New Amsterdam: Season One Part One Review
Hospital dramas - like crime procedurals - can be two a penny, which makes wading into a new one something of a gamble. And while there's generally a decent standard across this particular sub genre, it's also hard to stand out from the crowd. Fortunately, New Amsterdam, which dropped its first twelve episodes on Amazon Prime here in the UK this month, might be just that.
Sure it still has the complicated medical cases, life saving surgeries, bureaucrats and personal dramas of the staff involved, and if you're not a fan of hospital dramas, then you're probably not likely to give New Amsterdam a go. But if you do, you're likely to stay. There's a rare optimism about this show, which stands out in the dark grittiness of so much television and the troubling affairs of the real world. This is a show about doctors that really, genuinely care about their patients and will go the ends of the earth to save them. Hope is a key word here; through the lead of new medical director Max Goodwin (The Blacklist's Ryan Eggold), rules are broken, convention thrown out of the window and the impossible achieved. It can feel a tad realistic at times but that's no bad thing. Quite often, I finished an episode with a smile on my face and felt just a little better then I did when I started.
You also might feel a little glum or even a little tearful too, because there are times when New Amsterdam really packs an emotional punch. For all Max's optimistic and triumphant rule breaking, he spends the entire first run of twelve episodes fighting first denial and then treatment as he battles throat cancer while going to the ends of the earth to improve the oldest public hospitals - the fictional New Amsterdam. But rather than delve into the high drama of something like Grey's Anatomy, it is blended with his fight against bureaucracy and established traditions that makes his story as uplifting as it is compelling. It's more ER or Code Black in tone; a brit of grit amid the uplifting tones.
Eggold is the star here, selling max's optimism without making him seem cheesy or unrealistic. He was hired to make change and change he makes, kicking out the entire cardiac attendings in his first day who are more concerned with making money than saving lives, who will give a homeless man an apartment paid by the hospital because it will be cheaper than year long trips to the ER. He wears scrubs rather than a shirt and tie because he's a doctor and healer at heart and he will actively listen to his staff and their needs. He begins this twelve episode run a wildcard and by episode ten - when his cancer progresses and everyone discovers the truth as he fights for his life - they are ready to fight for him because he has made this hospital a better place. Max inspires and leads by example; a cynic would call it cheesy and unrealistic but it is neither of those things. He's the kind of person you would want running a public hospital in America, putting patient care before anything else.
While Eggold may lift the show high, he isn't the only engaging performance on the show. There is a delightful double act between Anupam Kher's dour neurologist Doctor Vijay Kapoor and Tyler Labine's psychiatrist Doctor Iggy Frome. Not only is it refreshing to see psych and neuro working closely together on cases, there have some fantastic banter; Iggy is the other big optimist on the show and his passion shines through, mixed with some comic conflict with Vijay. Their individual stories are just as compelling - Iggy and his husband have adopted three children from India and are finding a new family dynamic while Vijay is trying to reconnect with his own former drug-addict son and developing a strange, heart-warming friendship with hospital coffee shop worker Ella (Dierdre Friel). These stories could feel trite or overwrought but weave through the episodes to enrich the characters.
Janet Montgomery's ER head Doctor Lauren Bloom is an equally dedicated member of the team; her family's wealth is hinted at through the episodes, hiding something that she is obviously running from, as he battles addiction. But there is an earnest likeability to her performance that keeps you watching. The same goes for Jocko Sims' Doctor Floyd Reynold, the only heart surgeon that Max keeps on and promotes to head of Cardio. While race rears its head on occasion it's not used to illustrate Floyd but rather society's perception of a successful black doctor. He has a mugshot from his past not because he was a criminal in his youth but because a racist cop pulled him over for no reason other than to exert his authority. Sims delivers a quiet, authoritative performance but one just as compelling as everyone else.
Freema Agyeman Chief Oncologist Doctor Helen Sharpe is another key player in the series. She starts the series as a woman more obsessed with TV appearances to 'help fund' the hospital then engaging with her patients. Max forcing her spend more time at New Amsterdam becomes an eye-opening experience for her, forcing her to reconnect with patients, often barely living as their go through their cancer treatments. Helen could easily have been a cold, arrogant character, but Agyeman brings warmth, passion and vulnerability to the role. As Max's initial confidant as opens up about his cancer diagnosis and then opening up to him about her attempts to conceive a child, she grows from a distant figure head for the hospital to a dedicated doctor and close ally and friend, stepping up to become his deputy as his own cancer treatment begins to have an effect.
There's a lot to love about the supporting cast. Lisa O'Hare's Georgia Goodwin who begins the show as the estranged pregnant wife of Max because his biggest supporter as they reconnect. Their relationship is as compelling as Max's with his staff and patients. Zabryna Guevara's Dora begins the show as the exasperated administrator trying to keep Max in check but eventually falls into his way of thinking without loosing herself. And Ron Rifkin is brilliant as always as the dean, who serves as Max's antagonist when it comes to bureaucracy he is fighting against; fortunately Rifkin brings a real grounding and humanity to the role so that he is never played as a villain.
There's also some terrific cases too across these twelve episodes, from the one offs like Max and Helen's attempts to keep a chain of liver transplants across multiple hospitals intact when one donor drops out or dealing with the taboo of depression in Chinese culture to multiple episode arcs like Iggy's attempt to help abused child Jemma (Lizzy DeClement) find a new home. It doesn't feel sensationalist but it is always compelling and delivered with the passion and optimism that New Amsterdam presents, it gives the audience an emotional, engaging story episode after episode.
This medical drama really struck a chord with me. Well-rounded and absorbing characterisation mixed with hope and heartbreak that makes New Amsterdam quite special. Is it the most ground breaking on television? Definitely not. It is still what it is; a good hospital drama. But it also feels a little different and that optimism, in today's world, is a very good thing.
The first twelve episodes are available to watch on Amazon Prime now with the rest of season one coming in May. New Amsterdam has also been renewed by NBC for a second season, so there's plenty more to come...