Un­pre­dictable sto­ries ex­plor­ing eth­i­cal and moral is­sues, com­plex char­ac­ters and edgy di­a­logue give this new med­i­cal drama a con­fronting doc­u­men­tary feel

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Pulse

‘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.

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