Narrative Pollution in HBO Canada’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures
January 8th, 2010
I like to consider Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, a short-form Canadian series debuting on Sunday, January 10th at 8pm ET on HBO Canada, a show made just for me. This is selfish, I know, but I studied the book as an undergrad so it sort of feels like Vincent Lam’s work is following me on my academic/personal/critical journeys. In fact, I even gave a presentation on the short story composite’s (I’ll explain that term in a second, although not in as much detail as I might be tempted to) relationship with television narrative (in a class which had nothing to do with television, by the way) during my time at Acadia University, so the long-gestating adaptation announced soon after the book won the prestigious Giller Prize in 2006 has been of great interest to me.
And while I’ll spare you (most of) the more academic consideration of the series that’s floating around my head after watching the opening episode (which, for Canadians, can be streamed on TheMovieNetwork.com), I will say that this is one example where having first-hand knowledge of the text at hand has largely ruined the series for me. This is not to suggest that Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a failure, or that what has been put on the screen is of low quality – there are some solid performances here, and the characters from Lam’s book remain compelling.
The problem is that in a text, and a medium, defined by its presentation of various time periods, executive producer Jason Sherman simply got it backwards – the parts of the story which have the most weight are relegated to flashbacks, and instead of allowing the narrative to unfold on its own time the series creates a melodramatic and unnecessary “present” which keeps it from engaging with the complexities of Lam’s story, complexities that seem perfectly suited to a new generation of serialized storytelling. I do not mean to suggest that there is only one way to adapt this series (after all, any adaptation will skew the original source text based on the writers and directors involved – I’m not THAT guy), but I will argue that the changes made reflect a reductive view of the short story as a medium and are unnecessary measures meant to kow-tow to genre stereotypes the producers are actively trying to avoid, resulting in a series that (while solidly made) fails to capture what made the original text so compelling as both a short story composite and as a potential television series.
While many make the mistake of presuming Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures is a novel, in reality it is a series of short stories. While it is possible to simply consider it a “short story collection,” the book best fits under the title of the short story composite, which (I’ll spare you an actual reference lest this begin to feel too academic) is an interconnected series of stories which when considered as a whole gain greater meaning to a degree that loosely connected stories do not. While each story is capable of standing on its own, it also feels like one part of a larger whole or, for the sake of this analysis, like one episode of an entire season. The stories do not necessarily have clear narrative threads between them, but they all contribute to a collective meaning or purpose – in the case of this collection, the stories follow young doctors (Fitz, Ming, Chen and Sri) throughout their careers in an effort to capture the daily grind of medicine as well as the complex social relationships which pile up with time.
To me, this structure sounds perfect for a television series, especially one billed as a miniseries therefore resisting concerns about “longevity” which plague shows that face pressure to run for multiple seasons. On the one hand, the stories are inherently serial in that they form part of a collective image of these characters and their experience in the medical field – this evokes the recent trend towards serialized television (The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, etc.) that expects the viewer to watch the entire series and rewards them with dramatic complexity (a trend which includes many series which air (or aired) on HBO Canada and its sister channels). On the other hand, each individual episode technically stands as its own story, which means that it is technically possible to jump in and enjoy one episode at random without necessarily feeling “lost” in the story. I’d compare it to something like HBO’s Band of Brothers: any individual episode might be more meaningful when viewed as part of the larger whole, but you could watch one episode as a depiction of one particular battle or one particular soldier and you wouldn’t be entirely confused, capable of enjoying that story at some level.
And yet, what Sherman has done with Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures indicates that he lacks confidence in the audience’s ability to construct a deeper meaning without some sort of clear narrative thread between each episode. In a new narrative introduced for the purpose of the series, we join the characters in medias res: Ming (Mayko Nguyen) is an OB/GYN trying to get pregnant, Chen (Byron Mann) is her infertile husband who works in Trauma, and Fitz (Shawn Ashmore) is an Air Ambulance physician who is donating sperm to Ming (his former lover) so she can have her baby. Of course, this is a slightly complicated scenario for all involved, especially when Fitz is offered a job at the hospital which would have him closer to “his” baby than Ming and Chen would have anticipated. The series is then structured in terms of how this scenario influences each of the individual characters, inspiring them to flash back to their time in medical school, or particular medical experiences, when they seem relevant to this story.
While I think that this structure has some merit, and certainly has not created a terrible television series, it has two fundamental problems. The first is that, whether the producers want to admit it or not, it sounds like something out of Grey’s Anatomy. Now, I don’t entirely know why the producers are so afraid of comparisons with Grey’s Anatomy: yes, its light-hearted material may be something that show clearly wants to avoid, but at its darkest and most dramatic Grey’s engages with complicated ideas not that far removed from Lam’s book. The issue is that while the rest of the series may be investigating more complex ideas, its starting point is defined in the terms of the medical soap opera, a love triangle initiated by the return of one character from a long absence. It is a storyline not that dissimilar from something like NBC’s Mercy, which is perhaps a more terrifying comparison the show’s producers should be resisting, and while the show might understand that it plans to execute the consequences differently its audience may not have the same prescience.
The next problem is that, in highlighting the show’s narrative “present” so heavily, Sherman limits both the scope and impact of Lam’s stories. Now, rather than contributing to a collective meaning which is largely up to the reader (allowing them to draw their own conclusions, and allowing those conclusions to emerge naturally over time), the series has created a cause/effect relationship between the characters’ current situation and their past. In the first episode, the flashbacks cover the rise (and fall) of Ming and Fitz’s relationship, along with their first days of medical school with Chen and Sri (who had a larger role in the book but who has been marginalized here). And what’s frustrating is that the flashback doesn’t form a cohesive story even to the level of Lost’s flashbacks: rather, it depicts stereotypical, exposition-filled moments of their relationship which fit comfortably into the “present” scenario. Perhaps the flashbacks would be more effective if they were actually surprising: however, the episode opens with a sitcomesque sequence where Chen provides the tale of the tape (“This is Ming: a baby doctor! This is Fitz: he used to be a doctor,” etc.) and lays out the entire back story between the characters so that there is not even a modicum of revelation to be found. The flashbacks, which are effectively truncated versions of Lam’s stories, feel rote and bland in a way which robs the stories of much of their true dramatic interest.
Admittedly, as someone who has not only read Lam’s book but actually studied it in the context of the short story composite form and in its relationship with television narrative, I’m coming at this from a unique angle. With no knowledge of the book involved, the show offers a well-acted, solidly compelling take on the medical procedural with a unique narrative structure. Plus, Charles Foran’s piece on the series at The Walrus reveals that these new story elements were something Lam was considering for a future book featuring these characters, so it’s not as if Sherman has fabricated something which goes against the author’s wishes. And Foran even reveals that Sherman considered following my advice, but after “initially toying with the idea of an anthology of single-story episodes, he eventually resolved to construct that missing narrative arc.” However, the narrative arc wasn’t missing: Foran seems to suggest that any short story composite is a novel yearning to be completed, but that implies a hierarchy between the short story composite (which Foran suggests as a gateway text for “novice” authors like Lam who aren’t ready to write novels) and novels that authors like Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood (who have both written composites) would likely contest.
My concern with the series was that it would eventually get trapped in a negotiating position between the serialized television the composite form evokes and the traditional medical soap opera narratives that it can’t possibly avoid, and that is precisely what happened. Foran’s article indicates that the writers softened the character of Ming to make her more likeable (characters have to be likeable?), and introduced more sexually provocative and cheeky medical scenarios in order to liven things up (because real, non-testicular medical conditions aren’t capable of being lively?), which suggests that Lam’s text was deemed too dark, too serious, and too “incomplete” to be adapted successfully to television. And I cry foul on all of these concerns, as those qualities help define some of the strongest drama of the past decade (and, for that matter, television as a whole). While the producers want to resist comparisons with Grey’s Anatomy, creating a narrative which evokes that show’s tropes and suggests that it is in some way the missing link which makes these stories adaptable only highlights the false sense of dependence they have on traditional depictions of medicine and doctors in television. It is one thing to create a connective thread (Band of Brothers used interviews with surviving members of Bravo Company discussing their experiences), but it is another to use that thread to not only link stories together but also to define them in stereotypical, reductive terms.
To compare the show to Band of Brothers may seem unfair considering that the World War II miniseries had the audience’s knowledge of the war to serve as a guide for the series’ arc even when individual episodes abandoned the overall war effort, but that miniseries is demonstrative of the ability for individual stories to create a collective whole in the televisual form. I don’t want to suggest that there is only one way to adapt any particular text, or that Sherman had no right to change Lam’s story (after all, Lam was heavily involved in the creative process and even makes a cameo appearance). Instead, my issue is that the way the series was adapted attempts to place the blame on Lam’s text for being a challenge to adapt because the short story composite form is in some way incongruous with television narrative and audience expectations, which is an argument predicated on a bias against short fiction that completely ignores its relationship with serialized storytelling. There is nothing in Lam’s book which is that foreign to television audiences (at least not the kind who would watch a show with this type of subject matter), so any changes that were made are the writer’s personal choices rather than a requirement in order to create something filmable out of Lam’s work, and selling them as the latter as opposed to the former rubs me the wrong way.
Now, just to be clear, I’m basing this on the first episode (“How to Get Ahead in Medical School”) and the synopses of the remainder of the series (along with Sherman’s comments about the series), and despite my concerns with the direction I’m going to keep watching for two reasons. The first is that I think Sherman’s strategy will eventually evolve to the point where the conclusion of the series might be able to craft out its own complex narrative position, so long as things don’t become too melodramatic. And the second is that I like shows in the vein of Grey’s Anatomy when they’re done with a hint of darkness, so this show is still appealing to me if I shut off my literary background and think solely of what I want to see in a twist on the medical soap opera.
But on a personal level, I have to lament what could have been (and what, even based on a single episode, I know will not be). When I heard they were adapting Lam’s book, I felt it was the perfect marriage of form and content: television, in this new serialized age, seemed the perfect medium to capture the unique structure of the short story composite. As a result, I cannot help but feel that this is a missed opportunity, a chance to truly embrace television’s narrative potential snatched away by tired genre tropes and a fear of allowing the audience to experience the stories without a clearer connection between past and present. And sometimes, it is simply not possible to consider the decent television series in front of you when you’re left wishfully considering the television series that you know was there on the page waiting to spring forth (and, unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a miraculous cure for that).
- One of the other major additions to the series is dream sequences, which I’ve read the series suggest is something novel as opposed to, well, enormously tired as a television trope. I think they’re done somewhat effectively, and Sherman’s writing is perhaps at its best when he gets to play with structures he feels familiar with, but they seem unnecessary: while their inconsistency with the rest of the show’s tone is purposeful (to clearly designate them as dream sequences before the character wakes up), it seems like a brief glance could provide the same types of messages in a more subtle fashion.
- Just to make clear I don’t mind changes, I can understand why Sri was eliminated, even if I feel he offered a less complicated, but no less complex, vision into what it means to be a doctor what the series has leapfrogged with its melodrama.
- For the majority of my readers, who are not located in Canada, I don’t think there are any plans for the series to air Stateside or anywhere else: the show isn’t aggressively Canadian based on Episode One, but the lack of potential for long-term series commitment means that co-production would be a tougher sell, so you might be waiting for DVD for this one.