'Transplant': TV Review

Transplant - Publicity - H 2020
Fabrice Gaetan/Sphere Media/NBC
A strong lead character elevates this above-average procedural.
9/1/2020

NBC's new medical drama, a smash hit in Canada, stars Hamza Haq as a Syrian refugee who gets a job at a Toronto hospital.

NBC's Transplant, a very Canadian drama transplanted to American TV in this temporarily anemic programming moment, is the story of a Syrian refugee working in a Toronto emergency room. That doctor, you see, is the transplant. Period and full-stop.

Had Transplant been developed for American TV, you can safely guarantee that not only would he be a Syrian refugee, but his medical specialty would be transplant surgery. Yes, it's a hat-on-a-hat, but it's also another attempted layer.

Simplicity, it turns out, is the biggest thing Transplant has going for it. It's not a hugely innovative or adventurous medical drama, but it plays the familiar beats solidly. What the series, created by Joseph Kay, understands is that if you have a good character or two, audiences will embrace an otherwise by-the-numbers medical procedural. Transplant has that and is that.

Our hero is Bashir Hamed (Hamza Haq), introduced working the kitchen at a restaurant in Toronto. When a truck barrels into the restaurant, Bashir quickly goes into action to perform triage on the survivors as we discover that he's more than just a normal line cook. The usual medical procedural of this type would prove Bashir's mettle by having him perform a field tracheotomy or something similarly rudimentary, but Bashir is much more versatile than that, performing an assortment of semi-improvised surgeries and probably saving a couple lives.

Hurt himself, Bashir is taken to York Memorial Hospital and spends a lot of time ducking cops who assume he might be a suspect in the accident, while checking up on the restaurant patrons, one of whom happened to be Dr. Jed Bishop (John Hannah), the hospital's emergency head. The other doctors at the hospital, including intense Magalie Leblanc (Laurence Leboeuf), tough June Curtis (Ayisha Issa) and religious family man Theo Hunter (Jim Watson), are perplexed by this bleeding man who keeps poking in on patients, but they can soon tell that he's not your average bleeding man.

If Transplant is generally fine, the Transplant pilot, written by Kay and directed with an assured hand by Holly Dale, is especially good. The accident and Bashir's makeshift surgeries are intense and just gross enough, while his contrived efforts to roam the hospital — his refusal to stay put is so shady that it barely seems xenophobic when the cops begin to suspect him — allow for opportunities at character development. Subsequent episodes become more run-of-the-mill, because Bashir is a trained doctor back in Syria and he's soon working at York in a much more conventional capacity.

Fortunately, Transplant remains interested in Bashir as a character and doesn't just let him blend into an ensemble. He's a semi-practicing Muslim, which becomes relevant here and there. He's haunted by flashbacks to things he did in the field in Syria, experiences that gave him opportunities to think on his feet and work with atypical resources, but don't always prepare him to follow rules or the chain of command.

He is, in short, an interesting main character, and the complications related to the character aren't limited to immigration issues, personal trauma or even the occasional ongoing saga back in Syria. Haq, whose actual background is Pakistani by way of Saudi Arabia by way of Canada, is a solid leading man, giving Bashir a frazzled soulfulness, but never making him saintly. He has a very sweet dynamic with Sirena Gulamgaus, as his younger sister, infusing the show with welcome heart.

None of the other characters is as nuanced or notable as Bashir, but they're reasonably well-defined in a reasonable hurry. Hannah, the cast's most recognizable piece for American audiences, is the early standout in a gruff-yet-caring turn that quickly makes the case that, in a world without Hugh Laurie, John Hannah could have been a very fine Dr. House (plus he gets to keep his Scottish accent here). Leboeuf, Issa and Watson are all likable, but still feel supporting enough that through the five episodes sent to American critics, I was minorly resentful any time their characters were given a featured arc without Bashir.

In the hospital, the episodic plots are basic stuff, often with so much case-to-case thematic overlap that I half expected the doctors to be able to recognize it and say things like, "Man, what a weird coincidence that all of today's cases are testing our individual moral standards?" There's also heavy reliance on that House trope of a loved one bringing in a patient, only to have the loved one be the one with the actual medical mystery.

Still, there's comfort in the rhythms of the medical procedural and substance in the character of Bashir — and in a fall in which the broadcast drama slate is populated mostly by mediocre acquisitions and dismal holdovers from last midseason, there's value to an above average new show like Transplant.

Cast: Hamza Haq, Laurence Leboeuf, John Hannah, Jim Watson and Ayisha Issa

Creator: Joseph Kay

Airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC premiering on September 1.