark: Wait, I’ve got something to say. … I represent the Welltopia nurses’ union. I was elected by 127 nurses to speak for them and nothing, nothing is more important to me than getting us what we need to care for the patients. This isn’t just about higher salaries or longer breaks, we’re not doing this for ourselves, we’re doing it for patients like, like [looking at a chart] Audra Middleton, diabetic mother of two. And when she comes in here for her insulin management, she deserves better than an exhausted nurse that just saw 30 patients in the time they should have seen 12. Or Heather Michaels, an ER nurse who became a patient because she fell asleep at the wheel after working a double shift in our understaffed ER. And then the irony is she came back to that ER in an ambulance only to be tended to by other exhausted nurses. So on behalf of all those patients and all of the dedicated nurses who take care of them I am going to do the right thing. Even if that thing is a strike.
This won over the crowd of Damona, Allison, and even Ken, who agreed, “He’s right, patients come first.”
Pat: You know, when we started this I assumed it was all just a money grab. Because, well, it always is. But not with you, huh? You really value patient care above everything else.
Clark: I’m a nurse. It’s what we do.
Pat: Well, I can’t beat that. We’ll draw up a new contract. Well done.
After Pat left, they all celebrated as if victory was Clark’s…and apparently it was. That resolution was reminiscent of a 1991 episode of The Simpsons (season 3, episode 2) in which Lisa went to Washington, DC, saw a Member of Congress take a bribe, wrote an essay about it for a contest that caused a splash, and saw the Member quickly arrested and sent to prison. That wish-fulfillment fantasy seemed to underline both a vision of clean government and also just how far from reality it was. It’s not clear if viewers will see this Welltopia plotline the same way. In any case, Clark’s final speech was a remarkable statement of some real problems that nurses experience, a statement that is obviously rare to hear in any Hollywood product, much less a sitcom. The show even got in the anecdote about the nurse falling asleep, which at least suggested that understaffing and overlong shifts put nurses themselves at risk. The show did not really explain what nurses do for patients that would make understaffing dangerous for them. Clark says patients “deserve better,” but what does that mean? What do those studies say? Unfortunately, the lack of specifics as to what nurses actually do and how patients are affected, along with the vague language like “patient care” and “tended to,” is consistent with the view that nurses are low-skilled comfort workers. Even so, the plotline raises some real issues that nurses face today in clinical settings. Well done.
Episode 14 of season 2 followed the making of a documentary about a typical HMO, namely Welltopia. The filmmakers focused on Ken, and talked to his colleagues. Clark introduced himself on camera like this: “Hi, I’m Clark Leslie Beavers, I’ve been Dr. Clark’s nurse for a long time. And we are a fantastic team.” But in a later scene Clark, although just trying to be helpful, made Ken look bad by reinforcing the sense that he was really a low-level cookie-cutter physician. First, the camera caught a patient insisting on seeing a dermatologist; even though Ken had said his mole was benign, he wanted to hear it from “an expert.” The director asked Ken if he referred patients much, and Clark jumped in to confirm, “Oh my God yes, specialists like to call him Dr. Punt.” Ken insisted that he did much more than that, but Clark jumped back in: “Oh yeah, refills too, tons of ‘em. Blood pressure medication, cholesterol medication, all of your basic everyday medications. Refill, refer, repeat, oh my God the three R’s!”
Later, the director asked Clark if things had changed since Ken’s wife Allison started working at Welltopia.
Clark: You know, I’m not going to lie to you Amy, it has been an adjustment. See, I was like his work wife? And now that his actual wife is working here, it’s just kind of thrown off our rhythm? Enough negativity. … It’s Ken’s birthday, I made him his favorite cake, carrot, I cannot wait to surprise him with it. (Looking at his phone.) Oh, that’s him…he needs me. Yeah…yeah, he needs me.
Later, Allison and others surprised Ken with a birthday cake before Clark could, leading Clark to slink away. Allison noticed, and she told Clark she was sorry to step on his toes with the cake. Clark said no problem, she was his wife. Allison said that Ken couldn’t get out of the house without her, but he also could not function at Welltopia without Clark, and she wanted Clark to know she appreciated that. Clark in turn appreciated her kind words: “Oh, it’s like we’re sister-wives!” Ken entered and said he needed to talk to his wife. After a moment Clark said Allison should probably take that one. Ken was depressed with what the documentary was revealing about his life, and he really wanted to do comedy full time (presumably like the real Ken Jeong).
Just then, Damona rushed in. A patient had collapsed in the waiting room, not breathing. We heard an announcement: “Code blue.” And Clark was doing chest compressions! Clark: “No pulse, he’s not breathing.” The show attempted a code scene, with Ken saying “V-tach,” some unnamed nurses handing him defibrillation paddles, and Ken defibrillating while Clark prepared to give medication. “One amp of epi,” Ken commanded, and Clark injected that. Ken called for the defibrillators again: “Clear!” Then: “Sinus rhythm, he’s got a pulse.” So all was well. Ken told Clark good job, and Clark said you too. Ken told the documentary director that although he had had a frustrating day, this was a reminder of why they were all there. It was a team effort in which everyone made a difference, whether checking in a patient or restoring a heart beat. Asked if he was happy as a physician, Ken said he was exactly where he should be.
The code scene was a relative bright spot for Clark. He worked well under pressure, and he showed some knowledge and skill in doing the compressions and giving the drugs. He even got some credit for the save, with Ken telling him good work. But that scene still presented Clark as a skilled assistant to the physician in charge, as so many Hollywood code scenes do. There was no doubt that Ken would do the defibrillation, even though nurses commonly do that in real life.
The “work wife” elements of the show reinforced handmaiden and male-nurse stereotypes. And Clark’s full name, with its female-gender overtones, was clearly chosen to reinforce the show’s regressive gender messaging, as if we were all 10-year-olds on some 1970s playground. On the whole, Dr. Ken presented a man in nursing as a good-hearted but fairly pathetic punchline.