The first scene of The Resident sets you up for a new kind of medical drama. Dr. Randolph Bell (Bruce Greenwood) is operating on a patient, a routine appendectomy. Bell’s the Chief of Surgery, such a local celebrity that his face hovers several stories tall on the side of the hospital. The other surgeon, starstruck, asks a nurse to take his picture, posing while Bell’s got his hands in somebody’s abdomen.
The Chief has a secret, though everyone who works in the hospital seems to know about it. His body’s starting to let him down; dismissive younger surgeons have nicknamed him HODAD, “Hands of Death and Destruction.” The hands shake, blood spurts upwards in a Kill Bill fountain, and the patient loses a lot more than an appendix. Everyone knows precisely what happened—a brilliant surgeon hit an artery during an appendectomy—and who’s to blame. But Dr. Bell quietly coaches his team towards a coverup: Some family history of heart disease, a sudden cardiac event, an unpreventable accident. The camera catches Dr. Bell walking away from his patient, leaving bloody footprints behind.
The Resident cleverly digs into the pleasant TV myth of the crusading doctors who care and uncovers an industry built on paranoia, malpractice, the almighty dollar. “Medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States,” says a nurse named Nic (Emily VanCamp), who also reminds us, “Oncologists make a huge profit from the drugs they prescribe.” In a later episode, a major hospital executive describes cancer as “our number one revenue stream.”
That line could’ve come from a bleak medical satire, or a David Simon show. And co-creators Amy Holden Jones, Haley Schore, and Roshan Sethi have an ideal performer in Bruce Greenwood, who still looks as handsome as the Kennedy he played, but is old enough to to capture Bell’s rotting-from-within desperation. He vainly scrubs into a pioneering medical procedure involving a robotic surgical tool. When Dr. Mina Okafor (Shaunette Renée Wilson) declares him unfit for the surgery—because he’s never used the tool before—he threatens her immigration status, taunts her with a reminder of “the political unrest” in her native Nigeria. (She ultimately winds up performing the surgery, but everyone thinks it was Bell: An act of phony mentorship that’s really a stunningly brutal act of talent appropriation, the older white-dude doctor rendering his immigrant apprentice silent.)
In the real world, most of this American decade has turned on hysterical debates about health and money. Greenwood makes Bell a symbol for some greater moral rot within the medical trade. Listen how he responds when challenged on the pace of his surgeries. “I’ve billed over 35 million dollars in the last 14 months,” he says, those metrics rolling off his tongue so quickly you can tell he’s practiced in the mirror. The Resident has a running fascination with Yelp ratings, all the surgeons in the breakroom swapping customer reviews. One of Bell’s five-star compliments reads: “McDreamy is real!” But it’s implied that Bell writes all his own reviews: This doctor’s only as good as his hype.
But what we have here is really two shows in one. There’s that dark, fascinating portrait of the modern hospital. And then there’s the much more standard, dispiritingly regular drama about a cool doctor with eleven o’clock shadow, telling it like it is, and playing by guess-who’s rules. The titular resident is Conrad Hawkins (Matt Czuchry), prone to saying things like “Everything you thought you knew about medicine is wrong!” and “I have only one rule, covers anything: I’m never wrong.”
He never is. Conrad’s the definitive doucheboat, all flirtatious mansplaining and in-your-face truthbombing. In the pilot, he takes new intern Dr. Devon Pravesh (Manish Dayal) under his wing, his tutorial essentially a neverending tough-love hazing process. “Stick your hand up his ass,” he commands Devon when they visit their first patient. Actually, from what I’ve seen, The Resident has what I choose to call a Butt Motif. The C-plot of episode 2 involves buckshot fired where the sun don’t shine. And in another episode, a frequent patient returns to the hospital with a recurrence of polyembolokoilamania. Look it up, or don’t: The Resident provides x-rays!
It’s a little adolescent. You feel the show itself pulling back from its darkest ideas, settling for boilerplate network-drama style, reassembling the same myths it just got done exploding. Czuchry’s an immensely charming screen presence, but he’s tasked with playing Maverick from Top Gun here, trapped in the eternal inner turmoil of being the best of the best. Because Czuchry is so obviously a hero, Greenwood gets pushed to a cartoonish extreme of villainy. In the second episode, Bell literally steals a heart from Conrad—a donor organ that was destined for a kind schoolteacher Conrad has befriended. (In bad-guy terms, we’re in Mortal Kombat Finishing Move territory.) Conrad’s act feels like such a pose: He’s a nice guy deep down, and even his ex Nic hypes his talent. If Freddie Highmore is The Good Doctor, here’s The Bad Doctor, But “Bad” Like ’80s Bad, Like Not Actually Bad At All. Still a better title than The Resident!
There’s some real energy here. Wilson, who will soon appear in Black Panther, holds your attention playing an ambitious doctor with zero bedside manner. (Conrad’s noble; she’s no-bull.) And Melina Kanakaredes matches Greenwood’s moral-compromise charisma as an oncologist who mainly views patients as willing subjects in lucrative medical experiments. An episode later in the season stages a multiple-surgery disaster with Bourne Identity flair. I like this show more than Highmore’s hit medical drama, but it’s a messier prospect, a deconstruction of doctor-drama swagger that also wants to make a hero out of its swaggering, dramatic doctor.