The series, which also contains lots of stress-induced gallows humor from Ben Whishaw’s Adam Kay, is excruciating for other, deeper reasons, too, beyond the fright that comes with sharply filmed medical crises that you can’t unsee. It’s a portrait of a health-care system rotting from within, in this case the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, as we follow heavily overworked doctors pushing themselves to the breaking point. When we meet Adam in the first episode, it’s morning, and he is asleep in his car in the hospital parking lot, having nodded off before driving home. He’s a talented doctor who has been wrecked by exhaustion, whose good nature has been corrupted by a chaotic workplace and the PTSD it causes, whose personal life is a shambles from lack of attention.
I’ve always been a fan of medical dramas. They give us a world where the stakes are truly life and death, where the heightened tone is fully appropriate. They can be riveting and humane, reflecting the kind of dire health moments almost every adult has experienced or shared in at some point.
But “This Is Going to Hurt” felt different from most of the medical dramas I’ve seen. Here, we tend to portray our doctors in a heroic vein. Our shows do occasionally take on insurance problems, and bureaucracy eventually sucks many characters who enter a TV hospital into its circle of hell, but still they provide us with enough responsible and compassionate doctors and nurses to inspire faith. While “ER” ushered the genre into realism after the softer “Marcus Welby, M.D.” era, and while it gave us doctors who were flawed individuals, it nonetheless focused on the characters’ brilliance and commitment — like “House,” “New Amsterdam,” “Chicago Med,” “The Good Doctor,” and other current shows have.
Throughout “This Is Going to Hurt,” we see the system rob Adam of his confidence, his compassion, his trust, his bedside manner, and his dependability. He works in a branch of medicine that ought to contain a share of joy, and yet the work conditions have turned birth into a rote, rushed, fraught event for him. Early in the show, he makes a grave error — he sends a pregnant woman home, and she later returns in desperate condition — and it haunts him across the episodes. It’s a mistake that is his fault, and yet it’s also the result of working in what often seems like a war zone. At times he looks like a zombie, and he is shown snapping — wittily, always wittily — at both his patients and his trainee, Shruti (a wonderfully dour and vulnerable Ambika Mod).
Not surprisingly, Whishaw (”A Very English Scandal,” “The Hour”) delivers a fantastic performance, and that’s in large part because he stays true to Adam’s fatigue and doesn’t soften his temper. He doesn’t strain to make Adam likable underneath it all, something that often happens here on network TV. Adam treats Shruti in particular with contempt, alternately bullying her inexcusably and then praising her to keep her on the line. We can see how, largely thanks to Adam, Shruti struggles to find any positives in her career choice, which offers no support, no praise, no time for bonding. Adam also treats his boyfriend, Harry (Rory Fleck Byrne), poorly, unwilling to fully integrate Harry into his life. He is in the closet at work and with his mother (an ice-cold Harriet Walter), and it’s as if he’s too weary for honesty. Whenever Harry asks how he’s doing, Adam settles for “fine” when the opposite is true.
“This Is Going to Hurt” doesn’t offer the comfort of American medical shows, and for some that’s a deal-breaker. The series is also only on AMC+ and Sundance Now (I’m hoping that, like some other AMC+ shows, it will appear on AMC at some point), and for some that’s a deal-breaker, too. But I’m glad I saw it, for its riveting story, for its stellar performances, and for delivering the honesty that Adam is holding inside himself. Like some of the best of TV, it shows how institutions and the complex problems embedded in them can rob even the best among us of our souls.