6:45 AM PDT 6/9/2020
by Daniel Fienberg
Courtesy of Netflix
Netflix's eight-episode docuseries about four physicians at NYC's Lenox Hill Hospital illustrates that doctors were heroic even before the coronavirus.
Netflix's new medical documentary series Lenox Hill is an earnest and well-meaning effort on all levels, one originally made without any cynicism at all.
The cynicism comes into play now — in how the series, shot mostly in 2018, will inevitably get more attention because of the coronavirus crisis and our moment of public recognition of the heroism of doctors. As if it's revelatory to show that doctors were heroic even before this spring.
Without denying flaws in the American medical system, Lenox Hill aims to inspire, and the eight-episode first season ends up more emotionally nourishing than intellectually satisfying — not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that.
Directors Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash spent a year following four doctors at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital. The subjects are David and John, bigwigs in the hospital's expanding neurosurgery department, plus ER physician Mirtha and OBGYN resident Amanda.
There are always myriad behind-the-scenes explanations for how a documentary like this ends up with the subjects it focuses on, and I'd be curious to hear the logic used in Lenox Hill. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of these four subjects, who express a reasonable amount of candor and give the filmmakers impressive access, right down to uncomfortable patient conversations and the gory realities of the operating room. I've just rarely seen a documentary intended as fly-on-the-wall observational that made its storytelling and themes as manifestly predictable via the sheer act of casting.
John and David are white men at the pinnacle of their profession, innovators and rainmakers. David, chair of the department, built Lenox Hill's neurology practice from practically nothing into a position of strength, and has a slew of administrative concerns that you can imagine interested the directors when they started (they clearly either lost interest or access). They're both confident to the point of cockiness, driven by the deaths of their respective fathers and have families that you sense have taken a backseat for decades. They're all ambition.
If that's how medicine is practiced by established and powerful white men of privilege, it's left to Amanda and Mirtha to embody almost everything else — within a very restricted scope, since the documentary's two female stars (and its two people of color) are both pregnant and that comes to dominate their respective stories. To have families, John and David need to periodically stop in and wave at their endlessly patient wives or take their boys fishing. To have families, Amanda and Mirtha have to be prepared to put their careers on hold, to face judgment from their spouses and peers if they decide to begin maternity leave too early or to return to work too soon. If they feel outrage about this, they don't express it, and if the filmmakers see a problem in this, they leave it for viewers to draw their own conclusion.