FINGER ON THE DRAMATIC PULSE
Unpredictable stories exploring ethical and moral issues, complex characters and edgy dialogue give this new medical drama a confronting documentary feel
‘Pulse” — it is an evocative word that in medicine means the rhythmic contraction and expansion of an artery at each beat of the heart. In physics, it is a sharp change in voltage, usually recurring at regular intervals and having a characteristic geometric shape — which in a different context may be a wonderful expression for the way television drama works, obsessed as it is with disturbing us consistently but always observing rules of beginning, middle and conclusion.
And Pulse is a fine new drama from the ABC inspired by a true story of a transplant patient who became a doctor, and is in fact co-created by Mel Hill, a doctor at one of Sydney’s leading hospitals. Once a corporate high-flyer with a first-class honours degree in economics from the University of Sydney, Hill quit finance to attend medical school after a kidney transplant in 2007, determined to affect positively the lives of patients the way her doctors had done so altruistically in her case.
Set in and around the transplant unit of a busy western suburbs teaching hospital, the show was co-created by writers and long-time collaborators Kris Wyld ( East West 101) and Michael Miller ( Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door). They co-produced, with veteran independent film producer Antony I. Ginnane ( Patrick) — he and Wyld recently formed Clandestine Television to capitalise on their shared business experience and creative strengths — joining forces with executive producers Beyond Entertainment’s David Ogilvy and Ron Saunders and the ABC’s Sally Riley and Kym Goldsworthy.
There is some heavyweight industry talent involved with Pulse — Ginnane alone has produced 65 films, one of a few local producers who has managed to survive in this omnivorous industry for more than a half-century — with the set-up direction from the seemingly indefatigable Peter Andrikidis. He again works with his sidekick, cinematographer Joseph Pickering and his restless voyeuristic camera, the pair responsible for some of this country’s best TV drama, including East West 101, Underbelly and Janet King.
And the director and his many collaborators have again come up with something engineered to surprise the viewer rather than spoonfeed them, a dense character study directed by Andrikidis with his usual creative discernment. Andrikidis says having Ginnane involved “was important as it brought a feature film mentality to Pulse, that is letting the directors bring their own unique voices to the series”.
Frankie Bell (Claire van der Boom) was a successful financial analyst, a career-focused woman who seemed to have it all. Then when her kidneys abruptly failed, a transplant offered her a second chance.
Her past is rapidly and nightmarishly established in a pre-title sequence as she’s rushed into surgery, a jagged flashback of a surgeon intoning: “Without medical intervention you won’t last six weeks.” Then the same voice yells: “I’ve got you Frankie.”
Eight years later, when we see her next, as the first episode, written by Wyld and Hill, gets under way, Frankie is now in her second year as a practising doctor, working and learning in a major teaching hospital in western Sydney. Like her best friend and colleague, Lou (Andrea Demetriades), she is a “new breed, second career doctor”, a lowly resident with a lot to learn.
On rotation on their first day in the highstakes, high-pressure world of the cardiothoracic and renal wards, they quickly discover City West Hospital is a tough, demanding world with strict professional rules and rigid lines of demarcation. Newcomers are treated largely with disdain, forced to constantly look for opportunities to prove themselves in extreme conditions of life and death in an ailing health system. (“It’s the quick and the dead round Andrea Demetriades and Claire van der Boom play doctors working and learning in a western Sydney teaching hospital, top; and the cast of Pulse, above here,” a helpful nurse, one of the few, warns Frankie on her first day.)
“This is war, babe,” Frankie tells a distressed Lou who, on the first day, suffers the sharp tongue of the aptly named female surgeon, Maggie Cutter (Susie Porter), already her hardest taskmaster. If she wants to make it, the hardnosed Cutter tells her, her advice, “is to buy some knee pads and learn how to suck cock”.
Frankie is determined to win a place in Renal, working under its boss Chad Berger (Owen Teale), the doctor who saved her life, even as she must protect the secret of her transplant as she is vulnerable to infection.
The series quickly takes us into the moral and ethical anxieties that surround the issue of transplantation and the way new medical technologies are quickly forced into existing legal, ethical and institutional frameworks. And it touches on the extensive discussions about the ethics of decision-making with regard to encouraging organ donation and the process for donating and transplanting organs.
Then there’s politics, too, of competing hospitals as potential recipients drop on and off what the City West administrators call “the list”, of which they’re acutely aware given their attachment to their patients, the number of people needing organ transplants outpacing the supply of organs. Because of the organ shortage transplant centres are forced to list only the best candidates, but how are they to be practically and moral determined?
The first episode raises the moral question of just how a limited supply of organs can be fairly allocated to a large number of patients on the waiting list. And are the methods of putting patients on the waiting list appropriate?
Then there’s the notion of death itself hovering over the series. Just when are we dead and how can it be declared such that life support can be discontinued?
It’s presented in a highly evocative and sometimes unsettling visual style and makes clever use of the generic conflation of hospital procedural and high-end melodrama.
The series was shot in a disused dental hospital, according to Andrikidis, with production designer Sam Hobbs rebuilding as a functioning hospital unit covering two floors. “We really wanted to see the outside world through the windows so it feels like we are in western Syd- ney — and it doesn’t look like a set built in a studio like ER,” says the director. “So we have the real world in every scene, the characters could walk out the main entrance and they would be in the middle of western Sydney.”
Pulse feels real — sociologically charged, unpredictable stories with crisp, edgy dialogue with a cast of complex characters in a culturally diverse milieu. Anyone who has visited hospitals recently will recognise the verisimilitude of the setting.
There is an often confronting documentary feel to Andrikidis’s direction; it’s as if the viewer is behind the camera. There are often no reaction shots from other angles, and no shooting from positions that are not natural to the observer. “Our biggest influence was a BBC documentary called Hospital which has not screened in Australia yet,” the director says. “But it’s about the NHS in the UK and follows various doctors who try to make the ‘cash-stretched’ medical system work for their patients.”
Andrikidis and Pickering sat with their actors to watch the series before shooting began. “I wanted the actors to be as truthful as possible and have a minimalist style. I am a big believer in subtle understated performances with ambiguity — let the audience decide what they feel. So it was important to watch real doctors and surgeons which this doco provided. It was very ‘fly on the wall’ storytelling.”
And that’s what Pulse also achieves so convincingly. Wyld’s first episode is an intriguing set-up for what will obviously prove to be a complex story with many subplots. And even though Lou quickly falls into an affair with hotshot surgeon Rowan Mitri (Blessing Mokgohloa), there’s little doubt both women will continue to lean on each other, calling on their inner strengths to survive this tough world. It should prove to be another palatable — if often provocative — televisual meal for hungry ABC viewers, and the increasingly large young audience discovering ABC drama on iView. starts Thursday, July 20, 8.30pm, ABC.