EmptyThe one thing that's undeniable about nonfiction television is this: Once you put a camera into the equation, behavior automatically changes. You can say all you want about people forgetting the camera is there, but that's simply never 100% true. But watching the riveting "Hopkins," a new documentary series from ABC News about life inside the trauma unit of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital, you get the feeling that this is about as close as we're ever going to get to truly capturing a measure of unfettered honesty in a primetime medium that typically wields manipulation like a machete.
As a follow-up to the groundbreaking summer series "Hopkins 24/7" that ran nearly eight years ago, this revisit to the medical center is, if anything, even more grounded in authenticity and honesty, even if it sometimes feels compelled to pile on the soapy elements. This still is network TV, after all.
The administration at Johns Hopkins reportedly granted ABC News' cameras huge access to its meeting rooms, lobbies, surgical theaters and inner sanctum, not to mention the lives of the caregivers and patients. The resulting six-parter was culled from about 1,500 hours of raw footage shot over four months, capturing the momentous and the mundane, the personal and the private. Do we really need to know that one of the docs has a troubled marriage on the verge of collapse? No. But it doesn't necessarily detract from the medical focus, either. It offers an agreeable mix of crises, travails and the sort of everyday difficulties inherent in trying to be a medical professional and a fully formed human being struggling to stay physically and psychologically afloat on two hours' sleep.
In the opening few hours, we meet a soft-spoken guy with a brain tumor who has been abandoned by his children; a Latino doc from a migrant farm worker family who rose from the dust to become a neurosurgeon; and a young cardiac surgeon whose home life is disintegrating. There's the wrenching struggle with life-and-death decisions that are presented here as ordinary days at the office — because for these folks, that's the truth. The portraits of those on camera play as unusually intimate and engrossing, presented without narration (though the dramatic music subs for that) and interweaving the personal glimpses cinema verite style.
To be sure, part of the focus is on how integrated Hopkins has grown since the last time the ABC News crews invaded the antiseptic halls. There are Latino and black doctors who exist as a healthy part of the mix, and we're told that about 20% of incoming surgical residents are women — as is the chief of surgery. But "Hopkins" captures these factoids only in passing. Its spotlight shines primarily on the everyday drama of life inside the world of repairing battered and diseased bodies and the living, breathing people who sacrifice their own lives to do it. It's heartening to see doctors as heroes again instead of mere HMO-shackled malpractice targets.