So, a couple of weeks ago I started watching the show Private Practise starting from the beginning. I had never seen the show before but I was familiar with Grey’s Anatomy, the show PP spun off from.[i] Since I started watching PP, in fact only moments into the first episode, it supplanted True Blood as the worst show I watch. Not that these shows are the worst television has to offer. I recently watched some of the unaired Wonder Woman pilot. If you think that the average TV show is bad,[ii] try watching the shows that aren’t good enough to be on TV. Anyway, although PP is formulaic, transparently manipulative, melodramatic and all around not good at all, I can’t stop watching it. The reason—there are two things about this show that I can’t stop thinking about. First, how morally self-righteous all of the characters on PP are and second, that I think they are nearly always wrong.
The show’s main character, Addison Adrienne Forbes Montgomery, was first introduced on Grey’s Anatomy as one of that show’s villains. On Grey’s, as I remember, she was the evil wife of a doctor known as McDreamy, played by the guy previously known either as the guy from Can’t Buy Me Love or the least-good looking guy in Mobsters. She cheated on McDreamy by sleeping with McSteamy. And McDreamy and McSteamy were best friends until Addison Adrienne Forbes Montgomery cheated on her husband. She is a neo-natal surgeon, one of the best.[iii] And she is rich.[iv] The private practise of the show’s title is Oceanside Wellness, a California medical practise where everyone sleeps with everyone else. They make decisions for each other. They go behind each other’s backs. They cheat on each other. This is a group of people who hurt each other. A lot. But at the same time, every single character always thinks they are in the right. In fact, they are always sure they are right.
Now, there are episodes that diverge from the PP formula—a bit. But, generally, each episode parallels the sex lives of the doctors with the health and well-being of their patients. One or more of the doctors learns a moral lesson from their sex life that informs a medical decision they later make in the episode. At the end of the episode a slowed-down cover of a song plays while something sad happens.[v] This is slightly different from the formula on Grey’s. The typical episode of that show will parallel one of the main characters’ hardships, typically related to their sex life, with a patient’s condition, which figuratively represents a literal trauma experienced by that patient. For instance, the doctors might be attempting to separate conjoined twins on the same episode that two doctors are trying to decide whether they should break-up. Or, if a patient had a heart attack, in that same episode one of the characters will have a “broken heart.” See, they both have broken hearts. Only one is a life threatening condition. And the other is because someone got dumped by the guy they recently started dating. But they are basically the same thing. Grey’s also plays the exact same type of music that PP does.
On PP patients have their mind changed about things that impact their life (and death) by doctors though coercion and bullying. These doctors always think they know best and forcefully press their opinions on others. The doctors of Oceanside Wellness blur the boundaries between doctor and patient. In the real world people complain about the lack of attachment and personal care that doctors, especially surgeons, demonstrate. Maybe the show is reflecting this. These doctors are most definitely personally involved with their patients. But when you see it on screen, emotionally involved doctors, the alternative seems horrifying. I wonder if the people who love this show would like these people to be their doctor? Psychiatrist? Co-worker? Friend? Casual acquaintance?
In one episode a fourteen year old musical prodigy wants a surgery to preserve the use of his hands that risks paralyzing one of his legs. This episode does have of the best scenes of the show. At one point the boy plays a piano at the same time he has surgery performed on his brain. And yes, that really happens. Cooper, a paediatrician, thinks the boy should have what he feels is the less dangerous surgery and that a young person couldn’t possibly know what he wants. Apparently, only Cooper can know what his patient wants. And this thing happens all the time. Invariably, when one the patients doesn’t want to do what their doctor recommends, one of the show’s doctors shows up at that persons house to unload their own personal demons and badger the patient into changing their mind.
In another episode Cooper cannot forgive (although it’s TV so he eventually does) his girlfriend for only one of the following three transgressions she makes while they are together: 1 )having sex with someone else, 2) opening a business designed to put his out of business and 3) being married when she was much younger and not disclosing this. Since you know I am making a point you probably guessed the marriage thing. Out of all those things Cooper chooses to be most upset by his girlfriend not admitting she was previously married. In an earlier episode her father dies and she says, tearily, that she doesn’t know if she wants to get married so soon after his death because she wants her father to walk her down the aisle and Cooper gets mad and this. The thing about Cooper is that in the first few episodes of the show several characters tell us that he is a paediatrician and a jerk. And then shortly after the pilot the characterization of Cooper changes so that he is now written as a jerk and the show now tells us he is a good guy.
Anyway, these people are really mean to each other. In fact, why I keep watching the show is because every time characters fight or argue, which is all the time, in nearly every instance I find myself coming down on the “wrong” side. I am always on the side of the person who eventually apologizes for a transgression that I invariably fail to understand as a transgression. At times, it sometimes even makes me wonder if Private Practise is a better person than I am.
One character in particular, Violet, a psychiatrist, seems like a selfish jerk. But it seems that the show thinks she is the most altruistic, caring character on the show. Characters on the show describe her as caring and giving—most of the time. Occasionally, someone tells it like it is. One of the main storylines of the series involves one of Violet’s patients drugging Violet to surgically remove her baby on the floor of her house, which the patient is convinced is actually her baby, and Violet’s gradual recovery from the trauma of having her baby literally ripped from her body. She survives and gives her baby to the father, Pete, because she doesn’t feel she can emotionally cope with taking care of a baby. She almost moves to New York. She then writes a book about her professional and personal life. She once again leaves her child and Pete, who she is now married to, to go on a book tour. And then Pete has a heartattack which she doesn’t initially know about because she left him and her son to go on a book tour.
One of the striking things about the show is, from time to time, one of the main characters, in a fit of anger, will accurately describe the moral shortcomings of another main character and be completely right. At the end of the fourth season[vi] the practise is under investigation for medical malpractice after Violet publishes her autobiography and consequently loses her medical license. The things they are accused of are all true. Also, on PP people’s morals change all the time. Not to get caught up in a discussion over the absolutism of morals but the characters on PP, a show where all of the characters demonstrate extreme levels of moral absolutism, most often expressed in their getting angry at someone for something they themselves do/did, I think if one were to ask each of the characters they would argue for moral absolutes.
The characters on PP are characterized by the show in ways I don’t always understand. Television is often criticized for relying on/creating archetypes rather than functional, developed characters. Shows like The Wire are praised for three-dimensional characters. I like The Wire but I also like The Man with No Name. I don’t think archetypes are the problem. Archetypes can be great fun to watch. For me, the problem with many shows is that the characters don’t actually conform to the archetypes, we are told, often ad nauseum, they belong to. Perhaps the worst/best example of this is Sex and the City. The show is ostensibly about a group of four New York women seeking empowerment through having sex and buying shoes. Miranda is the workaholic intellectual. Samantha is the always fabulous older woman who has a lot of sex. Charlotte is an uptight princess. And the show’s main character, Carrie, is the neurotic writer struggling to be an optimist. Ask most people who are even slightly family with the show and they will be able to provide a description of the main characters very similar, although perhaps less cynical, than the one I just gave. The thing is—it is wrong. We see all four women working about as often (which isn’t that often). They all have a lot of sex with a lot people. They are all neurotic and constantly seeking approval. They are all actually very conservative in their opinions. These four, affluent women are actually the same person. It reminds me of the TV show The View, ostensibly a talk show about a group of women with different opinions, trying to “hash things out.” But the spectrum of opinion these women represent is roughly equivalent to violet through blue on the visible spectrum. Amazingly, the title of the show, The View, tells us this before we even see an episode—these women have one view.
Anyway, one thing I think that both Private Practise and Grey’s Anatomy do well is showing how fragile the human body can be. Just about every episode/week someone new gets sick or dies or gets sick and dies. Which, in the real world, happens all the time.
[i] For some reason I do not recall, I spent the first two weeks of my Master’s doing little more than watching every episode of Grey’s Anatomy I could get my hands on.
[iii] Nearly everyone on PP seems to have graduated top of their class at an Ivy League school and are now the best (fill-in-the-blank).
[iv] Hence the four words in her name. Rich people have long names.
[v] Despite most episodes ending on a downer, most episode begin with an upbeat song and something fun.
[vi] Yes, I am watching too much of this show. In fact, all of this show.