Fall 2021 TV Preview!
More good portrayals of nursing are coming on the BBC’s Call the Midwife and Netflix’s Virgin River. On the new Ordinary Joe (NBC), the lead character is a nurse in one of three alternative timelines. But Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS) will return with a nurse who decided last season that high achievement required her to become a physician. Ratched (Netflix) will likely have more battle-axe and other stereotypes. And otherwise, the prime-time landscape will be dominated by physician-centric shows, including the new Good Sam (CBS) and Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. (Disney+).
September 2021 – As U.S. television production has ramped back up, the fall prime-time season is back, with a few helpful portrayals of nursing amid a slew of damaging physician-centric shows—and sadly, some losses among the few good nurse characters. Two new shows promise more of the standard Hollywood model. CBS’s Good Sam (premiering mid-season), about a female heart surgeon managing other surgeons including her own father, looks like another festival of physician awesomeness. Same for Disney+’s Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. (Sept. 8), in which a whiz kid becomes a physician before turning 16. Every major clinical character on those shows seems to be a physician. But on NBC’s Ordinary Joe (Sept. 20), which examines three different paths a man’s life might take, one path involves becoming a seemingly skilled and autonomous nurse, although early episodes suggest the show does not include much nursing. Among returning shows, Call the Midwife (BBC/PBS; Oct. 3) will return for a 10th season about the exploits of skilled and autonomous nurse-midwives in 1960s London. It’s still the best show on television for nursing. Netflix’s Virgin River (2022), which is partly about a smart, resourceful nurse practitioner (NP) in a remote California town, will be back for a fourth season. The veteran shows Chicago Med (NBC; Sept. 22) and The Resident (Fox; Sept. 21) will also return. They mostly focus on physicians, but Chicago Med has also had three major nurse characters, and The Resident has had possibly the strongest single nurse character on U.S. television in NP Nic Nevin. Unfortunately that character and one of the Chicago Med nurses are leaving their shows. The CBS sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola (Sept. 20) has a competent Nigerian-born nurse as one of its two leads, but last season she vowed to abandon nursing for medicine, reinforcing the wannabe-physician stereotype. Among Canadian shows that made it to the U.S. last year during the pandemic, Transplant (NBC; mid-season) will return with a physician-dominated portrayal of a Syrian physician’s work in Toronto. But it’s not clear if the U.S. will see the second season of Nurses (NBC). That Toronto hospital drama features five knowledgeable young nurses who make a real difference for patients, but who are also inexperienced and often intimidated. Shows that surely will continue to air in the U.S. include Grey’s Anatomy (ABC; Sept. 30), The Good Doctor (ABC; Sept. 27), and New Amsterdam (NBC; Sept. 21), all offering a vision of hospital care in which physicians do everything that matters. And Ratched (Netflix; 2022) will return with its iconic battle-axe character and other nurse stereotyping, which was at least mitigated in the latter half of the first season, as the characters softened and even performed a few redemptive acts.
Good Sam (CBS; mid-season)
This new hospital drama follows a hotshot female heart surgeon who takes control of a surgical department when the former chief – who also happens to be her father – gets sick and falls into a coma. But then he recovers and wants to come back! Information is limited, but as far as we can tell every major character on the show is a physician. And whether that is correct or not, the overall structure and tone pretty clearly reflect the standard Hollywood model, in which hospital care is all about heroic physicians and nurses are peripheral subordinates if they appear at all. More information is available at the show’s website: https://www.cbs.com/shows/good-sam/
Doogie Kamealoha, M.D. (Disney+; Sept. 8)
This sitcom is an update of the 1989-1993 ABC drama Doogie Howser, MD. There as here, the main character is a whiz kid who has become a physician before turning 16. But the new twists include that Doogie is an Asian-American female who lives in Hawaii. The first episode finds her basically performing every clinical task perfectly —diagnosis, treatment, advocacy, psychosocial care—and knowing the answer to every clinical question, except how to cope with losing her first patient. For that she needs the help of her boss, who is (you guessed it) also her mom! Every major clinical character on the show seems to be a physician, and in early episodes nurses only appeared very briefly to receive commands, in silence. Predictably, the first episode also plot-checked the preschool show Doc McStuffins, another Disney sitcom in which a precocious daughter was headed in the same direction as her physician mother. We hope Doogie at least avoids the McStuffins route of presenting a nurse character as a hippo doll. More information is available at the show’s website: https://disneyplusoriginals.disney.com/show/doogie-kamealoha-md
Ordinary Joe (NBC: Sept. 20)
This new drama examines how one man’s life might have been different – and not so different – depending on a seemingly minor choice he made at a critical early point. Specifically, it seems that main character Joe might have been a rock star, a police officer, or a nurse. Early episodes suggest the show will not focus on clinical nursing. But in a couple short scenes nurse Joe does seem to display a level of autonomy that is almost shocking for a modern hospital show, as he single-handedly manages the care of a wounded Congressman, at least for a few moments. More generally, it appears that Joe’s choice of nursing is linked to his need to provide and care for his disabled son in that timeline. Going forward, even with the show’s attention mostly on other things, it has the potential to do real good or real harm to nursing, based on the, uh, choices the show creators make. More information is available at the show’s website: https://www.nbc.com/ordinary-joe
Call the Midwife (BBC/PBS; Oct. 3)
The best current prime time show for nursing will return for a tenth season, airing in the fall in the U.S. rather than the traditional spring timing, as the season was delayed by Covid. The series will continue to portray about 10 nurse-midwife characters providing holistic care to a working-class community in 1960s London. It presents nurses as autonomous professionals who regularly help pregnant women and others overcome a host of health, social, and economic challenges during an era of transition. The show does occasionally over-credit physicians, but the main impression is of nursing authority and life-saving skill. See our webpage on Call the Midwife featuring analyses of the show over previous seasons, or the show’s website, where you can find episodes.
Virgin River (Netflix; 2022)
This drama focuses on rural California nurse practitioner Mel Monroe. It aired two seasons in the last year, releasing its second in November 2020 and its third in July 2021. And it has already started filming a fourth season for likely release next year. The show is mainly about romance and personal intrigue, and so substantial clinical plotlines only occur periodically. Still, Mel has regularly shown advanced skills, managing issues including emergency care, prenatal care, and a physician colleague’s regressive views of nursing. In episode 4 of the third season, for example, she worked with the physician to treat a boy who had aspirated water and suffered a laryngospasm. In episode 9 of that season, she diagnosed a miscarriage and gave good followup care. In these plotlines and others, Mel provides expert technical care, but there is a particular focus on her adept and consistent psychosocial support for her community. For more information, see our page on Virgin River.
Chicago Med (NBC; Sept. 22)
This Dick Wolf drama is mainly about a half dozen emergency physicians, and they direct most of the care we see, but for its first six seasons the show has also had three major nurse characters: the competent emergency department (ED) nurse April Sexton, the authoritative ED charge nurse Maggie Lockwood, and the strong hospital executive Sharon Goodwin, who is a nurse. These nurses have regularly played key roles in care. And there are recurring minor nurse characters, although they tend to operate mainly as assistants, absorbing physician commands. Unfortunately, the actress who plays April Sexton left at the end of the sixth season. And based on early episodes in the new season, it does not seem that the show will add a nurse character to replace Sexton or devote significant additional attention to the remaining nurse characters. At least Goodwin and Lockwood do remain authoritative clinical players. For more information see our page on Chicago Med or the NBC website.
The Resident (Fox; Sept. 21)
This hospital drama, notable for often presenting the most senior physicians as malevolent, will return for a fifth season. It’s mostly about brilliant, renegade younger physicians, but it has also had arguably the strongest nurse character on U.S. television, nurse practitioner Nic Nevin. Nic regularly saved lives through her skill and advocacy, and she often operated as essentially a clinical peer of the physicians. Sadly, the actress who plays Nic has left the series, and there is no indication that she will be replaced by a nurse character. Instead, early episodes suggest that additional physician characters will fill the dramatic space Nic occupied. The show also has a couple recurring staff nurse characters, notably the veteran ED nurse Hundley. But unfortunately, they have tended to be assistants with limited skills, at best. So it appears that going forward, the show may be no more helpful to nursing than New Amsterdam, a physician-dominated drama with only one minor nurse character who similarly appears briefly to assist ED physicians. see our page on The Resident, or the Fox website.
Bob Hearts Abishola (CBS; Sept. 20)
One of the two main characters in this popular sitcom, returning for a third season, is Abishola, a skilled and no-nonsense Detroit nurse who is originally from Nigeria. She displays clinical knowledge and a holistic approach, and at times she advocates forcefully for her patients. The show doesn’t spend too much time on clinical plotlines, and it loses points for so persistently showing Abishola push her son to be a physician, rather than a nurse. But it was generally helpful up through episode 13 of the second season. That’s when Abishola announced that she herself would become a physician, seemingly because of an obsession with status and perceived advancement that the show suggests is a hallmark of Nigerians generally. The character did first consider nursing management, but concluded there would be too little patient contact. Episode 15 of the season also included a heroic backstory for the older charge nurse Gloria, a minor character, who had apparently moved heaven and earth to become a physician herself long ago. Gloria overcame racism and other barriers to get as far as a residency match, but when that hospital closed, she “became a nurse” to support her family. No character suggests that nursing has value relative to medicine. And it appears that from here on out, the show will reinforce the damaging wannabe-physician stereotype, which has little basis in fact but has been a staple of Hollywood’s depictions of able nurses since ER in the 1990s. For more information, see our review of season 1 and the Bob Hearts Abishola page on the CBS website.
Grey’s Anatomy (ABC; Sept. 30)
Back for an amazing 18th season, this TV juggernaut will again present more than a dozen surgeons as providing all of the hospital care that matters, while nurses are generally clueless handmaidens. Not surprisingly, the show’s last season focused on Covid-19, which was a vehicle to do something the most damaging shows sometimes do: include a nurse character in a substantial plotline, but not as a clinician, instead as a patient or family member. This gives shows a chance to honor nurses as noble, and even to show that they do have basic health knowledge, even though they don’t do enough to be worthy of any real attention for their clinical work. So here, a likeable nurse character who worked at an assisted living facility appeared in the 17th season’s finale (episode 17) – as a hospital patient with severe Covid, which the surgeon characters could then display their expertise in addressing. For more information see our Grey’s Anatomy page with analyses over the years or the show’s website on ABC.
The Good Doctor (ABC; Sept. 27)
This drama about a brilliant young surgeon with autism will be back for a fifth season. Physicians generally do everything on this show and nurse characters rarely appear at all. But last season, just as on Grey’s, one did appear in a substantial plotline primarily as a patient with severe Covid. That plotline, in episodes 1-2, also gave the show a chance to present the nurse character – a snarky, resentful older woman who had tangled with the physicians before – as having some wisdom about a resident physician’s professional development. That is another role that such shows may assign nurses on the rare occasions when they appear, that of the prickly hospital veteran who’s been around so long that she’s seen it all and so does know something, kind of like a senior drill sergeant training promising young officers in military basics. The season also included a minor nurse character in its two-part finale (episodes 19-20), a competent and even witty practitioner at a clinic in rural Guatemala where many of the show’s physicians had gone on a short mission. Of course, the nurse was there mostly as a possible romantic partner for one of the physicians whose marriage was in trouble, and her clinical role was fairly limited. For more information see our page on The Good Doctor or the show’s website on ABC.
New Amsterdam (NBC; Sept. 21)
This drama focusing on the brilliant and innovative medical director at a struggling public hospital in New York will be back for a fourth season. Every major character is a physician and the plotlines revolve almost entirely around their care and their personal lives. Minor nurse character Casey has appeared in most episodes, showing some skill and acting basically as a trusted aide-de-camp to the chief ED physician. For more information on New Amsterdam, see our page on the show and see the show’s website.
Ratched (Netflix; 2022)
Ryan Murphy’s prequel to the Ratched story from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest will be back for a second season, though possibly not until late 2022. The show’s first season was damaging to nursing, as we had feared, with no less than two battle-axe portrayals and two naughty nurses, although in fairness most of the portrayals turned out to be more complex than they seemed at first. The new series set out to show how the prototypical battle-axe got the way she was by the time we saw her in the 1975 film. And the 8-episode first season certainly did offer a detailed picture and frequent reminders of her horrific childhood in foster care. By the time the series started in 1947, Ratched seemed to be a malevolent force who posed a threat to everyone she met – a cunning, manipulative angel of death who insinuated herself into a job at a California state psychiatric facility with the secret goal of freeing her foster brother, a mass murderer being held there. That was especially impressive because Ratched wasn’t even really a nurse, but someone who had faked her way into a wartime position caring for wounded soldiers—or to be more precise, smothering those who were in such pain that they asked for death, a practice for which she was eventually pushed out of the military. The head nurse at the psychiatric facility, named Bucket (really), was a brutal if sad battle-axe herself, pathetically pining for the head physician. And a young nurse trainee named Dolly (really) enthusiastically acceded to the murderer’s request for sex. But as the season went on, the show’s tone shifted to some extent, from arch and gruesome toward tragic and, well, still gruesome. The nurse characters became more nuanced. Dolly turned out to be more dangerous than a mere naughty nurse, if that is an improvement. Bucket revealed herself to be more than a bitter oppressor. And Ratched, always clever and skilled, displayed empathy and courage on behalf of certain disadvantaged persons, revealing an apparent ability to care for others, despite all the harm she had caused. In the end, the season’s presentation of the nurse characters was more than stereotyping. But its presentation of nursing was still as a job for damaged, desperate, and dangerous females who may or may not have any training or any genuine concern for patients. See our page on the Ratched show.
Transplant (CTV/NBC; mid-season)
This Canadian drama about a refugee from Syria who is also a gifted trauma physician will return for a second season on NBC, where it aired last year as part of the network’s effort to find new programming during the pandemic. Despite the main character’s experience, he must start over as a resident in a Toronto ED. There is one semi-major nurse character, head nurse Claire Malone. She displays some clinical skills and authority, particularly in dealing with the head physician, with whom she has a longstanding professional and personal relationship. But overall, the show’s nurses are no more than competent assistants who appear occasionally, obeying physician commands, reporting vital signs, and handling logistics. The overwhelming focus is on the physicians, who have the real skills and who handle the vast majority of patient care.
Nurses (CTV/NBC; U.S. airdate uncertain)
This is another Canadian drama that NBC aired last winter as part of its pandemic programming, and although a second season aired in Canada in summer 2021, NBC has not announced whether it will air in the US yet. In any case, Nurses follows five new nurses at a Toronto hospital. These characters are young, diverse, and largely autonomous when they are alone with patients, which is actually a lot. They all display substantial health knowledge and seem to make a real difference for patients, often through psychosocial care, for which they seem to have plenty of time. But the show lacks major senior nurse characters to regularly show what nursing expertise and authority look like. There are a few recurring senior nurse characters, and they do indicate at least some formal autonomy for nursing. The swaggering head nurse is nominally a mentor, but we don’t see her provide much direct patient care. Other senior nurses, including the charge nurse, mostly seem to bully the new nurses. In addition, the young nurses’ autonomy does not seem to extend far in scenes with physicians, where they can often be intimidated order-takers. Still, the nurses are the focus of the drama, and that is rare. For more information, see our page on the Nurses show.
The physician-centric narrative of much U.S. prime time television is exemplified by dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Doctor, and New Amsterdam, shows on which nurses tend to be handmaidens when they appear at all. In fairness, some shows, like Chicago Med and The Resident, have at least offered examples of nursing skill, advocacy, and even autonomy. But The Resident now appears to belong in the physician-dominated category with Grey’s and the rest. And only a few shows—notably Call the Midwife and to some extent Virgin River—can be expected to offer a consistently good portrayal of nursing. Please join us in encouraging better portrayals of nursing!
With all these shows, we need your help! Please first sign all our petitions, speak to show creators, and consult our Take Action page for more ideas. Since we cannot monitor the world’s media by ourselves, please watch one or more of the shows with a nursing element and let us know if you see a good or bad portrayal at email@example.com. If we all work on a piece of the puzzle, we can build a society that respects nursing in line with its true worth, helping to strengthen the profession so nurses can deliver better patient care.
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