What is it about medical dramas that always keeps me coming back for more?
A guest post by Molly KayAt the end of a long day, I look forward to coming home, eating dinner, and beginning my pre-bedtime ritual. I put on my pyjamas, make a cup of Earl Grey tea, and force my partner to sit through a couple episodes of Grey’s Anatomy with me before we go to sleep.
I know what you’re probably thinking, and I promise you that I recognize how ridiculous the show is: there are patients with rare and unusual health conditions, messy love triangles between the nurses and surgeons, and—of course—sudden, tragic accidents that kill off my favourite characters without a moment’s notice (leaving me sobbing and absolutely devastated). I love it, I hate it, and then I love it all over again. The emotional rollercoaster is what keeps me sane. In fact, it’s the only way that I can unwind after even my most stressful days.
I’m a sucker for tearjerkers, and any form of media that pulls on the viewer’s heartstrings for that matter. I’ve always known that I loved shows that made me blubber like a baby, but before sitting down to write this blog post, I hadn’t really given to much thought as to why.
I guess the main reason that I enjoy Grey’s so much is how easy it is to throw yourself into the storylines. When they cry, I cry and when they laugh, I laugh, too. With each episode, I experience a full range of emotions and by the end of it, the sense of emotional release leaves me feeling completely satisfied.
I became curious about the topic of catharsis, relating specifically to the medical drama as a genre, when I was introduced to the work of Isabel Menzies Lyth, a British psychoanalyst known for her insight into unconscious mechanisms in institutional settings. More specifically her 1961 paper, The Functioning of Social Systems as a Defence Against Anxiety: A Report on a Study of the Nursing Service of a General Hospital, which served as a groundbreaking case-study in the field of psychoanalysis. In very simple terms, her work reveals the role primitive anxieties play at the unconscious level in caregiving institutions, such as, for example, Grey’s Seattle Grace Hospital.
Menzies Lyth concluded that a medical professional’s proximity to their patient could trigger both a deep fear and a deep desire if the former became too attached to the individual they were treating. This can be attributed to the fact that, in a hospital setting, every decision that a nurse or doctor makes is one of life or death. If we are to consider, then, the nature of this high-stress work environment, we can begin to understand the popularity of over-dramatized medical TV shows and the aforementioned emotional catharsis that comes along with ride.
In 2012, BBC News Health Reporter Philippa Roxby wrote: “Without doubt, medical science is a rich source of stories and intrigue. The popularity of all forms of medical-based drama suggests that we love to watch and read about people dealing with pain and discomfort, facing problems we fear we might face too at some point in our lives.”
I would argue that what we love even more is the sense of relief that washes over us once the problems onscreen are resolved — when the characters we’ve become so attached to overcome hardship and tragedy right before our eyes.
And in my own experience, when life feels overwhelming and impossible, the trials and tribulations of Meredith Grey are a familiar and welcome distraction.
Next time: food media and self-authorization – the peculiar charm of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.