In eighth grade, a friend of mine told me she hoped to become a doctor. It was a lofty goal, but she was confident she could make it because she already knew just about everything a well-trained doctor knew. Where had she earned such a valuable education? “Grey’s Anatomy,” she claimed.
The ABC series taught her everything she needed to know about medicine. From time to time, she proved this with an intense medical diagnosis. Eventually — probably during high school biology — reality sank in and her dreams of an easy route through medical school were crushed.
Television is full of medical dramas — many of which outlast the average show’s five or six seasons. “General Hospital” — the medical drama that launched in 1963 — is on its 60th season. “Grey’s Anatomy” has 19. And “ER” had 15.
A typical medical drama features attractive doctors who, when they aren’t solving unprecedented medical mysteries, are intermingling in each others’ personal lives.
These shows invite viewers into an exciting and dramatic world that hooks fans for years. Something about medical-based soap operas feels addictive (I know from personal experience). But why do we love them?
Why we love to watch medical dramas
Other than the soap opera melodrama in most medical TV shows, there are plenty of reasons we get hooked.
We like scary things — when we’re safe on the couch
Watching an intense emergency room scene while safely nestled on the couch activates our sympathetic nervous system, said neuropsychologist Dr. Marian Rissenberg, per Bustle.
“The fight or flight response is triggered, which increases heart rate and blood pressure and redirects blood from our major organs to our limbs, so we can battle or run, and so on,” Rissenberg said, per Bustle. “We like the feeling of being scared, on a smaller scale or a virtual plane, when we are confident we will be OK.”
Feelings of being scared translate to excitement when we know nothing bad can really happen, and it makes medical dramas engrossing.
We consider doctors our modern-day heroes
Heroes are the hallmark of every exciting story. There is a reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe is worth more than $50 billion. But in an everyday world without supernatural powers, doctors are our life-saving heroes, said Thomas Wright, author of “Circulation,” a biography of the 17th-century physician William Harvey, per the BBC.
“We look to doctors and scientists for answers — we hope that they can overcome illness and death. We put them on a pedestal,” Wright said, per the BBC.
We have ‘a morbid fascination with nature’
Medical dramas do not shy away from blood, gore and guts. They are chaotic and messy and sometimes so gruesome we have to shield our eyes. But, as Rissenberg said, “we have a morbid fascination with nature,” per Bustle.
“I imagine that on some subconscious level, we cannot help but be intrigued at seeing something so socially unacceptable and morbid,” said Dr. Sonia Shah, an emergency medicine physician in Chicago, per Bustle.
What are the best medical dramas?
There are dozens of medical dramas out there. Here are five of the most well-known and highly rated shows on television.
1. ‘M*A*S*H’ (1972-1983)
“M*A*S*H” is different from the typical medical drama because it takes place during the Korean War at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Staff at the Army hospital keep things light during difficult circumstances with practical jokes and humor — plus some captivating drama.
Where to watch: Hulu.
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score: 90%.
2. ‘ER’ (1994-2009)
“ER” is where George Clooney’s acting career took off, but the series has more to offer than the perk of a young Clooney. Set at Chicago’s County General Hospital, “ER” chronicles the exciting, mundane and even heartbreaking days in the emergency room. Viewers take part in the emotional roller coaster within the hospital staff’s work and personal lives.
Where to watch: Hulu, HBO Max, Philo, Amazon Prime.
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score: 84%.
3. ‘Scrubs’ (2001-2010)
For a more lighthearted approach to life at the hospital, there’s “Scrubs.” At Sacred Heart Hospital in California, there is a perfect balance of comedy and drama. Intern John “J.D.” Dorian (Zach Braff) learns a lot about being a physician and getting along with his co-workers — who can be difficult. There’s also a serious bromance.
Where to watch: Hulu, Philo, YouTube TV.
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score: 86%.
4. ‘House’ (2004-2012)
Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is as antisocial as he is genius. With his team of doctors, they crack difficult medical mysteries, cure complex diseases and overcome a series of personal problems — such as House’s prescription pill addiction.
Where to watch: Apple TV, Peacock, Amazon Prime, YouTube TV.
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score: 96%.
5. ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ (2005-present)
If “Grey’s Anatomy” has anything going for it, it’s quantity. With 19 seasons and counting, you’ve got years of drama to get through if you’re ready to take on this iconic medical drama.
The series follows Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), an aspiring doctor interning at Seattle Grace Hospital. Throughout the series, Meredith faces personal and professional challenges — as well as overcoming ghosts from her past.
Where to watch: ABC, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV.
Rotten Tomatoes Audience Score: 76%.