A good writer can make just about anything, if not wholly plausible, then at least so gripping that the disbelief only bubbles up much later (I think of Ian McEwan here, a man who screws with my scepticism as no other novelist can). Is Malpractice, ITV’s new medical thriller, credible? On balance, no, it isn’t. But every time I consider abandoning it – I’ve seen previews of two episodes, and am about to crack open a third – it pulls me right back in. In its schlocky thrall, I’m (mostly) able to ignore not only all the mad coincidences, but even the rather more prosaic fact that none of the doctors and nurses in this post-pandemic hospital (this is explicit: one strand of its plot turns on the events of 2020) ever seems to wear a mask.
I guess the masks have been chucked the better that we might hear every word of Grace Ofori-Attah’s script. It moves fast, and each line counts. Lucinda Edwards (Niamh Algar) is a senior registrar in a Yorkshire A&E department. When the series begins, it’s the end of a long day (or the start of another one, for those on the late shift). She’s treating a patient who has taken an overdose, a young woman she mysteriously knew was shortly to arrive by ambulance courtesy of a text message from someone identified only as Rose. All should be well – the antidote is working – but then hell breaks out. In reception, a boy with gunshot wounds lies bleeding on the floor, beside him a wild-eyed and armed man. Edwards goes out and confronts the gunman – she ignores completely the advice of the hospital security team – and seconds later, the boy is duly being lifted into the bed previously occupied by the overdose patient (no other was available).
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Tick-tock, tick-tock. What follows is a blur of needles in arms, scalpels in bodies and (uh oh: what’s this?) patient notes hurriedly adjusted. Something, however, is about to go badly wrong. Left in the care of a junior doctor, Ramya Morgan (Priyanka Patel), the overdose patient dies unexpectedly. Did Morgan mishear the instructions Edwards frantically gave her? Or did one of the two women fail to do her job properly? These questions become pressing when the patient’s family makes a complaint, and Edwards, as the senior doctor on duty that day, must face the scrutiny of the Medical Investigation Unit (the AC-12 of West Yorkshire hospitals; the drama is made by the same company that brought us Line of Duty). Apparently, the fact that she single-handedly saved the life of the bleeding boy now counts for nothing.
On paper, all this sounds a bit bureaucratic, a matter of process more than negligence, let alone anything more dastardly. Except Edwards isn’t quite the scrubs-wearing warrior queen she seems. Ofori-Attah’s script is about to deliver drug addiction, corruption, theft, possible manslaughter and some light establishment sexism; if it only had fully drawn characters, too, it really would be something. But we’re watching chess pieces: pawns in latex gloves, stethoscopes swinging. Who is a saint, and who is a sinner? At this point, it’s impossible to tell, which is both why we’ll keep watching, and why we’ll forget the entire thing the instant it ends.
Sure, I’m a bit bothered that Edwards appears to know one of those investigating her, George Adjei (Jordan Kouamé) – and how is it that he gets his hands on her phone records, seemingly overnight? He’s a medic, not a cop. Wouldn’t he need a court order? But I’m writing this in the harsh light of day. Last night, lying on the sofa with my laptop balanced on my knees, I was as credulous as a child. I swallowed George’s timelines like they were vitamins (yes, this series does come with a whiteboard). Even his cack-handed interview technique (he harasses his witnesses while they’re rushing around A&E worrying about lumbar punctures) seemed just dandy accompanied with a large glass of wine and a small bowl of something so salty no doctor would ever prescribe it.
I so badly want to know what’s going to happen, and thanks to this, my disbelief isn’t merely suspended. Like Edwards’s boss, Leo Harris (James Purefoy), a man who’s known for disappearing at inopportune moments, it is missing in action; in absentia for as long as every episode lasts.
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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age