Judge Jim Thomas has a highly variable tan.
Back in the early Seventies, two medical shows stood out above all the rest: Marcus Welby, M.D., which focused on an older doctor's family practice, and Medical Center, which focused on a state-of-the-art university hospital. Football players, student activists, ambassadors, and more all made their way to Medical Center over the course of seven seasons. It was a show we watched a lot when I was growing up, so I was interested to see how the show had aged. Answer: Not particularly well.
Our main character is Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett, Airplane II), one of the top surgeons in the hospital. He is young, ruggedly good-looking, and rarely if ever wrong. Because of his infallibility, he is constantly running afoul of other doctors, administrators, the U.S. Army, and more than a few irate parents. That's where Dr. Paul Lochner (James Daly, Planet of the Apes), the hospital chief of staff, comes into play. And boy, do these guys have their share of problems. The head of surgery may be knife-happy, a runaway refuses to seek parental permission for a life-saving procedure, a researcher ignores the side effects of his miracle cure for Hodgkin's disease, a married minor student comes down with an STD. You name it, it's probably gonna happen at Medical Center.
One of the more engaging things about the show is that it isn't afraid to address controversial (for the time) subjects. Privacy issues, medical ethics, child abuse; by God, this show was going to confront it. In 1971, to argue that it might not be the best idea to let the parents know that their underage daughter had contracted an STD is heady stuff. Of course, the show handles these in an over-simplified, borderline condescending manner, but you know, baby steps.
The biggest problem with the series is the pacing. We're accustomed to having multiple storylines woven into a single episode; here we get a single plot per episode, and unless you get the sort of complications that make an Agatha Christie fan weep with envy, you tend to get a lot of repetition. In one episode, Gannon and Dr, Farrell, the newly appointed chief of surgery (John Marley, who woke up with a horse's head in The Godfather), disagree about a patient's recurring ulcers: Gannon suspects a pancreatic tumor might be causing the ulcers, but has no real proof, while Farrell—whom Gannon suspects is knife-happy—wants to just go in and fix the ulcer. They have the same argument no less than four times during the episode, the final one during surgery with the patient cut open in front of them. The situation is only resolved when Farrell—more to shit Gannon up than anything else, decides to remove part of the patient's pancreas (Gannon, of course, is correct). Without even a B-plot of help with the pacing, things naturally tend towards the melodramatic in the final acts—it's only by artificially ratcheting up the tension that any semblance of interest can be maintained. You could probably edit 20-25 minutes out of each episode and not suffer any real narrative loss.
If there's one aspect of the show that dates it—beyond the wardrobe, of course—it's the condescending attitude towards women—odd for such an issue-driven show. In "The Adversaries," two interns, one male, one female, vie for a single residency position; the guy starts sabotaging the woman's patients—switching EKG leads when no one is looking, for example. He then turns on his masculine charm, at which point, despite being initially characterized as brilliant and dedicated, the woman turns into a helpless blob of estrogen, professing her love for him and covering for him. Even when it should be obvious what the guy's doing, she stands by her man; it is—of course—Gannon who figures out what is going on. Making matters worse, in the episode's tag, Gannon and Lochner blithely talk about well, maybe the woman will be OK, but we're pretty sure that the male guy, now that he's learned a valuable lesson about humility (and resigned in disgrace), may make a good doctor after all. That condescending attitude is fairly consistent—when Lochner's grown daughter asks Gannon to give her a physical, he gives Lochner the diagnosis while keeping it from the daughter—so as not to upset her pretty little head.
Acting is quite good; it helps that you have a lot of good actors early in their careers—Ed Asner as a football coach, Tyne Daly as Lochner's daughter, Robert Lansing as a concerned parent. You've got a veritable who's who: Walter Pidgeon, Cicely Tyson, William Shatner, Martin Sheen, Mercedes McCambridge, Richard Thomas…well, OK, Shatner is in full "I must. Pause. unexpectedly. To keep them. On their. TOES!" mode, but he can make that schtick work, more or less.
The technical aspects work in the disc's favor as well. Warner Archive is getting pretty good at restoring these old shows. Video is crisp and clean enough that you can clearly see the border of Shatner's hairpiece. Colors are strong and vivid, though perhaps oversaturated. Flesh tones are slightly inconsistent—the problem is most noticeable with regards to Gannon's tan, which during an episode can range from "Freeway Bold" to "I Fell Asleep in a Nuclear Reactor." Minor film damage remains here and there, but not enough to distract. Audio is clear, though some episodes suffer from leveling problems.
Because this set is produced on recordable medium, it may not play on every playback device. Sometimes, the audio did not come up immediately; in most cases, reinserting the disc solved the problem. That problem only occurs on my Blu-Ray player; it plays fine on standard DVD players. Towards the end of the Shatner episode ("The Combatants"), the image freezes at the 43:33 mark. This problem seems to be a duplication issue, as it happens consistently on multiple playback devices.
Hindsight gives the premiere episode this unearthly prescient vibe—OJ Simpson, in his first big role, tells his wife that he'll kill her.
Note: The show's pilot, a TV movie titled U.M.C., is also available through Warner Archive. The basics are the same, but the cast is a little different, with Richard Bradford (The Untouchables) playing Gannon.
Medical Center is an interesting artifact of an 1970s issues-driven show. Watching it gives you a better sense of just how far television writing has progressed in the past forty years.
A shaky not guilty, but the court would like to see the patient in a season or two and see if it has learned from its mistakes.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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