You're driving along at eighty miles per hour when suddenly, a truck swerves into your lane. Before you know it, you are through the windshield, caterwauling through the air and all too quickly, into the ground. What happens next depends on what country you're in, and in what year.
If you're lucky enough to be on the 2003 American TV show ER, the next few hours of your life will be filled with long single take camera shots of attractive young doctors slamming on your chest. If you are injured in 2015 Britain however, you will be a part of a new television drama, Critical. Like ER, Critical follows a team of doctors and nurses as they treat critically injured trauma victims. Unlike ER however, they are doing it in the environment of Britain's solution to universal healthcare, the NHS. Their primary adversary is therefore not the looming specter of death, but the ever more formidable pall of governmental bureaucracy.
Critical actors are not divided into doctors and nurses. There are anesthesia technicians, machine operators, floor supervisors, and a dozen other roles which I am not entirely certain of. In truth, the actors may not be so sure themselves, as they primarily just... stand and watch. Like a little studio audience made up of enscrubbed extras.
In all dramas there must be conflict. For ER it was a battle between doctors and death. For Critical, it is a battle between a pair of passionate doctors, and the bureaucracy which threatens their ability to properly care for the sick. Hospital surgeons refuse to attend traumas because it is simply not done. Doctors can't order blood fast enough because the hospital hematologists want to be petted first. The drama for a scene in which a trainee cracks open a patients chest to remove a knife from his heart is found more in the threat of dismissal than in that of death. There is continual concern for covering one's ass, doing the proper procedure and getting the right nods. And it's strangely watchable.
It's through this that Critical transcends the emergency room procedural blueprint and becomes a sharp social commentary. To this American viewer it is making a statement that work in an Emergency department is not what it was a decade ago. The life and death struggle of yesteryear has been replaced with procedure and what's left is a fight for freedom against a nationalized system with a hundred billion pound budget which employs nearly every physician in Britain.
The benefits of this system are equally obvious. Every technician wears a badge identifying their job (in a cryptic medical code). Each medication is verbally checked before being administered. The surgical staff takes the time to do a role call and confirm the identity of the patient even in the compressed time-scale of television. Clearly the structure of the NHS helps to prevent minor errors. Like many process-based systems though, we are left to conclude it might prevent the stars from being able to push boundaries to save a patient.
People desperately trying to save lives is entertaining television. That was true with ER, and it's true now. How invested am I in the drama of bureaucracy? I have to admit that as an American who can safely hide behind our own unique brand of medical dysfunction, I can say it's oddly fascinating. I can't speak to it's ultimate cultural significance, but as a show it doesn't have any major flaws. Combined with the off-season status of virtually every 'summer action hit', we're left with Critical as one of the few adrenaline-fueled shows on television right now, creating a welcome reprieve from the longer-form intellectual dramas which have become so popular.