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The TV medical drama will always have the basic friction between a job that viewers are inclined to admire and a central location where viewers will do anything possible to avoid spending time. Even the celebration of medical professionals instigated by the early stages of the COVID pandemic hasn’t shifted a landscape in which “doctor” remains one of Peak TV’s most underserved occupations.
This Is Going to Hurt, which is airing on AMC+ and Sundance Now after making its debut on BBC One, is one of the best medical dramas to hit the small screen in years. It’s an emotionally complex and uneasily hilarious examination of the U.K.’s National Health Service and a prickly character study played with a rich disinterest in likability by Ben Whishaw.
This Is Going to Hurt
Airdate: Thursday, June 2 (AMC+ and Sundance Now)
Cast: Ben Whishaw, Ambika Mod, Michele Austin, Alex Jennings, Kadiff Kirwan, Ashley McGuire, Harriet Walter, Rory Fleck Byrne, Tom Durant-Pritchard
Creator: Adam Kay
The seven-episode series has much to recommend it. At the same time, however, the sheer number of initially curious viewers whose tolerance for graphic C-sections, various pieces of prolapsed anatomy and just generally jeopardized pregnancies will be tested within the first five minutes must be acknowledged.
Our imperfect hero is Whishaw’s Adam Kay, a junior doctor working obstetrics and gynecology — “Brats & Twats,” he dubs it — at an overcrowded, underfunded NHS hospital in London. The series was adapted by Kay from his memoir of the same title and whether it’s his version of himself or Whishaw’s interpretation, This Is Going to Hurt is unflinching.
Whishaw’s Adam is an effective and dedicated doctor, too often to the exclusion of anything human. He’s always working and never sleeping, and he has become a ghost of a boyfriend to good-natured Harry (Rory Fleck Byrne, making impossible decency thoroughly believable), an increasingly hostile son to his withholding mother (Harriet Walter) and a terse and evasive mentor to wide-eyed newbie Shruti (Ambika Mod), who idolizes Adam until she begins to realize she shouldn’t.
Adam is gifted and committed and, as the show never denies, dangerous even if the threat he poses to his patients is a product of a broken system, often embodied by his patrician boss, Nigel Lockhart (Alex Jennings).
As a writer, Kay confidently mixes procedural elements with serialized drama, much of it set into motion by failures of judgement in the premiere that force Adam and Shruti both into administrative and psychological spirals. For domestic viewers worried about understanding the ins and outs of the NHS and British ambivalence about the system at large, Kay handles bureaucratic jargon as well as the medical, relying on the milieu to keep the stakes generally high and maintaining them through the characters’ individual personal struggles.
Each episode features a new assortment of distressing and nerve-wracking arrivals at the hospital, and because of Adam’s specialty, that means a nonstop run of women and babies in peril, whether from medical conditions, breaches of different sorts or external factors like abusive spouses. And that’s before getting into frequently insufficient on-call doctors, inconsistent technology and vast gaps in resources between private and public facilities.
The cases and the decisions they incite are complex and it’s very rare that any one decision or any one character is doing something wholly noble, to the point where anybody who has ever had a baby, is thinking of having a baby, was a baby or has ever set foot in a hospital will be frequently looking away in discomfort.
There’s a level on which the female victim-of-the-week structure becomes unsettlingly repetitive and bordering on gynophobic, since the show’s empathy tends to be with women as a patient class, rather than as people. It’s here that it’s incumbent upon the show, then, to do right by its regular female characters.
It’s up to the performances by Ashley MaGuire, a blast as a take-no-shit consulting physician, and Michele Austin, as a midwife and frequent voice of reason, to push past thin characterizations. Mod is even better than that, making Shruti’s earnest fragility into the show’s true heart. But some of the series’ choices make her more trope than human, more an enabler for Adam’s journey than her own.
The first thing that needs to be said about Whishaw’s performance, a point I’ve probably buried while accentuating the watch-through-clenched-fingers aspects of the show, is that he’s extraordinarily funny. Adam, who has the power of direct address to the camera, has a lot of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag in him, in that his self-flagellation and neuroses build an aura of constant tension even if his intentions are rarely malignant. But it becomes a very different thing when such a character has life-and-death responsibilities.
You can laugh at Adam’s lack of bedside manner, and Whishaw’s gift for withering scorn is impeccable. He’s as hostile toward the people who deserve it — Jennings and Walter expertly elevate their elitist straw men — as he is to innocents. This Is Going to Hurt is at its best when you’re laughing one moment and feeling personally assaulted the next.
This sensation will not be for everybody, but Whishaw gives the character’s steady descent just the right mixture of gravity and levity. It’s notable that both of the series’ directors — Lucy Forbes and then Tom Kingsley — have backgrounds in comedy, dark comedy to be specific, because when you’re dealing with babies at risk for 45 minutes at a time, the bleak stuff will speak for itself, and you need storytellers and stars capable of spotlighting some underlying buoyancy.
Episode-by-episode, This Is Going to Hurt is involving, and I found myself snorting with amusement one scene and completely disturbed the next. Without loving some of the contrivances it took to get there, the finale is a cumulative mixture of thoughtful, hopeful and traumatic. It’s been a while since an American hospital show did so well.
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