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13 “Our Walls Are Cleaner” Trapper John, M.D., which began on CBS in 1979, and St. Elsewhere, which made its debut on NBC in 1982, were the most successful doctor shows to come after the cauldron of medical comedies and dramas that aired on the home tube during the 1970s. The aims of the shows’ creators were so different, however, that they actually disdained each other’s work. “I have to say that there are some things about St. Elsewhere that I resent ,” Trapper John’s executive producer, Don Brinkley, said in 1985. “There was an article in TV Guide last year or so in which one of the producers [of that show] asked if he wanted to go the Trapper John route, and he said, no, that he didn’t want to prostitute himself to that extent. I resented the hell out of that.” The differences between the shows were not subtle. San Francisco Memorial, where Trapper John practiced as head of cardiac surgery, was a highly polished environment. Weaving through humorous subplots about the minor dif‹culties of the main characters were straightforward “patient” story lines that could be wrapped up optimistically within an hour. Trapper John also was set in a state-of-the-art hospital. By contrast, St. Elsewhere unfolded consistently meandering and sometimes depressing plots about a struggling Boston teaching hospital in a declining part of town. In St. Eligius (more commonly known to its community as St. Elsewhere), the hospital was as often a place where doctors made mistakes as where they were praised for their prowess. 291 And, unlike Trapper John and his colleagues, many of the professionals in St. Eligius were anything but upstanding, heroic, and cool under real pressure. Much of that pressure was personal. St. Elsewhere went farther than Trapper John in turning the focus away from the patients and toward the several physicians and nurses that populated the program. In the space of a few seasons, viewers saw more regular characters with major personal problems than they could have found in the regulars of two previous decades of doctor shows. They saw, for example, surgeon Ben Samuels give as much time to his libidinous inclinations as to his surgical responsibilities; resident Jack Morrison’s marriage fall apart while he was discovered to have misstated his medical background; resident Wayne Fiscus tilt romantically toward a kinky pathology fellow who loved to make love in the morgue; and resident Peter White rape a nurse and, in turn, get shot by her friend. The look, pacing, and structure of St. Elsewhere accentuated the differences between the two shows. Trapper, a series with self-contained episodes each week, took a straightforward approach to ‹lming and editing hospital scenes. St. Elsewhere was a serial, often with four or more story lines intercutting one another. Handheld cameras tracked nervous nurses down dimly lit corridors in an emergency. Quick cuts and overlapping dialog added to the feeling of exhaustion and confusion . Plots and subplots meandered over several episodes instead of being neatly resolved in sixty minutes. Brinkley understood the differences and was pragmatic about them. “We try to be as accurate medically as we can,” he insisted in 1985. “We try to be as impressive dramatically as we can. We aren’t kidding ourselves . We are a lighter show than St. Elsewhere. We aren’t doing the nitty-gritty aspect of it that they’re doing. By the same token, we’re not quite as ›orid and lurid as they. “We don’t have rapists being shot in the balls [as St. Elsewhere had]. We don’t have that sort of thing, we just don’t do it. Ours is a more romantic look at the hospital; our walls are cleaner than theirs. We’re a little more reassuring to the audience than they are. And we’re considerably more popular than they are, and that’s why.” The tension in his voice and the conviction in his manner re›ected a personal wound. But Brinkley was also mirroring one approach to a 292 | PLAYING DOCTOR question rumbling through the corridors of power at networks and production companies, including the ones where St. Elsewhere was ‹lmed. How far should doctor shows of the 1980s depart from television’s traditional look at physicians, hospitals, and patients’ life and death? The different answers the creators of Trapper John and St. Elsewhere came up with re›ected a variety of differences: generational differences among the creators, differences in...


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