'New Amsterdam': TV Review

Less awful than awfully derivative.
9/25/2018

An NBC drama about how the American medical system needs to be overhauled. Sound familiar? It is!

For both of the two episodes New Amsterdam sent to critics, Dr. Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold) walks the hallways of New York City's oldest public hospital asking anybody who will listen — surgeons, nurses, custodians — a simple question: How can I help?

Max's grand inspiration, as the newest medical director at fictional New Amsterdam Hospital, is that after years of medicine driven by the bottom line, he wants to put patients first. This is not a huge inspiration, mind you, so his secondary inspiration is to, as the face of hospital bureaucracy, actually use that bureaucracy to assist caregivers through the power of crowdsourcing.

New Amsterdam really isn't awful, at least not in terms of its basic execution. Some of the performances are quite good and the possibilities for story are limitless.

Unfortunately, while NBC states that New Amsterdam is based in some part on Dr. Eric Manheimer’s memoir Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, instead it feels creatively crowdsourced. It comes across not as an authentic take on institutional medicine in 2018, but like somebody walked the halls at 30 Rock asking anyone who would listen — executives, pages, Jimmy Fallon — a not-so-simple question: How can I make a medical drama everybody will like?

As crafted by David Schulner, the New Amsterdam Hospital is pretty much all things to all people, or at least all plotlines. It has a prison ward, a public school, facilities to treat visitors from the nearby United Nations and its very own courtroom. It's an astounding enterprise, and yet it's apparently mired in such chaos that the job as hospital medical director is virtually impossible to fill or to keep filled.

Max is the fifth medical director in five years, and he's coming from a five-year tenure running a clinic in Chinatown. He wasn't the top choice for the job and, if we're being perfectly frank, more than a few viewers are going to have an easy time diagnosing why he's actually a horrible fit for the job. It isn't just that he comes with no real ideas other than asking people how he can help — like how Teddy Ruxpin is always asking if you can be friends, but then never wants to hang out when you're available. Max has a pregnant wife whom he keeps lying to and telling he's going to put first, even though we know he never will, in a trait the show finds perplexingly charming. He's also a bad fit for reasons that are introduced at the end of the pilot in the superfluous high-stakes-drama equivalent of putting a hat on a hat.

It's strange how Max is introduced promising Spanish-speaking nurses and janitors that he'll help them as well, but through two episodes no nurse or janitor has a regular speaking part and yet Max is constantly rewarded for his ability to speak rudimentary Spanish. I don't think Schulner and the other producers think of Max as being a white savior, and yet that's constantly the position he's put in. For all of this, I think that Eggold would cut a sufficiently sympathetic and conflicted figure if the show around him were clearer in recognizing his flaws. Crowdsourcing should have mentioned Shaun "The Good Doctor" Murphy and Gregory "House" House as examples of shows with better awareness of their protagonist's weaknesses and strengths.

Oh and nobody's ever watched a medical drama thinking, "Geez, I wish I could get treatment from a facility that administrator is overseeing." 

Directed by Kate Dennis as an energetic series of walk-and-talks, New Amsterdam finds Max determined to wedge himself into the active doctors' storylines, even if he doesn't add anything other than a sympathetic ear, a pained expression and occasional pressure on an open wound. He's trying to get Dr. Helen Sharpe (Freema Agyeman) back into the operating room, when the head of oncology prefers to be on a perpetual media and talking tour promoting the hospital.

Max hovers around whatever is happening with Dr. Vijay Kapoor (Anupam Kher), the hospital's head of neurology, and Dr. Iggy Frome (Tyler Labine), head of psychology. He's even on the periphery as Dr. Laura Bloom (Janet Montgomery) and Dr. Floyd Pearson (Jocko Sims) flirt in their own, largely separate, medical soap opera, which isn't very good but must have been in response to crowdsourcing the timeless appeal of young doctors in love.

Yes, today's hospitals may overcharge and they may have embarrassingly bad food and maybe everything would be better if we treated each patient as an individual, but what I got from the two episodes I watched is that nothing is so broken that it can't be fixed through a high-emotion musical montage in the final seven minutes. One of those montages is even set to "Fix You," a tactic I'm afraid may need to be criminalized right after I take action on the show's use of "I Feel Good" for a starting-the-day wake-up song.

While not as conspicuous an example of a show clearly focusing on the wrong characters as NBC's Manifest, New Amsterdam puts Eggold in the position of being constantly upstaged by his co-stars because they're the ones with characters who are actively doing things. Agyeman offers the most egregious "Wait, why isn't this show about her?" regret, as Helen has a more nuanced, subtle backstory than Max, and because the Torchwood (and The Carrie Diaries) veteran is effectively conflicted, without the pandering the show does on Max's behalf. A perfect version of New Amsterdam might have Agyeman at the center of the show, with support from her Sens8 co-star Kher and Labine, continuing a surprisingly welcome shift from sitcom shenanigans to ensemble drama gravitas, since Kapoor and Frome's pairing in the second episode was perhaps my favorite part of the show thus far.

New Amsterdam is less glibly cynical than Fox's The Resident and less wholly forgettable than CBS' Pure Genius, yet it has many similar "Here's what's wrong with medicine today!" DNA strands. Without looking at my notes from episodes I watched a day ago, I couldn't tell you specifics about any of the cases our team of intrepid doctors solved. One involved Ebola. One featured an overmedicated kid. Nothing in medical methodology or narrative approach stood out. It doesn't do much good having a hospital in which basically every permutation of medical case is possible if every case feels like a pale imitation of something that worked on another medical show.

New Amsterdam, how can I help?

Cast: Ryan Eggold, Freema Agyeman, Janet Montgomery, Jocko Sims, Anupam Kher and Tyler Labine
Creator: David Schulner
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)