It’s a trope even older than TV itself: The renegade, the maverick, the person who refuses to play by the rules. This person could be a lawyer (Rob Lowe on Fox’s The Grinder is doing an inspired sendup of one right now), a judge, a cop, a private detective, a teacher, a chef, or often, a doctor. The medical maverick reaches back as far as Young Dr. Kildare, who entered a small town and tried to shake things up with his forward-thinking and edgy procedures—in short stories and films during the 1930s, on radio in the ’40s, and finally on television in the ’60s. So unfortunately the lead in NBC’s new medical drama, Heartbeat, is nothing new, and can find roots in not only Dr. Kildare, but a row of docs ranging from M*A*S*H’s Hawkeye Pierce to ER’s Doug Ross. They don’t care about your existing structure/board of directors/administration! They’ll put the system on trial! This character usually has a rules-following foil to personify what they are rebelling against (like Drs. Frank Burns and Charles Winchester). It also helps if they look great in evening clothes (looking at you, George Clooney).
Heartbeat’s Dr. Alex Pantierre gets a few extra points for being female, and being based on a real person, Dr. Kathy Magliato. So props to Dr. Magliato for being a famous cardiothoracic surgeon. She should actually be a bit offended that this show managed to distill her impressive life into a series of awful cliches. The casting of the wears-evening-clothes-well Melissa George as the lead is still puzzling, as her past few TV outings have not been that successful: The whiny Rosie on The Slap, and a surgical intern, for God’s sake, on Grey’s Anatomy. The latter outing is extremely unfortunate, because Heartbeat does nothing except draw comparisons to Grey’s Anatomy, and fares poorly. If you put Cristina Yang and Izzie Stevens in a blender, you’d get Alex: the brilliant, calculating surgeon (Yang) who’s full of heart (Stevens). She kisses her patients on the forehead! She suggests risky procedures! She runs down the hall in bare feet even though she isn’t supposed to! There isn’t anyone in her life who doesn’t love (boyfriend, gay ex-husband, former mentor) and worship (a gawking crowd of interns) her, except for that one Winchester-esque rule-follower (poor Shelley Conn as Millicent).
Quirky cases are another Grey’s signature, and Heartbeat apes that as well: a transplant that involves putting two hearts together, the old conjoined-twin separation, and a kid who can only speak backwards. But where Grey’s benefits from an ensemble approach, Heartbeat pins all its hopes on this one surgeon, and the problem is that she’s obnoxious, and nearly infallible. There are no stakes here: Is there any doubt that she won’t charm a bunch of millionaire backers by flirting and shaking her blonde mane, talking about how much she loves cracking a man’s chest open like a lobster? Is there a single chance that one of her patients might suffer due to her bullheaded procedures, even though it may be against what the patient wanted in the first place? By the third episode screened for critics, one of Alex’s operations doesn’t go 100 percent, absolutely perfectly—but there’s still hope for the patient in the end.
Hey, if she’s such a hotshot at work, do you think her home life might be falling apart? Again, she has an adorably chaotic domestic situation, with an ex-rock star ex-husband who takes care of her two young sons. Her fellow surgeon boyfriend (Brothers & Sisters’ Dave Annable) couldn’t be more McSupportive, which makes a prospective love triangle with her hunky, Australian mentor (Don Hany) lack any whisper of drama.
At this point, several decades after Dr. Kildare (and Emergency!, and Marcus Welby, M.D., and St. Elsewhere), any new network drama set in a hospital needs to offer something never-seen-before to stand out. If ABC is still serving up the Coca-Cola version of this formula on Thursday nights, why drink NBC’s RC Cola? That’s why Heartbeat is doomed: We’ve seen more compelling versions of all of this before.