That doctors have difficult jobs is among the points TV has made most forcefully throughout the medium’s existence. The genre has long since entered its baroque period, larding on helicopter crashes (“ER”), medical mysteries (“House”) and bombs inside patients (the still-running “Grey’s Anatomy”) to gin up increasingly unsatisfying excitement and over-prove the case that working in a hospital is hard.
What’s so striking about “Lenox Hill,” Netflix’s new documentary series and among the best shows released so far this year, is the way it shows the excitement and the stress of the utterly quotidian. Released into a world in which our understanding of the pressures hospitals face has been newly reinforced, “Lenox Hill” was shot before the COVID-19 pandemic. It depicts a seemingly well-funded, competently staffed hospital in which the best of times are still grindingly tough, and introduces four characters whose un-reality-TV-ish aversion to high dudgeon makes their journeys all the more fascinating.
The show, directed by Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash, follows four physicians — two neurosurgeons, an emergency doctor and an obstetrician — through months of work. Both the latter two, ER doc Mirtha Macri and OB-GYN Amanda Little-Richardson, are pregnant, which provides a natural subplot for both. Little-Richardson, for instance, is a notably good patient, acknowledging and then moving past challenging news throughout her pregnancy and a partner who is perhaps less than optimally supportive.
This also provides among the most vivid examples of why the show’s extensive access and long time frame make for great drama of the pointillist variety: We see, in small moments, Little-Richardson argue to keep the baby’s sex a secret and then, eventually, get overruled by her husband; more satisfyingly, we also see her finally lose her composure while giving birth, snapping at her husband to stop taking a selfie and actually focus.
Similarly, the stories of neurosurgeons David Langer and John Boockvar are told not through one mega arc but through carefully selected moments. Boockvar in particular is a fascinating character, both charming and egotistical in the manner of someone who is so good at his job that he is rarely told no. When Boockvar is on-screen, the show is most itself, looking at a charismatic and complicated person in a frank, probing, unblinking way, but not creating incident that is not there. A rambling and bellicose call from his wife plays out without much comment in the first episode.
“Lenox Hill” is also about the Trump presidency in that it’s capaciously about all the stuff of life, including work, family and love too; politics sneaks in through the margins, from Little-Richardson, who is black, musing about America’s long history of family separation to a colleague before heading back to work, to the ongoing story of a Tennessee couple visiting New York so a young woman can have a tumor removed from her neck and skull. Asked if she can recall the president’s name to test her cognition, all she can say is that “some people like him, some people don’t.” As if to ensure his wife’s essence was not lost to the surgeon’s knife, her partner blurts, “But we like him!”
The melancholy of this series feels not just like a depiction of doctors but truly of them, as if tunneling into their worldview. It’s a crisp and unsentimental show (save for a bed of music underlying most moments that could have been done without), and one that treats life not as an orderly story arc escalating in intensity but as an unpredictable series of obstacles to be endured with forbearance. The struggles of patients (including, through Macri’s work in the ER, many people on the wrong side of the chasmic class divide in New York City) offer no greater lesson about the world than learning to adapt to its capricious rhythms; a sick doctor outright dismisses the culturally ingrained notion of his cancer as a fight to be won.
In moments like these, “Lenox Hill” achieves a kind of greatness. With an openhearted curiosity about its subjects and a patient, clear eye, the series comes to no conclusions about the way we administer medical care now, but leaves its viewer with ample information to draw his or her own. It’s possible, for instance, to come away from the show thinking that medical care in this country is wildly unequal, but administered by people with deep and deeply human goodness of intention, playing out over eight hours of television that’s all the more moving for its refusal to manipulate.