From Uncle Vanya to Good Sam: Doctors in Popular Culture

In 1897, the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote a new play titled Uncle Vanya. A slow-paced piece set in the 1890s Russian countryside, Uncle Vanya has few characters, but each one is indelibly memorable. Doctor Astrov, for example, is a young country doctor whose ennui is palpable throughout the play and whose passion for life—and for his profession—has long since dissipated. As Marco De Ambrogi writes in The Lancet, the character’s “numbness resonated with Russian doctors at that time” (1). Insightfully, De Ambrogi then asks whether things have changed—that is, whether modern doctors could still relate to the same feelings of depression and burnout that the playwright Chekhov had bestowed onto Doctor Astrov (1). It is a timely topic because as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its third year, more attention has been brought to reports of physician burnout as well as the problem that it posed even pre-pandemic (2). But what is also striking about viewing Uncle Vanya in the 21st century is how keenly aware one becomes of the differences in the portrayal of doctors in today’s popular culture.

(3) Pribadi W. Photo by Wesley Pribadi on Unsplash.


For example, as I was flicking through TV channels one night (I have not yet succumbed to subscription-based television), I landed on a new medical drama on Global called Good Sam. Cable television has more than enough medical dramas, but this one was nevertheless tempting because of the cast, namely, Sophia Bush from One Tree Hill and Jason Isaacs of Harry Potter fame. However, immediately from the opening scene, it became clear that the show would not be deviating from its predecessors in its somewhat trite portrayal of hospital-based professions as exciting lifestyles in which every day plays out like an action movie. We can easily recognize this trope in the litany of medical dramas that have come before, but the formula continues to please audiences. In fact, Grey’s Anatomy was recently renewed for its astounding nineteenth season (4). But it was during that first episode of Good Sam that I wondered about its contrast to Uncle Vanya. In some respects, they are similar; for instance, the show touches on physicians’ mental health and emphasizes the pain of conflicts within familial relationships. However, these works are ultimately more different than they are alike.


It is true that Uncle Vanya and Good Sam are not quite comparable: the medium is different, the setting is different, and the stories explore different themes. Of course, they were also created more than one hundred years apart, and the field of medicine has admittedly changed a great deal in that time. Despite all this, I could not help but contrast Doctor Astrov’s frustrated ennui to the unbridled enthusiasm that Sophia Bush’s character had for her profession. In consuming both media together so closely in time, one is drawn to the differences between their depictions of the physician’s life. From Uncle Vanya to Good Sam, popular culture continues to find ways of depicting the lives of doctors. Can plays, films, or TV shows ever properly depict what that life is like? If they can, which is closest to the truth?


References

  1. Ambrogi MD. Elegy of an unfulfilled life. The Lancet. 2016 Mar 5;387(10022):933–4.

  2. Press TC. More doctors suffering burnout throughout pandemic, OMA says | CBC News [Internet]. CBC. 2021. Available from: https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/covid-19-doctor-burnout-oma-1.6146465

  3. Pribadi W. Photo by Wesley Pribadi on Unsplash. Available from: https://unsplash.com/photos/dyJq7vzPeU8

  4. Grey’s Anatomy. It’s a beautiful day to receive some big news.#GreysAnatomy will be back on Feb 24 and for a whole new season! Congrats on Season 19 https://t.co/ZZn10dlGBJ [Internet]. @GreysABC. 2022. Available from: https://twitter.com/GreysABC/status/1480603331018043400

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