On this Friday after the last night of Hanukkah, exactly a week before Christmas Eve, I hope many of you are enjoying or about to enjoy a few weeks of relative rest and relaxation as we close out the old year and look forward to the new. If your find yourself looking for some binge-watching fare to balance out — or perhaps become the featured entertainment of — holiday gatherings, here are a few television shows I’ve viewed in part or in whole over the past year with medical humanities themes. Here’s hoping you find something on this list to round out your year in viewing — or get you started on 2016!
ANZAC Girls (2014). From Australia comes a six part miniseries dramatizing the experience of women who served in Egypt and at the Dardanelles during World War One as part of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corp. Trained as nurses, Alice, Hilda, Elsie, Olive, and Grace arrive in Cairo ready to do their part for the war effort. Starry-eyed patriotic idealism soon gives way to gritty, even horrific, realities of battlefield medicine on and near the front lines of the Gallipoli Campaign, April 1915-January 1916.
Murdoch Mysteries (2008-). In 1890s Toronto, science geek detective William Murdoch and forensic pathologist Dr. Julia Ogden solve crimes using the latest scientific methods, adorably falling in love on the way by. Murdoch remains grounded in historical realism while playing with both paranormal and steampunk elements. Halfway into the second of nine seasons, I can say I’ve also been impressed by the way the show has handled race and gender as both particular plot elements and a consistant part of the background narrative.
Penny Dreadful (2014-). Headlined by the commanding Eva Green, Penny Dreadful offers us a thoroughly steampunked, paranormal Victorian world in which the likes of Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray stalk the streets of London and demonic possession, vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings flicker at the edge of the everyday. Watch Penny Dreadful for the rich literary allusions and superb acting by Green and her talented supporting cast including Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, and Billie Piper.
Outlander (2014-). Based on Diana Gabaldon’s series by the same name, Outlander is part costume drama, part romance, part science fiction as WWII battlefield nurse Claire Randall time-travels from late 1940s Scotland to 1740s Scotland on the eve of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Forced into a marriage of political necessity to a highland outlaw (it’s complicated), Claire struggles to decide whether to continue to search for a way back home, or whether to choose a life in the time and place she has found herself. In season one, Claire’s futuristic medical expertise both gives her value to the 18th century Scots and also puts her life in danger as her unconventional healing techniques cast suspicion on her intentions, at one point even leading to a trial for witchcraft.
Sense8 (2015-). Like its older sister Orphan Black (2013-), Sense8 explores the nature of humanity by positing the existence of human-like beings (clones or sensates) whose existence both fascinates and threatens powerful human political and scientific interests. In season one of Sense8 we meet a global cast of characters centered around eight individual sensates who discover they are able to tap into one anothers’ sensory experiences. In this show, the world of science both illuminates and threatens as the sensates struggle to learn more about themselves while hiding from those who seek to forcibly hospitalize them and destroy their psychic potential.
Strange Empire (2014-). Set on the isolated Canadian borderlands north of Montana, Strange Empire echoes Deadwood (2004-2006) in setting and plot — yet with a female-centric cast of characters that include gunslinger Kat Loving, brothel madame Isabelle Slotter, and surgeon Dr. Rebecca Blithely. Each of these three characters brings with her a complex history of interaction with a world that racializes and sexualizes her in specific ways. Of particular interest to the medical humanities crowd may be Dr. Blithely’s history being treated for neuro-atypical behavior (autism?), her medical training, and work as a surgeon in the remote Canadian frontier.
All of these shows, of course, have their strengths and weaknesses — yet I hope you find at least one on the list which piques your interest enough to try and episode or two. Have fun, and happy holidays!