Review: Pulse 1×1 (Australia: ABC)

Not new the new House


In Australia: Thursdays, 8.30pm, ABC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

One of the best lines in this week’s episode of Will was “It’s 1589, Will – everything’s been done. It’s how you do it that counts.” I was reminded of this as I was watching Pulse, ABC (Australia)’s new medical procedural, as I tried to work out why it was so incredibly boring. It wasn’t for want of trying, certainly.

Based on an apparently true story, it’s the tale of high-flying financial analyst Claire van der Boom (Hawaii Five-0) who suffers kidney failure but receives a transplant so survives. She subsequently decides to retrain as a transplant doctor herself. Years later, she finds herself a trainee on the cardio-thoracic and renal wards of a major teaching hospital, learning how medicine actually works in practice. But as she’s still on immune-suppression drugs, any patient she meets could make her sick – she could make others sick, too.

So Pulse immediately gives you those three points of empathy – she’s a doctor but she knows what it’s like to be the patient as well; she’s determined to fight the patient’s corner, even if the more seasoned doctors are more calculating and blasé about the whole thing; and everything’s as life-threatening to her as it is to her patients.

On top of that, she’s both expert and trainee, so we have the tensions between those with the knowledge and experience and van der Bloom’s more impulsive tendencies. There are critiques of the Australian health system, including male dominance of the Australian surgical profession.

There’s co-worker Andrea Demetriades (Seven Types of Ambiguity) soft-porn shagging her boss, Blessing Mokgohloa (Spartacus: Blood and Sand). There’s her super-firey Welsh boss Owen Teale barking universal truths about healthcare – he’s also the man who gave her her transplant for a double-shocker.

Surprisingly, there’s even Spartacus himself and part-time weathermaster Liam McIntyre as an ex-soldier turned doctor and possible love interest for van der Bloom.

And that’s just the set-up – in the first episode, we’ve got people passing out after being sent home too soon, we have an organ lottery and we have transplant kidneys being snatched away at the last minute.

Much peril! Very wow!

And yet it’s absolutely tedious. Which brings us back to that line of Will‘s. It made me cast my mind back to when I last actually watched – and continued to watch – a procedural. On the medical side, it’s House; on the police side, it was the CSI franchise. I think in both cases it’s because they actually did something different, House being a combination of philosophy and Sherlock Holmes detective story, CSI being more like a series of scientific experiments. Everything since has singularly failed to grab my attention.

Which makes me think that I:

  1. Simply dislike procedurals.
  2. Like new things and constant repetition of the same format is intrinsically tedious to me
  3. Might not dislike procedurals when they’re actually something else in disguise

And despite throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, Pulse is a meat-and-two-veg medical procedural, no different from Casualty, predictable, with nothing new to say that House et al hasn’t already said, no great and unusual new characters to love, no amazing performance to lift the show out of its rut (although Teale’s great, of course). It’s not terrible, it’s well made, plenty of people love that kind of thing. I just don’t like something where I can guess more or less everything that happens before it happens. I suspect you don’t either.

  • Mark Carroll

    “I can guess more or less everything that happens before it happens” – Dunkirk has a fair bit of that, not just out of historical necessity.

    “constant repetition of the same format” – one of the reasons I enjoyed early Law & Order was the various legal tricks employed by each side. Maybe they ran out of new ones after a while.

    • Suits was good for that, too, since it wasn’t just a bunch of ‘Objection… inadmissible… etc”, but out-of-court mind games. It became a lot duller when they forgot how to do that

  • JustStark

    I, also, am bored by formulae, which cuts down a lot on how much US TV I can bear as most of it is forumla-tastic.

    However, I would note that while Casualty goes though phases of how important the medical stuff is, it is never actually a medical procedural: it’s a soap opera that just happens to be set in a hospital.

    • I think the definition of procedural is blurring. After all, CSI: Miami is technically a procedural but it might as well have featured blue unicorns for all its relevance to actual police work and forensic science

      • JustStark

        These things are always fuzzy, but I would say that the key distinction is the balance between the story of the week and the ongoing shenanigans in the continuing characters’ lives.

        If it’s mainly about solving the case / identifying the disease / patching up the victim of the week, and in the background the characters get together, fall apart, have angst about their kids (eg, the C.S.I programmes) then it’s a procedural; but if it’s mainly about who’s shagging whom and in the background are some sick people, then it’s a soap opera, and Casualty has been the latter for a long time now.

        Some programmes are right at the middle point, especially nowadays: Blindspot, for example, manages to both be incredibly formulaic and also incredibly soapy.

        Maybe a good way to tell the difference is: if you were writing the Radio Times descriptions, would you describe most episodes by the episode plot (‘they have to solve a murder at a furry convention’), or by the ongoing plots (‘Jamie finds out that Kate has been cheating on him’)?

        • That would work with a lot of things, but I’m not sure that works either, with something like Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, say, where the soapiness and the action plots are the same (eg ‘Olivia’s still shagging the President so the Bill can’t hit the floor of Congress on time’).

          • JustStark

            Are the plots per-episode (‘this episode, can the bill hit the floor of Congress on time? Next episode, can the President get his supreme court justice approved?’ The West Wing did those) or do they continue from episode to episode (‘this episode, we try to get the bill to the floor of Congress. Next episode, we try to pass it.’)? former, procedural, latter, soap.

            Although, hm, mention of The West Wing reminds me these aren’t fixed: series one was definitely a politics procedural with each episode having a different plot about a different bit fo government, but by the end of series two it was definitely a soap opera all about the President’s medical condition, and then in series three it became even more soapy with the ongoing terrorism plot.

          • Scandal’s serial, but I think that’s the point where definitions start to break down, if anything that has an ongoing plot about character relationships is a soap

          • JustStark

            Nah, it’s not anything that ‘has an ongoing plot about character relationships’, lots of procedurals have those in the background (and conversely lots of soaps have some per-episode plots), it’s anything where the ongoing plot is more important than the individual episode plots is a soap.

            It’s about the relative importance; of the per-episode plots and the ongoing plots, which is usually the foreground, and which the background?

          • That doesn’t strike me as granular enough, though, because the end result is that adaptations of both Pride and Prejudice and The Iliad would be classified as soaps (“Achilles is still pissed off with Agamemnon and continues to sulk in his tent, Hector has an important conversation with Andromache about his worries. Meanwhile, Aphrodite and Helen argue about the merits of Helen’s new lover”). I mean they may arguably be soapy, but is that definition then useful?

          • JustStark

            Ah — you’re right, I should have said, this method of classification is only really relevant for ongoing, open-ended TV programmes. It doesn’t really apply to things adapted from closed narratives like novels (or things which ape them, like Babylon 5, or Damages).

            But it’s useful for distinguishing between, say, something like ER and something like Law & Order.

            (Occasionally you do get the influence going the other way — I gather that the novels on which Game of Thones is based are basically soap operas in novel form. If so it would make sense of the fact that the programme is basically a soap opera with more nudity and dragons, which is why I stopped watching.)

          • Mark Carroll

            I do find GoT far more engaging than I would a soap opera and I don’t greatly love nudity and dragons but perhaps that just means that it’s an unusually well-written soap rather than that it isn’t just a soap. (I find things like Poldark a bit painful.)

          • JustStark

            I’m not sure ‘well-written’ is a descriptor which I would apply to Game of Thrones… but one thing I would note is that it’s very compressed compared to most soap operas, in that it only runs for ten episodes at a time, while most soap operas either run year-round (like Casualty) or for over twenty episodes at a time (things like Desperate Housewives). The result is that rather than stretching plots out, each episode — at least for the couple of series I watched — was fair packed with incident.

            It’s just that all those incidents added up to… well, pretty much nothing meaningful. The only reason to watch was to find out ‘what happens next’ and that is something I find tedious.

            Someone once described, on a mailing list which I read, 24 as ‘drama methadone’: it looks like drama, it seems like drama, but its promises are ultimately unfulfilled. It doesn’t actually mean anything.

            I got the same feeling with Game of Thrones: lots of stuff happens, but none of it matters. It’s just ‘and then they did this and then they did that and then the other happened’. Repeat, over and over again.

          • Mark Carroll

            Pace is a good point. It might also be partly that the actors are decent.