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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"This Is Going To Hurt" is by turns a caustically funny and gut-wrenching series about a young doctor of gynecology and obstetrics. He struggles to keep his mind, body and soul intact, despite a punishing work schedule, an endless parade of life-or-death decisions, interminable hospital bureaucracy and a personal life showing advance signs of neglect.
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
Ben Whishaw stars in the British series, which is based on the diaries of a real doctor in Britain's National Health Service, diaries that were later turned into a bestselling memoir. I'm Linda Holmes.
WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today, we're talking about "This Is Going To Hurt" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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WELDON: It's just the two of us today, so let's get right to it. "This Is Going To Hurt" is based on the memoir of the same name by Adam Kay. On the show, Ben Whishaw plays Adam, a junior doctor who runs the labor ward at an NHS hospital. He reluctantly takes under his wing a trainee doctor named Shruti, played by Ambika Mod. Adam is a bit of a mess - sleep deprived, closeted, often snippy. But he cares deeply about his patients and tortures himself when he makes a big mistake. He sometimes turns to the camera to confide in us about his struggles and his complicated relationships with the hospital's head midwife, played by Michele Austin, with his snooty boss, played by Alex Jennings, and with his cute, longsuffering and unbelievably understanding - literally, unbelievably understanding - boyfriend, played by Rory Fleck Byrne. "This Is Going To Hurt" ran on the BBC and is now airing in the States on AMC+ and Sundance Now. Linda, you're the one who turned me on to the series, so I think I know what you think. But tell me, what'd you make of "This Is Going To Hurt?"
HOLMES: Yeah. I loved this show. I was so impressed by it. And I loved it from the first shot, really. You come in on Ben Whishaw sleeping. And you don't really know where he is. It's an extreme close-up. And the cameras kind of spins around and retreats. And it's very disorienting. And you realize that he has slept all night in his car and never made it home to his partner from work. And I think it is such a good introduction to how, really, miserable and difficult this life is. I was familiar with the memoir. I had read it. I think I'd listen to the audiobook. And to me, it's just a really different way of making a medical drama. And I think he, as a writer is very committed to the idea that there is no heroism that is adequate to make up for collective problems and failures, right? So these are not doctors who are really magical heroes. They are doctors who are slogging through an extraordinarily difficult situation, trying to make the best of it, trying to figure out how to both give good care to their patients and also retain some kind of happiness as human beings.
WELDON: Yeah. I loved this, too, which kind of surprised me because it's not the subject that I love, because I don't watch a lot of medical shows. And I think the only two I've ever really watched I don't think of as medical shows. I mean, "St. Elsewhere" is basically a soap dressed up in hospital drag. And "Children's Hospital," of course, is making fun of the cliches that keep me from watching medical shows. So to listeners, I just want to say, if you don't think this is going to be your thing, give it a shot anyway because I was in from the start. Whishaw is so good at being this guy, who can be a jerk. But he's a funny jerk. And (laughter) that settles it for me.
WELDON: But he can also - when it needs to be, he can be soulful, incredibly soulful. I also like the supporting cast a lot because at first, yeah, they slot into some pretty familiar, broad types. But the writing gives them room to really emerge as distinct, very specific and often very idiosyncratic characters. But I'm going to tell you, Linda, there were times - and this is my own anti-procedural show snobbishness creeping in here. But there were times when we'd get the kind of dramatic don't you die on me moment that medical shows just churn out every week. And I'd suddenly catch myself sitting there going, am I just watching "ER" and I got distracted by the British accents? Is that what's happening here? But then we'd get a scene like this one, where he's treating a deeply unpleasant 87-year-old patient named Magda (ph). And you get an exchange like this one.
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BEN WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) So any more of that pain in the chest since last night?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Magda) Why do you care?
WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) Because it reflects very badly on me if you die.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Magda) Nobody cares if I die.
WHISHAW: (As Adam Kay) Oh, I don't know. The lion and the wardrobe will probably miss you.
WELDON: That is a solid piece of business. That is a great joke. But even more importantly - even more importantly - it is just tossed off. These jokes are not the engines that drive the show. We called it a medical drama. It is also a comedy. But these jokes are part of the texture of the show. They don't drive it, right?
HOLMES: Yeah. And I think the other thing that you get from that is you can hear how quick that exchange is. And one of the things I like about this particular show, as opposed to a lot of other shows, is that I think what Kay, in the memoir, was talking about, among other things, is how little time you actually get to spend with patients. And I think this show is very effective at showing that Adam is constantly looking at his phone, taking pages, trying to figure out where he's supposed to be, getting emergency calls, being sent here, being sent now over there. And they are honest about the fact that he does not actually spend a lot of time with each individual patient. And you don't get those kind of "ER"-type scenes where, like, all the doctors are standing around the desk chatting because that's not the world, right? They are all running from one place to another. You don't get people just congregating. And you don't get these, like, let's have a long conversation with the patient and get to know them. And if you've ever actually been in the hospital, you know that you see the doctor for a moment...
HOLMES: ...And then the doctor is called away to somewhere else. And I think it's particularly hard to build the kind of tension and importance in a show when you keep it at that pace. But that pace is so much the heart of what he tries, in the memoir, to explain, which is both it affects care - and one of the things I admire about this show is that sometimes he is not a nice person, and sometimes he is not a good doctor. Sometimes he is not the doctor that you would want. He is, you know, distracted. He is sometimes unkind.
It's incredibly important not to suggest that, well, this is all very sad for doctors, but, of course, because they're heroes, it will never affect the care that they're able to give. And I just think, you know, among other things - like, for Americans, I think there's this idea that because the NHS keeps you from having to deal with insurance companies, that it doesn't suffer from the same kind of limitations on resources that our medical systems do over here. But I think, you know, this is a pretty bruising look at the NHS as well.
WELDON: Yeah, it is. It's a realistic look at the NHS. I mean - and it's in every aspect of the show - in the production design, for example. No hospital looks great, but this hospital is a Brutalist nightmare. It's dingy. It's worn down. It's neglected, which is feeding into the show's point of view, as you mentioned, because some people have called it a love letter to the NHS. But if it is, it is a very unromantic, clear-eyed...
HOLMES: Yeah, I wouldn't call it that. But there is a moment where, I think, without giving too much away - I can say there is an episode that is sort of about private hospitals...
HOLMES: ...And the fact that they do have private hospitals, and there is a recognition that private hospitals, which are for-profit, are still, in some ways, free-riding off the NHS. And it's such a smart, subtle point to be making about that system and the fact that it has its own problems and difficulties. But I just - I think, like you said, the fact that it is funny but it is also absolutely devastating at times is such a hard balance. And, you know, Whishaw - I've seen Whishaw play a lot of guys who are sort of gentle - gently overwhelmed by things. This is not that exactly. He is a nasty piece of work at times...
HOLMES: ...But also, you know, very vulnerable. He's an actor who can always give you vulnerability and humanity. Same with Ambika Mod, who I hadn't seen before. And I think she's just wonderful in this.
WELDON: Yeah. Because at the top of the show, I said that he runs the labor ward, but that's technically true in the sense that he's what they call the chief acting registrar, which means he's responsible for making, you know, the minute-by-minute decisions. But what the show is also about is how he's kind of trapped in the middle of the hospital hierarchy.
WELDON: His boss is an incredibly snooty, upper-class jerk - a toff in British parlance - who also happens to be very good at his job, which I thought was a really nice touch. And the head midwife, Tracy, is technically beneath him, but she's always there to take him down a peg when he deserves it. And the heart of the show, as you mentioned, is the relationship between him and his trainee, Shruti. That is a relationship that's always in kind of a very grounded but very believable flux. You know, it goes to some very surprising and some very gut-wrenching places. So without spoiling it, what - talk to me about that relationship.
HOLMES: It's so common to have seen the overwhelmed young trainee, again, on "ER" and shows like that. You get, you know, Lucy Knight, played by Kellie Martin, who comes in and is overwhelmed.
HOLMES: Even in the very first episode of "ER" - Carter, who comes in and is overwhelmed. So this character of the trainee is familiar. But the way that she is portrayed and the way that they are honest about the fact that whatever is rolling downhill on to Adam, he rolls it on downhill to her. And he is treating her, in many ways, the way that he feels treated, which is not very well. He does not really have a proper mentor. You know, the closest thing he has, really, to a mentor is Tracy, who, in many ways, knows more - not in many ways, in basically all ways, knows more than he does about the labor ward and about running the labor ward but who, as you mentioned, he outranks, which I think is a very common structure in hospitals and in some other workplaces as well...
HOLMES: ...That the people who know the most are not necessarily in charge. And I think the relationship with Shruti is based on that idea that when people are not supported and they are not treated well and they do not get enough sleep and they do not get enough respite, they turn their anger and they turn their frustration toward the people who are coming up behind them. And that system becomes self-perpetuating. And I think it's one of the things the show is most foundationally about is that system and the toll it takes. And I'll say, you know, the - Kay is also very assertive in that book about talking about the mental health of doctors and nurses and other people who work in hospitals. And so the interest in sort of the toll this is taking on Adam and on Shruti all comes very much from the book.
WELDON: And if we didn't make it clear at the top, this is a very self-contained show. And that is clear from the start. These characters aren't stuck in narrative limbo the way characters on a procedural often are. They are churning through arcs. There is a place that all of these characters end up that is different from where they started, and that also feels kind of propulsive to me. That's kind of what pulls you along through the series.
HOLMES: Yeah, definitely. And, you know, it's funny because I don't think the point of this show is to be a thriller or to be surprising or whatever. But in all of these stories, there was at least some moment where, you know, sometimes foundationally from a character perspective and sometimes really from a, ooh, they got me - you know, ooh, they got me with that one; I didn't - that's not what I thought was happening.
HOLMES: It has that satisfaction of also being kind of surprising storytelling, sometimes for the more upbeat and sometimes for the more sad. And it's just a darn good show, man. I was so pleased to come across it 'cause I had been experiencing a lot of kind of meh reactions...
HOLMES: ...To a lot of things I was watching. And this just had me from the beginning.
WELDON: Right. And it is taking some big swings...
WELDON: ...Both narratively and structurally. What do you make of the asides, those moments...
WELDON: ...He talks to the camera? I mean, with the voiceover, it's always risky because that can be used to paper over something you didn't dramatize...
WELDON: ...Or something that's undercooked in the show. How do you think it worked here?
HOLMES: Well, it's used very sparingly, right? In fact, when I went back and was thinking about this show a couple weeks after I originally watched it, I sort of forgot that was part of it. And then I remembered that was part of it. They use it for him to explain things sometimes, to explain things that, you know, you don't want to have to do a big exposition - sort of an artless exposition dump. It's easier to just have him explain it to you as a doctor.
HOLMES: So he turns to the camera and explains it. You also get these kind of flashes of emotion from him, and you get a little sense of his - of where he is at mentally. I think because they're careful with it, I think it works pretty well. What did you think?
WELDON: I think this is exactly - this is a masterclass in how to do it. It is part of the rhythm of the show. They're all very fast, just like the dialogue. It is used there to add texture, not to stop everything dead. And it also subtly underscores his loneliness.
WELDON: You see him with his boyfriend, to whom he should be...
WELDON: ...Confessing all this stuff, and he's not. He's talking to us instead.
WELDON: That says something huge about where this character is.
WELDON: This is how you use the asides. This is how you use voiceover. This is what you do.
HOLMES: Yeah. In the same way as "Fleabag" in some ways...
HOLMES: ...It is using an aside in a way that underscores that this person is not comfortable talking to the other people in their lives. And, you know, you mentioned in the intro that the boyfriend is sort of unbelievably supportive. I also really was interested in how the relationship with the boyfriend unfolded. And it also doesn't follow kind of the clearest, most obvious paths that that kind of thing can follow. I really liked how that played out, too. I thought it was very honest and very fair to the people in the story, ultimately.
WELDON: Absolutely. The boyfriend is so cute. And there is that scene where he's taking a shower, and the doorway is kind of cutting him off, and all we see of him is his butt because his butt is so good. And that is a very deliberate choice...
WELDON: ...A very deliberate framing choice that I appreciated.
HOLMES: Yeah. Way to go, guys.
WELDON: Well, if you couldn't tell from our (laughter) both loving this show, this is definitely something to seek out. Yes, it's on AMC+. Yes, it's on Sundance Now. But if you can, if you have the means, this is worth checking out.
HOLMES: Yeah. I think worth trying out one of those services for this.
WELDON: Absolutely. Trial run.
We want to know what you think about "This Is Going To Hurt." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Linda Holmes, my friend, thank you for being here.
HOLMES: Oh, thank you, buddy.
WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Anna Isaacs and edited by Jessica Reedy. And Hello Come In provides this music which maybe you're bobbing your head to right now. I don't know your life. I'm Glen Weldon. And we will see you all tomorrow, when we will be talking about "Crimes Of The Future."
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