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Critics Pick Their Favorite TV Doctors of All Time

These are the medical professionals prescribed for a great TV viewing experience.

Best TV Doctors

“The Simpsons,” “The Mindy Project,” “ER”

FOX, Hulu, Warner Bros.

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: Who is your favorite TV doctor of all time? (Doctor Who does not count.)

Damian Holbrook (@damianholbrook), TV Guide Magazine

I am not a fan of how TV usually represents doctors. They are mostly either super earnest and “I am going to save you at the risk of my career!” annoying or the “doesn’t play by the rules” rebel who rides a motorcycle down the ER hallway. Both are tired. And don’t even start me on the hard-ass doctors who obviously know everything and show it off while parading a crew of new residents through a massive hospital during the opening of soooooo many pilots. We get it: Their job is their life and they have a secret soft center.

No, I like my doctors like I like friends: Funny and sort of effed-up. Like “The League’s” plastic surgeon Dr. Andre Nowzick (Paul Scheer) and “The Mindy Project’s” OB/GYN Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling). Both are personally messy — he’s a fashion-challenged scuzzball who wrongfully believes he’s cultured and she was a fashion-forward romantic disaster who eventually found her happy ending after seasons of dating the wrong (but often very hot) guys. Both were relatively klutzy, socially inept and hilarious while also being incredibly adept at their chosen practices. Andre, in fact, was supposed to be one of Chicago’s pre-eminent plastic surgeons despite his Ed Hardy wardrobe and inability to draft a winning fantasy-football roster. And Mindy, well, she was such a solid doctor and rom-com’y good time that Hulu even hired her once Fox discontinued her services after three seasons. And lemme tell ya, Mindy’s streaming years were total appointment TV for this guy.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Dr. Julius Hibbert. Heh. Heh. Heh.

Joyce Eng (@joyceeng61), GoldDerby

“House’s” bedside manner speaks to me the most, but I cannot betray my beloved “ER.” I’ve never actually had a favorite doctor from the show, but if I have to choose, it’d be the one and only Dr. Greene. Ross is the sexy choice, Carter and Abby have the most complete journeys (med student/nurse to doctor), not to mention longer tenures, but Dr. Greene was the unassuming, un-flashy backbone of County General, which might be weird to say about a lead character. Dude wasn’t perfect, but he was good at his job and did his best, which is what you want from a doctor. Also, his death was the first and only time I’ve cried watching TV.

Chris Parnell, "30 Rock"

Chris Parnell, “30 Rock”

NBC Universal

Jacob Oller (@JacobOller), Paste Magazine

I’m not here to dispute the dramatic importance of “ER’s” medical professionals or the innovative comedy of “M*A*S*H’s” beleaguered surgeons. I’m here to praise Dr. Leo Spaceman, the funniest doctor in TV history. “30 Rock” had some amazing left-field characters, but none was more consistently laugh-out-loud funny than Chris Parnell’s Spaceman. A dangerous maniac (that of course ends up as Surgeon General), Spaceman is a font of absurd one-liners delivered with Parnell’s unnerving and masterful deadpan. From dating “Squeaky” Fromme to abandoning man’s foolish quest to pin down exactly where in the body the heart lies, Spaceman started off as a gag about Tracy Jordan’s drug-addled pronunciations and became so much more. I’m sure this list is going to be full of heroic doctors, but Spaceman is the only one with the courage and can-do attitude to ask the big questions. Why DOESN’T the New England Journal of Medicine publish X-rated cartoons?

Alan Sepinwall (@sepinwall), Rolling Stone

My favorite TV doctor of all time is obviously Chris Turk from “Scrubs” because he provided me with my favorite TV dance scene of all time, which we discussed in one of the last polls. I may just answer Turk to all these questions from now on, because the “Poison” dance is just that joyful, and because he’s so… damn… talented.

"Chicago Hope"

James “Hercules” Strong, (@hercAICN)

I love best the medicine men who made me laugh loudest. The irascible Mark Craig (William Daniels) and ever-confused Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley Jr.) from “St. Elsewhere,” the endlessly incredulous gefilte-fish-out-of-water Joel Fleishman (Rob Morrow) from “Northern Exposure,” the two-fisted medical pioneer Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland) from “The Knick,” and the hilariously impatient and imperious (and holographic) Doctor (Robert Picardo) from “Star Trek: Voyager.” But the greatest may forever be David E. Kelley’s original “Chicago Hope” lead, Jeffrey Geiger (Mandy Patinkin). Angry and haunted, Geiger was in my view the fiercest and funniest of all.

Whitney Friedlander (@loislane79), CNN

I feel like Shea Serrano at The Ringer might have beaten me to the punch with this, but my answer is John C. McGinley’s portrayal of Perry Cox on “Scrubs.” Doogie Howser might have been my first crush, I pretended to understand what Hawkeye and B. J. Hunnicutt were up to on “M*A*S*H” when I watched reruns when I was home sick and my mother and grandmother talked fondly about the bonding moments they had watching Marcus Welby. A friend, jokingly, even asked me if Dr. Drake Ramoray counts for this (no).

But Dr. Cox was not just the right bit of sarcastic and nurturing, he also seemed like the kind of doctor I’d want overseeing my health if and when I ever ended up in his hospital. The Ringer piece concentrates on a scene from the fifth season of “Scrubs,” which really was a dynamic piece of writing and acting. But there are so many other ones you can mention, be it the simple look of knowing fear on his face when he realizes his best friend and brother-in-law Ben’s (Brendan Fraser) cancer has returned (and how he mourns him) in Season 3 or his sheer adrenaline rush of keeping patients alive for a “perfect game” in Season 1.

This is probably not a good thing as far as typecasting goes, but I have seen McGinley play other roles before and after “Scrubs’” tenure (hi, “Office Space”!) and still can’t help but hear Dr. Cox talk when he speaks.

"Scrubs"

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

I don’t watch a lot of medical shows, so most of the doctors I encounter on TV – I mean those who don’t have two-hearts and the ability to regenerate – are just men and women who happen to be doctors by profession. So I thought about saying “Sons of Anarchy’s” Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff) because I knew no one else would think of the hard-working doc who just happened to fall in love with an outlaw biker as a teen. And then I thought, hey, Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter is a doctor, and he is also an incredibly snazzy dresser. What’s not to like about him, you know? Besides all the killing, of course. I even thought of “Everwood’s” Andy Brown (Treat Williams), a renowned surgeon who moved his family to a small town after the death of his wife and didn’t even charge for his services. But the real answer has to be Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif) of “Deadwood.” He was indispensable to the camp and knew it, freely speaking his mind to Al (Ian McShane) and just generally being the best. So yeah, the answer is Doc. Apologies to all the doctors on all the actual medical shows — you never really stood a chance.

Brad Dourif, "Deadwood: The Movie"

Brad Dourif, “Deadwood: The Movie”

HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock

Emily Van Der Werff (@tvoti), Vox)

If “Deadwood” is a series about treating the entirety of humanity as one gigantic body that operates almost as an organism in and of itself, then Doc Cochran (the great Brad Dourif) is its immune system, appropriately. He offers wisdom when needed, he cares for the people of the camp, and he understands that a body is a mystery but vital to keeping things running. The show’s depiction of frontier medicine is always just the right level of excruciating, which makes it so much more wonderful that Cochran is one of the show’s warmest, most winning characters. I love “Deadwood,” as surely everyone knows, and that makes Doc Cochran an easy pick for one of my favorite TV doctors.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Jack Amiel, Michael Begler and director Steven Soderbergh’s kneecapped “The Knick” on Cinemax was an incredible effort with a superb cast lead by my top TV doctor pick, Clive Owen, as the charismatic, brilliant and reckless Dr. John Thackery. Thack was the surgeon extraordinaire at The Knickerbocker Hospital. Owen played him with riveting rapid-fire energy with his delivery and his ability to see beyond status quo medical techniques. He was ahead of his time, as was Dr. Algernon (Andre Holland).

All of the medical drama was compounded by Thack losing himself sexually (with Eve Hewson who was so good as her character Lucy Elkins), and a huge cocaine addiction followed up with a heroin one, both substances easily obtained legally and infused in over-the-counter meds at the time. His impatience – and hubris – in the end gave us that scene where he operated on himself, a pretty unforgettable one at that.

Clive Owen, "The Knick"

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

I was never one for the procedural medical drama, so I have to look to space for some of my favorite TV doctors. The Treks have their own roster of great MDs – the irascible Bones, the preppy Dr. Bashir, the fussy EMH – but hands-down the best space doc has to be Doc Cottle from Ronald D. Moore’s reimagined “Battlestar Galactica.” With his chain-smoker gravel voice and give-no-fraks attitude, Cottle is the kind of sawbones who’ll give the bad news to you straight, without any of that posturing Dr. House wit. “Galactica”‘s gritty, post-9/11 treatment of space opera required an equally gruff medical professional, and Cottle fit the bill just swell, so say we all. (Plus, given that Donnelly Rhodes bears more than a passing resemblance to Peter Falk, seeing Cottle on the “Galactica” is the closest thing I’ll ever have to Columbo in Space, so I’ll take what I can get.)

Alec Bojalad (@alecbojalad), Den of Geek

I’m going to have to adapt this a bit to “Favorite TV Doctor Who Isn’t on ‘Scrubs.’” Otherwise, my answer would be “literally everyone on ‘Scrubs.’” Yes, even The Janitor who once practiced medicine under the guise of Dr. Jan Itor. Instead I’m going to go with Dr. Sherman Cottle of “Battlestar Galactica”a.k.a. Doc Cottle.

The near annihilation of the human race requires everyone to be at the top of their game. Still, no one does their job with as much steely professionalism as the Galactica’s Chief Medical Officer. Cigarette firmly planted in mouth, Cottle goes about his taks with a grim sense of duty. He’s not beholden to the executive branch, the military, or anyone else in a position of authority. Instead he simply follows the laws of the Hippocratic Oath…or whatever the equivalent in the Twelve Colonies is.

"Battlestar Galactica"

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

Guys, I’m really (not) sorry to bring this back to “The Leftovers” once again, but a) “Watchmen” is coming, so Mr. Lindelof’s past work is on my mind, b) “Mrs. Fletcher” is also coming — and may or may not have provided seven episodes for review out of the Toronto International Film Festival — so Mr. Perrotta is top of mind, and c) I defy you to find a doctor more thoroughly challenged in their professional capacity than Laurie Garvey, a trained therapist put through the wringer by her patients, the Sudden Departure, a convincing cult, and her own struggles with depression. While ostensibly looking to help others, the Dr. Garvey we get to know through three seasons of “The Leftovers” is in a constant state of searching; whether it’s trying to commit to a meaningless existence after losing faith in her ability to help others, or implementing extreme methods of personal care in a revolutionary attempt to save those most affected by October 14th, or going along with her new and old husbands’ savior complexes, Laurie is repeatedly forced to consider how belief factors into science; how faith can damage or enrich mental health; how the two must coexist for anyone, even her, to get by in this inexplicable world of ours. She wrestles with many of the same demons as your procedural M.D.s, but Laurie’s journey is told with such passion and pushed to such extremes, it’s utterly unique. Only one character could bring “The Leftovers” writing room to a halt, and, for that and so much more (including Amy Brenneman’s amazing dedication to the role and resonance evoked through it), let’s remember Doc Garvey — may she never go scuba diving again.

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Succession” (six votes)

Other contenders: “Lodge 49” (three votes), “Big Brother,” “David Makes Man,” “The Deuce,” “The Righteous Gemstones” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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