Review: Heartbeat 1×1 (US: NBC; UK: TLC)

Medicine from another universe

In the US: Wednesdays, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by TLC. Starts in April

US medical dramas seem to fall into one of two categories: the realistic and the utterly unrealistic. Think ER and Code Black in the first camp, think Grey’s Anatomy and House in the second.

The fact that House is in the second camp should be a clue that being utterly unrealistic isn’t a bad thing. Given a lot of people die from all manner of unpleasant things in hospitals, unrealistic can be a good way to salve the viewer’s wounds by actually having everyone live. You can also have a lot of fun with unrealistic. You can even do smart things with unrealistic. 

Heartbeat is a different kettle of fish. Despite being based on the memoirs of a real-life heart surgeon, it appears to be so unrealistic it operates in some alternative universe. A very stupid one.

Melissa George – you may remember her from Home and Away, The Slap/The Slap (US), Hunted, Alias, In Treatment – plays a top heart surgeon and CIO. Yes, CIO. I’m assuming that means Chief Information Officer in the Heartbeat universe, as it does in ours, but you never know. That means she’s in charge of IT for her hospital, and so as well as performing heart transplants, presumably she also does a nifty line in organising service-oriented architectures, iSCSI SANs and business continuity fallover options (“Make sure the back-up data centre isn’t in our floodplain! And stat!”).

She’s the kind of top heart surgeon/CIO who can raise $150 million in a single day for her hospital while still caring about every single heart in her care. Which is amazing, obvs, but wasn’t the first clue I was seeing signals broadcast from a parallel universe.

That was in the first two minutes when George gets on plane to go to a conference, where she’s to deliver the keynote address. Unfortunately, she finds someone is already sitting in her first class seat. She has her ticket with her, but despite the fact there is literally no way these days for said seat to be double-booked, she ends up in coach.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, she has to go back to first class to administer emergency chest surgery with a razor blade – how did they get that on board on the plane? – to the man who was in her seat. But because she’s now covered in blood and doesn’t have a change of shirt, she has to deliver the keynote… dressed in one of the air hostesses’ 1960s-themed uniforms that she’s borrowed!

Oh my. What a quirky universe. I wonder how many fundamental forces of nature it has. There’s probably a ‘weak clown force’ mediated by the custard pion, at least.

Back at the hospital, George suddenly finds herself operating in a flashback romcom. There, the equally Australian Don Hany (Serangoon Road, Childhood’s End), a surgeon and former flame of George, has just returned, complicating things with the between one and three current and ex-boyfriends/husbands inhabiting George’s life.

We flash back to their first meeting a decade ago when she wore what in this universe would be the world’s most ridiculous wig. The very Australian Hany knew her dad and is surprised that he can understand the very American-sounding George, given daddy’s accent. “Yes, I’ve been trying to lose my cockney accent… mate,” says George.

Wait… what? Is this a joke between Aussies or something? Or is George supposed to be English woman assimilated as an American, rather than an Australian woman assimilated as an American? Is her dad a cockney and in this universe, not only can Australians not understand cockneys but cockneys say, “Mate”? Does that mean Australians don’t say ‘mate’ in this universe?

And so the clues piled up. Soon George is on the roof trying to talk down someone who is going to commit suicide so that his organs will go to a relative. “But wait, Mr Suicide!” says George. “If you jump off a building, the fall will compress all your organs and I won’t be able to use them!”

“Good point,” says Mr Suicide, who promptly takes out a gun and shoots himself in a head. Whoops! Maybe leave it to the pros next time, Melissa, who, to be honest, doesn’t seem that upset about seeing a man blow his brains out right in front of her. I suspect a degree of sociopathy here.

How did Mr Suicide get the gun through all the security? Why did he even think to take the gun with him if he was going to shoot himself in the head? Apparently, there’s also a ‘strong clown force’ and it makes people think in very different ways in this universe.

The trouble with setting a medical drama, rather than an out-and-out comedy, in a universe so clearly very different from our own is that it’s hard to take it seriously. This isn’t medicine as we know it. These aren’t plausible people. They may not even be human. We might as well be watching Doctor Dog, a heart-warming show about a gruff Irish Terrier and his pioneering asthma treatments for gerbils.

It’s a shame, because I like George, Hany’s a brilliant actor and it’s good to have another show with a female lead that isn’t just about her love life. But Heartbeat is beyond resuscitation. 


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.