'Lenox Hill': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Emotionally effective, but oddly limiting in its casting choices.
6/10/2020

Netflix's eight-episode docuseries about four physicians at NYC's Lenox Hill Hospital illustrates that doctors were heroic even before the coronavirus.

Netflix's new medical documentary series Lenox Hill is an earnest and well-meaning effort on all levels, one originally made without any cynicism at all.

The cynicism comes into play now — in how the series, shot mostly in 2018, will inevitably get more attention because of the coronavirus crisis and our moment of public recognition of the heroism of doctors. As if it's revelatory to show that doctors were heroic even before this spring.

Without denying flaws in the American medical system, Lenox Hill aims to inspire, and the eight-episode first season ends up more emotionally nourishing than intellectually satisfying — not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that.

Directors Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash spent a year following four doctors at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital. The subjects are David and John, bigwigs in the hospital's expanding neurosurgery department, plus ER physician Mirtha and OBGYN resident Amanda.

There are always myriad behind-the-scenes explanations for how a documentary like this ends up with the subjects it focuses on, and I'd be curious to hear the logic used in Lenox Hill. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these four subjects, who express a reasonable amount of candor and give the filmmakers impressive access, right down to uncomfortable patient conversations and the gory realities of the operating room. I've just rarely seen a documentary intended as fly-on-the-wall observational that made its storytelling and themes as manifestly predictable via the sheer act of casting.

John and David are white men at the pinnacle of their profession, innovators and rainmakers. David, chair of the department, built Lenox Hill's neurology practice from practically nothing into a position of strength, and has a slew of administrative concerns that you can imagine interested the directors when they started (they clearly either lost interest or access). They're both confident to the point of cockiness, driven by the deaths of their respective fathers and have families that you sense have taken a backseat for decades. They're all ambition.

If that's how medicine is practiced by established and powerful white men of privilege, it's left to Amanda and Mirtha to embody almost everything else — within a very restricted scope, since the documentary's two female stars (and its two people of color) are both pregnant and that comes to dominate their respective stories. To have families, John and David need to periodically stop in and wave at their endlessly patient wives or take their boys fishing. To have families, Amanda and Mirtha have to be prepared to put their careers on hold, to face judgment from their spouses and peers if they decide to begin maternity leave too early or to return to work too soon. If they feel outrage about this, they don't express it, and if the filmmakers see a problem in this, they leave it for viewers to draw their own conclusion.

The casting choices determine the stories Lenox Hill can tell and what its arcs have to be. Mirtha and Amanda's arcs have to be about their respective pregnancies, the emotions coming from each ultrasound, from potential complications, from their personal choices. When it comes to their professional lives, they encounter a revolving door of patients. It happens that Amanda and Mirtha are both excellent at articulating the complications of their jobs, with Amanda aware of disturbing maternal morbidity rates among black women and Mirtha working through the frustrations that come from ER patients, generally poorer and plagued by addictions and untreated chronic ailments.

By their nature, the patients come and go and they only sometimes illustrate the points Mirtha and Amanda want to make, leaving no room at all for them (or anybody) to express any real or sustained anger at systemic inequities in American healthcare. What's serialized, and therefore what stands out, are their pregnancies.

John and David, though, have long-term patients and so they get professional story arcs that stretch full episodes or, in some cases, over the entire season. Their personal lives are nearly irrelevant; instead we see them make courageous medical decisions and get torn apart by the fates of people they've been treating for months. They perform surgeries. They order tests. They take big risks. They offer wise counsel. And they even find time to cross-train (Amanda, meanwhile, complains that she can't find time to reach her basic fitness goals). The show is structured to make you invest in the men as doctors, while our main concerns about Amanda and Mirtha inevitably revolve around their pregnancies (and resolve to work around them).

I'm fairly sure that for the directors, the contrasts is intentional, and they'd characterize it as reflecting a specific professional gender divide rather than reinforcing it. The effect is nevertheless limiting and limited. When one of John and David's colleagues is diagnosed with cancer himself, I sure wanted to spend more time on that development, and I'd guess the directors did as well. But that sort of personal and emotional story involving one of the male doctors would have felt like an outlier, just as one is left to imagine a female doctor with no interest in having kids. (That said, it seems plausible that Amanda's pregnancy caught the directors by surprise and that they started following her anticipating a different female perspective on the profession.)

Nobody expects a show like this to capture every kind of doctor or medical experience, but the casting makes this narrower than most. And that's without getting into more predictable sources of myopia, like how reliably medical snapshots like this erase nurses from the picture entirely.

But yes, doctors are heroic and they were heroic even before our current global pandemic. I'm not sure you'll find that side of Lenox Hill revelatory, but it's true. Especially in the extended neurosurgery cases that stretch across the season, you'll find yourself investing deeply in the fates of several patients. You'll care about Mitzie, a cop from Tennessee whose post-stroke memory lapses give the documentary its only mention of Donald Trump. Or Chris, a Grateful Dead fan whose wife Laura exhibits a caretaking heroism the series barely acknowledges. You'll hold your breath through graphic brain surgeries and cross your fingers for pivotal lab results.

And this probably isn't the moment when most viewers are going to quibble about the distinction between these doctors being remarkable and the documentary revolving around them being only OK.

Premieres Wednesday, June 10, on Netflix