On June 24, 2020, Netflix released a special episode of “Lenox Hill.” With a pandemic still in its relative infancy, a doctor-focused doc series presented a 32-minute time capsule of Covid’s arrival in New York City. It’s far from the only show to document those frightening few weeks in its own way, but nearly three years later, “Lenox Hill” still feels like a definitive portrait of that moment in time.
“Lenox Hill” was both a perfect and an odd source for something so specific. On one hand, the show provided an intimate glimpse of life at Lenox Hill Hospital. Through an observational lens, directors/creators Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash were able to present the highest-stakes environment as a day-to-day job in surgery wards and emergency triage centers. Yet one of the intriguing things about that original season is that it felt unmoored from time. The series wasn’t hyperfixated on state-of-the-art gadgets or situating audiences in a particular month or year. The feeling was that this is how hospital life is and has been, the constant, neverending effort to keep people as healthy as possible.
Fast-forward to 2023 and Shatz and Barash are back with “Emergency: NYC,” another eight-episode Netflix season similar in form to its predecessor but even more expansive in its scope. The camera crews are back at Lenox Hill, following some of the same surgeons and nurses that became the default main characters on that first show. But “Emergency: NYC” is also true to its title, casting a wider net and visiting other hospitals around the five boroughs as they respond to the city’s calls.
That means the focus isn’t just on people after they’ve arrived for treatment. Much of this new series also profiles the people in charge of making sure those patients get where they need to go. “Emergency: NYC” rides along in ambulances and helicopters alike, as crews work out the necessary logsitics to keep people alive and ensure they arrive at their intended destination as quickly as possible. The show doesn’t treat them as nameless, faceless workers. They have families and anxieties and concerns and jokes and all the other things that fill the downtime in between shifts.
While there’s a good portion of “Emergency: NYC” dedicated to showing people as top-tier professionals, it’s less interested in mythologizing. It’s always jarring to see someone treating a life-saving procedure with the same energy and casualness of a data entry task. It doesn’t mean that these jobs and the show don’t have room for adjusting to the unexpected or the sensational, but there’s a strong thread of the ordinary that runs through much of the show. Bedside manner is still a strong component of the series, and most of the people in the spotlight here handle those interpersonal interactions with the specific kind of calm that can soothe an anxious loved one.
Even in that confidence and professionalism, there’s an inherent drama in “Emergency: NYC” that Shatz and Barash rarely need to add to artificially. There is the odd swell during the climactic moment of a C-section, but this is a show that actively resists emotional manipulation even when it’s most tempting. It’s enough to chase a first responder as they run through the hallways of a pediatric hospital. It’s enough to know the consequences for damaging precious brain tissue or not removing the entirety of a tumor. “Emergency: NYC” presents all of the realities of these jobs in a matter-of-fact way that serves both the show and the respect of the people they’re profiling.
As encompassing as “Emergency: NYC” can feel at times, putting forward a cross-section of patients facing a variety of different needs and severities, a TV show doesn’t magically rise out of footage, regardless of how compelling. There’s intent here that takes “Emergency: NYC” beyond merely cutting together surveillance footage. Shatz and Barash find tiny symmetries in different operations or circumstances, showing how success in this field is a moving target. Fully prepared medical experts are still at the mercy of fickle organs that behave differently depending on the patient.
And there’s also still the specter of Covid, which isn’t a constant topic throughout “Emergency: NYC,” but its effects are still felt. Some patients feel removed from society and some delayed procedures have had noticeable effect on the people who need them. A return to normalcy isn’t exactly possible in an environment built in part to care for people involved in unpredictable accidents.
It’s just one way that “Emergency: NYC” shows how integral these hospitals are to fabric of New York. Whatever the city is facing comes to the doorsteps of these facilities. Sometimes teenagers arrive as the victim of gunshot wounds. Deadly car accidents are also a common occurrence throughout the season. “Emergency: NYC” is careful to let the doctors and nurses articulate how frequent those occurrences are. If there’s a public health epidemic caused by something other than an airborne disease, the people giving voice to it are the ones who are being confronted with the effects day in and day out.
The show doesn’t dwell on it often, but “Emergency: NYC” isn’t ignorant of the physical and mental toll that comes with work in the medical field. This is not simply an eight-episode tribute to success. Complications arise. Members of the staff face hospitalizations of their own. Families grieve. (One gutting moment from the latter half of the season: after a young patient dies en route to the hospital, a first responder’s somber response to someone trying to call him a superhero.)
No one explicitly states it in “Emergency: NYC,” but there’s also the overriding feeling that this is a profession constantly trying to catch up. There’s always another person to examine or to treat. There’s always the feeling that getting to someone a few seconds sooner gives them a better chance at survival. And with certain policy decisions exacerbating the cause of some of these accidents, the people on camera in this series are the ones left to make sense of the damage. They’re not unequipped to do so, being in a place that reminds them every day that there are successes amidst some overwhelmingly negative odds. Those triumphs and realities coexist in those places, and to the show’s credit, they do on “Emergency: NYC” too.
“Emergency: NYC” is now available to stream on Netflix.