The eight-part miniseries immerses viewers in a massive Manhattan medical operation and in the lives of four doctors
June 9, 2020 5:52 PM
Dr. David Langer (centre), in his natural habitat. Stephanie Keith/Netflix
I’m not sure there’s any ground left to be broken in vérité documentary filmmaking. It’s all about making the best use of the format as it exists and relying on the viewer’s understanding of editorial language to assemble the narrative as it develops. When it’s done well, you feel like you’re right there in the middle of the action. Lenox Hill does it very, very well.
Directed by Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz, who’ve built a career making medical docs for Israeli television, Netflix’s new documentary miniseries drops us into the eponymous Manhattan medical operation, which runs a surgical hospital on the Upper East Side and an emergency room in Greenwich Village. (The show was shot in 2018 and 2019, well before coronavirus surged through New York City.)
The series follows four doctors: John Boockvar and David Langer, neurosurgeons on the cutting edge of cancer care; chief OB/GYN resident Amanda Little-Richardson, who delivers babies while coping with her own complicated pregnancy; and ER physician Mirtha Macri, who functions as both doctor and counsellor for the disadvantaged and marginalized people of Lower Manhattan.
All four are vivid personalities, and the show explores their contrasts in interesting ways: the nature of Little-Richardson and Macri’s jobs requires both women to minister to people in extreme pain or distress, and their bedside manners say a great deal about the respect and sympathy they have for their various patients.
In the surgical suites, Boockvar has the swagger of a rock star, powering confidently through consultations and surgeries and spearheading clinical trials that might someday save untold thousands of lives, while Langer is more cautious and emotionally open, spending enough time with people to develop attachments – which, he worries, might endanger his objectivity when it comes to opening up their skulls for a risky procedure.
Those patients aren’t just glimpsed and forgotten, either. A number of them appear in multiple episodes, their individual stories stretching over weeks or months, with heart-wrenching setbacks and triumphant resolutions. (Not all of the show’s journeys turn out for the best, however, so don’t go in expecting a relentlessly upbeat portrait of the American medical system.)
The storytelling is clean and fleet, Barash and Shatz presenting everyone who enters the frame as fully dimensional human beings, flawed but striving. They also understand exactly what drops into their laps when another member of the hospital staff gets a devastating diagnosis halfway through the series, shattering the veil of professional detachment and making Lenox Hill feel painfully, personally real.