NBC’s new medical drama The Night Shift is to ER and Grey’s Anatomy what the Pearl Jam version of “Last Kiss” is to the original version. It’s not a bad song by any means, but it’s also incredibly bland and lifeless. The Night Shift knows the notes it wants to hit, and it has a pretty good idea of when and how to hit them. But it’s so indebted to tunes that hospital dramas have been playing since the days of St. Elsewhere that it can’t help but feel like a copy of a copy of a copy. As a summer time-waster, there are far worse options, but The Night Shift comes close enough to making the grade that it’s all the more frustrating to watch it choose at every turn to do what’s easily digestible.
The major difference between this show and those earlier programs is its setting. As the title suggests, The Night Shift takes place during the overnight stretch at San Antonio Memorial Hospital. The show has a nice Texan flair, even though it’s shot in Albuquerque, and it also has a strong military element. Many of the doctors in the series are Afghanistan war veterans, and the hospital also treats its fair share of returnees from war. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common story element, and the show is almost more interested in the psychological scars of war than the physical ones. Frequent (and often clumsy) flashbacks to the war provide the stakes here: These are characters marked by one day full of bad decisions, a day that the first eight episodes take their sweet time teasing out.
The problem, then, are those characters. The Night Shift desperately wants to be a show about the charismatic renegade doctor who cares too much and the many others who orbit him as satellites. As said renegade, T.C. Callahan (a name that never stops sounding like a regional sports-bar franchise confined to the upper Rocky Mountain states), Eoin Macken makes the intriguing choice to underplay T.C.’s stubbornness. He always gets his way, but not because he keeps throwing himself at doors that close in front of him. Instead, he just goes ahead and does what he wants and accepts the consequences later. T.C. doesn’t try to remake the system; instead, he tries to ignore it as much as possible.
If that softness is intriguing as an acting choice, however, the writers—led by creators Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah (who’ve primarily written for hour-long light dramas)—fail to find a way to write toward it. Instead, they’ve conceived of T.C. as the kind of guy who drives his superiors nuts with his fuck-it-all attitude, wins the hearts of his male comrades by being incredibly cool, and gets every woman in the building to want to sleep with him. The question viewers are meant to be asking is what trauma has so marked T.C. that he’s lost himself in a sort of responsible irresponsibleness, but Macken plays him as so much of an open wound that any tension derived from that divide is quickly lost.
The series’ female lead, Jordan Alexander (Jill Flint), is presented as a hyper-competent doctor who’s recently risen to the position of head of the shift. But the show is mostly interested in her as T.C.’s former love interest, the woman he left back home when he went to war. Macken and Flint don’t have particularly great chemistry, and the moments that are meant to burn between them often fall flat. They underscore a larger problem within the show, however: The series is so indebted to ER that it all but rips off that series’ famous directorial style and visual flourishes, but it’s much less interested in medicine than it is romantic complications. Yes, ER told all manner of personal stories about its characters, but it had a wide enough variety that it wasn’t only telling stories about love thwarted. Night Shift doesn’t really have another gear, but it refuses to go full Grey’s Anatomy and ramp up the sexy complications so much that it attains the lift off of fun melodrama.
It similarly doesn’t help that the series’ ensemble is far too overstuffed, with the female characters too often following in Jordan’s footsteps and simply being there as objects of desire for their male counterparts, even when they get moments of medical badassery. (Particularly objectionable on this count is Jeananne Goosen’s Krista, a character who, eight episodes in, is still mostly defined as “the hot intern.”) Freddy Rodriguez also drops by with a vocal affectation that makes him sound like the chief of police in an ’80s private-eye show, turning his hospital bean counter into an antagonist who forgets to antagonize anybody. Ken Leung finds a couple of fun moments to play as Topher, the guy everybody can turn to, and there are some genuinely moving moments with Brendan Fehr’s Drew, a doctor struggling to come to terms with his true self. But every time a story starts to wander off toward something else, the show forces either T.C. or Jordan to get involved, and viewers are reminded of the vacuum at the show’s center.
There are far worse shows on TV this summer than The Night Shift. Indeed, in the show’s best episodes, it has a nice sense of humor about itself. (Look for all of the weirdoes in the background of the series’ many tracking shots, suggesting the kinds of crazies the night shift might have to treat.) It has just enough moments to make its inability to snap into focus all the more disappointing. By the time its fifth episode rolls around, The Night Shift is so desperate for ER plots it hasn’t already pillaged that it turns to a big disaster that swamps the hospital. There are worse stories to tell on a hospital show, but ramping up the stakes that soon on a medical drama indicates something sadly telling: Nobody on this series has any faith that the characters will carry it on their own.