Though he may be better known these days as the writer of gripping crime drama Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio first came to the nation’s attention as the creator of scathing medical dramas Cardiac Arrest and Bodies. Now he’s returning to the genre that made his name with Sky One’s Critical, a 13 part series set within the Starship Enterprise-esque walls of a major trauma centre.
For those who have grown weary of the BBC’s soft-bellied stalwarts Holby City and Casualty, this original series provides a much-needed rush of adrenalin to the flagging genre. Styled as a taut, breathless thriller, the show opens with a helicopter racing overhead and a flatlining patient coughing blood as a clock beings its merciless countdown, and the tension rarely lets up from there.
Critical’s USP is its 24-like real-time duration with each episode following a trauma team during the 60 minute window they have to save the life of a critically injured patient. Or not, as the case may be. Yet this device never feels like a cheap gimmick, its inescapable immediacy giving the show a ferocious energy that resembles the improvisational style of Suspects as doctors and nurses race against time to uncover the cause of the patient’s severe haemorrhage, reacting seemingly on-the-fly to each new complication.
Clearly, with so much true-to-life action taking place there’s no room for the syrupy melodrama of ER here. Critical’s eye is always firmly on the patient, which makes the remarkable vividness of the characters all the more impressive.
Using only snatched glances and brief interludes where the staff nervously await test results, Mercurio is able to reveal so much about his cast’s personal lives, hinting at a turf war between NHS staff through Claire Skinner’s trauma leader’s combative discussions with Peter Sullivan’s head of emergency medicine, timid newcomer Harry’s (Fresh Meat’s Kimberley Nixon) struggle to standout on the sidelines, and at how overwhelmed hospital fellow Fiona (Catherine Walker) feels as she’s forced to lead the operation.
As a former doctor, it’s unsurprising that Mercurio is obsequious about the mechanics of the medical procedures depicted and he clearly revels in the gore, drawing the camera in close whenever blood gushes from an open wound or surgeons attempt something disgusting like cracking open a man’s chest. It’s really not for the faint of heart.
Indeed, it’s not really a show for anyone with any kind of heart. While this shocking, visceral thrill ride can be seen as a welcome attempt to try something new, Mercurio’s nuts-and-bolts approach to the process of medicine is more than a little cold.
By learning very little about the man who’s fighting for his life and having to watch the staff nonchalantly crack jokes and munch on stolen chocolate bars as their patient bleeds out on the table in front of them, we never get the sense that we should truly care about what will happen next and the tension sags as a consequence.
This kind of insouciance may be a necessary requirement of the job for medical professionals, but for those of us simply watching a TV drama, it often makes for soulless and really rather cold viewing.
Click here to watch a trailer for Critical