Díóg O’Connell
Film & Media at Institute of Art, Design Technology, Dun Laoghaire | Views:

Creative Commons 4.0 by Díóg O’Connell. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

With recent successes in Irish television drama, including The Clinic (which completed its fourth series in 2006), Bachelors Walk (2001), Pure Mule (2004) and the long running urban soap opera Fair City (1989-to date), it’s safe to suggest that television drama in Ireland is in renaissance. An ensemble medical drama serial, based on an original idea by Orla Bleahon Melvin of Irish-based production company Parallel Films, The Clinic links with the international explosion of medical drama, particularly since the 1990s, on our television screens. This Irish medical drama was developed independently in collaboration with Ireland’s national public service broadcaster, RTE. Given the history of television drama in Ireland, that journeyed from high activity in the 1960s and 1970s to almost extinction by the 1980s with a trickle of renewal in the 1990s, it is significant that RTE has invested and committed, on a long term basis, to this production.

Parallel Films, the independent production company that produces The Clinic, is a high profile and successful Irish television and film production company, set up originally in 1993 by Alan Moloney to concentrate on feature films and television dramas. Its credits include cinema releases Last of the High Kings (David Keating 1996), A Love Divided (Syd Macartney 1999) and Breakfast on Pluto (Neil Jordan 2005) and the highly acclaimed television dramas Amongst Women (1997), Falling for a Dancer (1998), Showbands (2005/06) and The Clinic. Reflecting changes in the production environment in America whereby many talented writers and directors are more focussed on becoming involved in television drama than feature films due to the changing face of film production in an era of globalisation, Parallel Productions has carved out a niche for itself within the Irish production environment by producing four critically and popularly acclaimed series of The Clinic. While film production tends to be the focus of analysis for many issues around identity within Irish Studies discourse, due to its critical mass this series raises key questions about identity within contemporary Irish society and reflects many of the conflicting allegiances between «Boston and Berlin» that frame our economic, cultural and ideological sensibilities in the twenty-first century. Scrutinising this drama within its generic boundaries reveals many narrative tensions reflective of a society in flux.

The medical drama is one of the most enduring, flexible yet self-contained genres within the television schedule. Since the evolution of television, each decade has produced memorable medical dramas in Britain and America. One of the nascent examples, Dr. Kildare existing first in book, radio and film form, was then transformed into the highly successful television series from the 1960s, featuring young, eager intern Dr. Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) and his more senior mentor and superior Dr. Gillespie (Raymond Massey). From the outset the US medical drama was a locus for human emotional stories explored through the intertwining narratives between on-screen characters. In the 1950s and 1960s these dramas centred on narratives that endorsed and reassured the audience of the medical profession and hospital system in a paternalistic way, principally through the lead doctor who was often portrayed as infallible and god-like. As it evolved and changed over time, medical drama challenged this portrayal, reflecting the change in mood in 1970s America in particular, where the growing counter cultural section of society was questioning and challenging the status quo. This manifested itself in a shift from the emphasis on one or two doctors to an ensemble of medics working in a team. M*A*S*H (1973-1982), one of the most successful television shows of all time, is the genesis of much of the medical drama on our television screens today. Doctors working in a «war zone», not in control of their environment, susceptible to many outside forces and where medicine is a game of roulette, is a scenario not all to unfamiliar in contemporary medical drama. The Clinic, like most aspects of Irish popular culture, has not been immune to outside influences and thus reflects the changes in US medical drama whereby the doctor has transformed from the competent and compassionate Dr. Kildare to the abrasive Dr. House and sometimes morally-challenged, or merely human, ER medics. To what extent The Clinicappropriates from the US model whereby the focus is on character interpersonal relations alongside popularising and normalising complex medical practice, or the British trend of narrative tensions hinging between the ‘system’ which militates against the doctor and the provision of  best practice, is key to exploring the Janus-face of modern Ireland.

The Clinic structures its storylines and character exploration around the milieu of a private medical clinic whereby the doctors are not pillars of society to be trusted at all costs inspired by a vocation for pastoral care but are ambitious and driven to build a successful business and enjoy the fruits of wealthy Celtic Tiger Ireland. In this way it presents a contemporary Irish spin on the medical drama, ensuring its local ratings, by appropriating conventional characterisation and plot approaches familiar to American productions. However, where it deviates most from its US counterparts, connecting more to British drama, is in its total absence of irony and its traditional and conservative visual style. It could be argued that Michael Crichton’s ER changed medical drama forever by introducing multiple storylines, realistic medical jargon and moving cameras. By situating the series in a public hospital, the range and diversity of human experience could now be explored at the level of culture and ethnicity, moving away from broad universal themes. Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs have taken the genre in a new aesthetic direction with the emphasis on irony and fun.

The doctors in The Clinic represent a combination of forces driving modern Ireland and its current preoccupations: the drive for success and accumulation of wealth, Cathy Costelloe main shareholder and director of The Clinic; a growing emphasis on ‘the body’, Dan Woodhouse, plastic surgeon; an obsession with ‘alternative lifestyles’, Jack Laverty, life coach and Clodagh Delaney, doctor and acupuncturist; the dominance of sport within the public sphere, Keelin Geraghty, physiotherapist. This combination of characters, situated within the milieu of a private clinic alongside the iconography of Celtic Tiger Ireland attempts also to be a vehicle for exploring ‘issues’. While this approach worked well in the morally regressive 1970s and 1980s, whereby The Riordans (1965-1979), Ireland’s rural soap opera, facilitated the discussion of such taboo subjects as contraception and marriage-breakdown through risqué storylines played out by well-liked characters, The Clinic‘s attempts to do the same fall short in the absence of a careful balance between serious drama, likeable characters and entertainment. The Clinic‘s storylines over the four series included alcoholism, depression, brain injury, post-natal depression, malpractice, falsifying qualifications, still-birth, infidelity, sexual harassment and bullying, to name but a few. All worthy issues, current and pertinent to modern-day Ireland, but delivered in the absence of a well-crafted balance of humour and entertainment, sets this series aside from its US counterparts.

Nevertheless, The Clinic has garnered a critical and popular following, polling well in the television reviews and achieving high audience ratings (almost 40% of the audience share according to RTE’s own figures), despite the proliferation of alternatives and choice. In the absence of any narrative or aesthetic irony, the real paradox is that The Clinic is not only popular but has developed a cult following, albeit on a small scale, among thirty-something Ireland, whereby it is discussed and analysed in the pub, at the dinner party and in the work-place. The point that serious weighty drama is the commercial and critical success of television drama output in the new Ireland despite all outside trends moving in a hipper, slicker direction, suggests that Ireland’s schizophrenic identity and tug between the Boston / Berlin allegiance is as confused as ever, manifesting itself as a crisis of narrative strategy in contemporary Irish popular culture.