Real Life Documentaries Trump Reality TV Every Day

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Film Detail: Gasland

Filmmaker Josh Fox set off across 24 states to investigate the consequences of natural gas drilling. His documentary, Gasland, premieres on HBO on June 21. Josh Fox hide caption

toggle caption Josh Fox

I've come to really, really dislike the term 'reality TV' because it seems so misleading in every respect. The words the people say in these shows may not be scripted, but the people themselves are cast to conform to various types and meet unspoken expectations. Abrasive, annoying, loudmouthed people are included in the mix not by accident — but to inject doses of conflict and drama. And when the activities in which they're engaged aren't engaging enough, these people will perform for the camera, embarking on errands or missions designed to make themselves, and their shows, more interesting. This isn't reality TV. It's TV paint-by-numbers.

But even if the old-fashioned documentary is, by now, a rare and endangered species, it still exists — if you know where to look for it. Currently, you can find one excellent documentary, called Gasland, in rotation on HBO and its sister networks. And beginning this week, you can spend the next two months with Boston Med, a gripping documentary series on ABC.

Gasland, by writer-director Josh Fox, basically does for the natural gas industry what Michael Moore's Roger & Me did for the auto industry. It slowly reveals the practices and excesses of some greedy corporations, and shines a light on the innocent victims left in its wake. In this case, it's people being slowly poisoned, along with their local water supply, by methods of extracting natural gas from the ground. It's a powerful, persuasive, coolly instructive film — and as things keep going wrong with the massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, Gasland couldn't be more timely. So look for it in your HBO listings, and watch it. Prepare to be outraged.

Boston Med: detail i

Over four months, ABC News followed doctors, nurse and patients at three hospitals in Boston. ABC hide caption

toggle caption ABC
Boston Med: detail

Over four months, ABC News followed doctors, nurse and patients at three hospitals in Boston.


And for the next eight Thursday nights, beginning this week, ABC presents Boston Med, the newest medical documentary series from executive producer Terence Wrong. His most recent nonfiction series in this vein — focusing on Johns Hopkins' medical center in Baltimore, won a Peabody Award. Wrong's method of operation — an increasing rarity in the world of network television — is to pick a subject, descend upon it, and stay there for a year or more. He captures what happens without knowing what will happen, or which people and events will emerge as central subjects. This method is similar to the way the infinitely patient Frederick Wiseman films documentaries — but sometimes, when watching a lengthy Wiseman documentary, the viewer needs infinite patience, too. With Boston Med, the stories may have taken a long time to collect, but they unspool quickly, and dramatically.

Boston Med looks at three Boston medical institutions — Children's Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women's Hospital. This gives the series, over its eight weeks, a great range of medical stories, from drunks in the ER to infants in intensive care — and gives us looks at a lot of different doctors and nurses as well.

Because this is ABC, the home of Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, Boston Med is not without some conventions of the scripted medical drama. There's music meant to evoke specific emotions. There are lots of stunning shots of the Boston cityscape. And, most of all, there are real-life caregivers who not only look like characters from these medical soap operas, but, in some cases, are keenly aware of them.

That may make Boston Med sound flippant. It's not — it's anything but. The overall message is that these people band together to do the most amazing and intricate medical procedures — yet they are, at bottom, only human. They bicker, joke, flirt, juggle home lives, complain — and they make mistakes, which are included in Boston Med, making it a much stronger and more dramatic series as a result. Not everyone lives, or does well, at these institutions — but even sudden death isn't the end of the story. This eight-part series concludes with an hour devoted to a single case — the second attempt in medical history at a face transplant that Boston Med was able to follow and film merely because it began with another case, and another patient, entirely. It's a breathtaking end to a superb series — one which is likely to make you shed a tear at some spots and smile widely at others. And, like the people and events in Gasland, it's real reality TV.

David Bianculli is TV critic for and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.



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