If there is one thing television loves, it’s putting a group of attractive people in a hospital where they can simultaneously save lives and fall in love. Medical shows will exist for as long as TV does, but as NBC’s The Night Shift proves, it’s hard to create a medical drama that doesn’t come off as contrived and repetitive. Fortunately, there are plenty that are great. Here are ten of the best medical shows, from drama to sitcom to parody. All are well worth the watch.
ER (NBC, 1994-2009)
Most likely, ER is the first show you think of when it comes to medical dramas. For 15 seasons, ER dominated NBC — and received a record-breaking 124 total Emmy nominations — with engaging and shocking storylines. Each episode of ER, created by Michael Crichton, followed the staff’s personal and professional lives. It had an inventive and adrenaline-fueled visual style (Tarantino even directed an episode) that really brought viewers into the fast-paced world of the emergency ward.
Grey’s Anatomy (ABC, 2005-Present)
It wouldn’t be wrong to dismiss the later seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, but the show is a smash hit. It manages to pile on the heavy-handed romantic drama and the squeamish medical cases without either one taking over. Grey’s is notable for its colorblind casting and its multifaceted characters. Outside of the radical medical cases, what’s most interesting about Grey’s Anatomy is the gender-role reversal, in comparison with most shows of the same ilk. Meredith and Cristina are career-driven and feel reluctance when it comes to marriage; their male partners propose and propose, or offer to put off work to take care of children. Grey‘s never punishes its characters for being careerists — it just presents that side of them as fact and moves on.
Childrens Hospital (TheWB.com and Adult Swim, 2008-Present)
On the opposite side of the spectrum from Grey’s Anatomy is Childrens Hospital, a web series that perfectly parodies overly dramatic, soapy medical dramas. With an impressive cast — Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Henry Winker — Childrens Hospital mocks the most recognizable tropes of the genre (the overwhelming and falsely deep voiceover, the parallels between doctors’ current predicaments and the patients they’re treating, the romantic entanglements, etc.) so accurately that it’s screamingly funny.
Scrubs (NBC and ABC, 2001-2010)
Hands-down the best medical sitcom, Scrubs had a great run in its early years. It was always hilarious, frequently zany, and sometimes referred to as a live-action Simpsons. Scrubs was a comedy from beginning to end but often included some heartbreaking episodes — Michael J. Fox’s arc immediately comes to mind — and knew when to slow down to let the moment stick. Then again, it also knew when to laugh at itself (such as mocking JD’s own narration schtick). Ignore the misguided Season 9, and Scrubs is basically flawless.
Nurse Jackie (Showtime, 2009-Present)
Showtime is a network that prides itself on secrets and subversions: in Weeds, Nancy is a suburban mother who sells pot; in Dexter, the serial killer is sometimes seen as a hero; in Nurse Jackie, Jackie takes care of patients while nursing a crippling drug habit. She’s the best nurse in the hospital, but she downs painkillers whenever she gets the time. Nurse Jackie hasn’t made the biggest impact on TV, but it’s been consistently interesting. Now, in its sixth season, the focus has switched to the breakdown of her family.
St. Elsewhere (NBC, 1982-1988)
Everyone knows the tale of St. Elsewhere. A gritty medical drama set in a Boston hospital, a large ensemble cast, a cultish following, and that unforgettable ending that revealed the entire show took place inside the mind of Tommy, Donald Westphall’s autistic son. It’s something that you shouldn’t think too much about, because St. Elsewhere was also known for its crossovers — Cheers and Homicide: Life on the Street — which means the ending implies that those other two shows were also inside Tommy’s head. And if you dive in any deeper, same goes for everything from X-Files to Law & Order to Friends.
House (Fox, 2004-2012)
It’s easy to boil down House to a purely formulaic show — someone falls ill in the cold open, the doctors debate what the problem is, they misdiagnose (it’s never lupus!), and suddenly, out of nowhere, Dr. House figures everything out — but it’s a formulaic show that works. This is primarily due to House himself, a cantankerous, misanthropic doctor who is bored by “normal” health problems and dismisses his patients. It was a show that you could watch as a serialized drama (there were long-running arcs throughout) or you could catch a stray episode and still enjoy it. House overstayed its run by a few season but those first few were great.
Northern Exposure (CBS, 1990-1995)
Northern Exposure was more about the comedy than the drama. The show revolves around Dr. Joel Fleischman, who relocates from New York to Alaska in order to pay off a loan. Most of the humor was found within the fish-out-of-water-situation of going from big city to small (cold) town instead of the various medical situations that arise throughout the show. As seasons went on, the rest of the characters came to the foreground, and the show racked up a bunch of awards.
Getting On (HBO, 2013-Present)
There have only been six episodes of Getting On so far (at least in the US; the original British series ran for three seasons), but it’s still one of the best medical shows on TV right now. It centers on the nurses in a geriatric ward, meaning the humor is dark, very dark, sometimes juvenile, and always has a cloud of death hanging above it. It’s a tough watch, but it’s worth it — and HBO renewed the series for a second season.
Nip/Tuck (FX, 2003-2010)
Say what you want about Ryan Murphy, but Nip/Tuck was a great product of the times. When everyone was becoming secretly more and more obsessed with plastic surgery (and speculating about the rich and famous who get plastic surgery), Murphy capitalized on it by creating a show set in a plastic surgery practice where the doctors routinely work on beautiful women (and, obviously, also sleep with them).