“Families don’t want to see blood on your shoes,” Dr. John Boockvar says in an early episode of the new Netflix series “Lenox Hill.” Seeing him quickly wipe himself down before going out to talk to the family of a patient who’s just finished undergoing brain surgery, it’s one of the moments that crystallizes what the show does best.
This vérité look inside the eponymous Upper East Side hospital offers a glimpse into the day-to-day emotional and physical toll that comes with working in health care, utilizing tiny aphorisms like Dr. Boockyar’s to illustrate how much these dedicated professionals can control and what can still remain elusive.
There’s a quartet of doctors that “Lenox Hill” uses as its main lens. Dr. David Langer, the hospital’s head of neurosurgery serves alongside Boockvar, the department’s vice chair. In the maternity wing, Dr. Amanda Little-Richardson is a chief obstetrics resident in the Lenox Hill, while Dr. Mirtha Macri specializes in emergency medicine.
While it’s impossible for one show to provide a complete cross-section of the American healthcare system, this four-person setup allows “Lenox Hill” to also profile a variety of patients. Some come from out-of-state for specific procedures. Others are unsheltered members from the hospital’s surrounding area with urgent care needs. Overall, these patients range from teenagers to retirees, parents and children alike.
With no artificial outside tour guide, “Lenox Hill” relies on the doctors at the center to fill in any gaps for those not intimately familiar with the inner workings of hospital departments. These subjects are certainly telegenic and comfortable enough to offer context for certain inside-baseball hospital practices, even under moments of psychological duress. There’s not always the chance for setup and debrief after every successive step in treatment, but over the course of eight episodes, the information they do offer makes it so that each new patient requires less and less introductory explanation.
Though each of the four central doctors have their own distinct storylines, “Lenox Hill” isn’t precious about presenting them. The regular pendulum swing between developments in one case and goings-on across different floors is a constant reminder that all of this could be happening at the same time. The maternity ward doesn’t pause because a dangerous brain operation is encountering complications a few flights of stairs away.
In letting these developments unfold, directors Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz allow the personalities of the people at the center to help guide the atmosphere surrounding them. There’s an inherent risk and drama every time Langer or Boockvar are working on someone’s brain, but the mood takes its cues from how the people holding the instruments respond to each new step in treatment. As Little-Richardson coaxes a mother through the delivery process, there’s little need to artificially heighten what’s already universally recognizable as a life-changing event.
Whether shaped by fictional depictions of doctor-centered ensemble dramas or other unscripted looks inside emergency rooms, some viewers may bring in an expectation of a series with constant frenetic energy and pulsing forward momentum. One of the true strengths of “Lenox Hill” is that it also captures the feeling of waiting around in a hospital. For the patients, it’s the nervous time spent in a lobby while a loved one is undergoing a procedure. For others, it’s the pause after receiving a bit of unexpected news. For the series’ subjects, it might be staring at a scan, puzzling over what certain results to infer from it.
It’s not faux anti-glamor, but a fuller accounting of an average day, with tiny miracles and obligatory paperwork alike. Although there’s probably room for the series to dig even deeper into the layers of bureaucracy that come with running a functioning surgery department, “Lenox Hill” acknowledges that outside entanglements have the potential to affect what happens in the operating room. For every handful of insights that Boockvar gives into the nature of glioblastoma, there’s one instance of surgeons at a meeting talking about the idea of growing a department or setting expectations for overall caseloads.
Being planted firmly within the walls of Lenox Hill, the series still devotes time to the lives of these doctors away from their respective offices. For Little-Richardon and Macri, it’s how their respective pregnancies shape how they see the patients under their care. Parenthood is also a strong throughline for John and David, who each take time to reminisce about how their fathers set in motion their journeys through the profession.
Barash and Shatz key in on that overall connection, which gives these four the air of a protective parent, just trying to take care of those entrusted to their care. With that framing, “Lenox Hill” becomes a fight between medicine and illness in a relatively sterile environment largely free from interpersonal strife. The show isn’t as comprehensive in its scope as it might be intending at points, but there’s still plenty of fertile storytelling ground where it does focus its attention. And even though each episode doesn’t have an explicit theme, there’s a certain symmetry in how it focuses much of its runtime on expectant mothers and patients facing a possible terminal cancer diagnosis.
In turn, it can take advantage of the specifics of each department on display and still find those common links between everyone just trying to do their jobs the best they can. The show sometimes uses a particular kind of match cut to switch between storylines — with the camera trailing behind doctors walking down a hallway, it’ll switch to a different doctor on another floor moving in the same direction. That simple nod to the idea that the work continues, regardless of what happens elsewhere, rings differently than it might have a few months ago, but it’s potent all the same.
“Lenox Hill” is now available to stream on Netflix.