Fresh off of its original seven-episode British run on BBC One, Adam Kay’s black comedy-drama “This is Going to Hurt” arrives on AMC this week, ready to give American audiences a taste of its wicked wit. Based on his nonfiction comedy novel of the same name, ‘Hurt’ brings a unique perspective to the UK medical scene circa 2006, providing a hearty dose of sociopolitical commentary in between bone-dry humor and painfully relatable interpersonal drama. Though at times heavy-handed with its critique of the NHS and British political systems, “This is Going to Hurt” proves a well-written and exceptionally acted examination of the unsung and ever-stressful world of public hospitals.
Starring Ben Whishaw and Ambika Mod, “This is Going to Hurt” follows emergency room doctor Adam (Whishaw) and trainee doctor Shruti (Mod) as they struggle to get by day-to-day amid harsh superiors, asinine patients, overbearing loved ones, and an utter lack of support and infrastructure from the British government. As pressures mount at work and the walls continue to cave in (literally and figuratively) around them, the at-first prickly duo struggle to keep their personal lives afloat — especially after a crucial misstep with a patient puts a 25-week-old infant in jeopardy and Adam’s job on the line.
What’s fascinating about “This is Going to Hurt” is that it would’ve been entirely possible to craft a series that highlights the shortcomings of the NHS while painting its protagonist as a clear-cut hero, but the inherent conceit of Kay’s series means that Adam himself is no angel in scrubs. Not only does he make several mistakes on the job, but he’s a prickly personality (most everyone at his hospital is), and his lack of bedside manner combined with some of his more morally dubious decisions at work result in a conflicted viewing experience that has the viewer at odds with not just the NHS, but often Adam himself.
It’s remarkable that the series is semi-autobiographical, considering just how unflattering the writing at times can be towards Kay as a character, but that self-awareness also allows Whishaw the wiggle room to craft a truly fascinating and compelling character who functions perfectly in a commentary on the failures of government infrastructure. At the same time, though, Adam is fascinating in his own right, with a moral dubiousness that doesn’t quite lean towards full-blown antihero, but with enough bite in his personality to make it difficult to root for him 24/7.
As Adam, Whishaw (as always) throws himself headfirst into the role, carrying himself with a full-bodied weariness that seems like it could’ve only come from a doctor who sleeps in his car for a few meager hours between shifts. There’s a constant weariness (of both others and himself) written in his face and an utter exhaustion in his eyes that makes him a strangely pitiable character — because as frustrating and ethically questionable as Adam can be, he is, at the end of the day, saving lives.
His commitment to work is a vicious cycle — though he dreads heading in for shifts, at the same time, when he isn’t working, his personal life is in shambles and his only escape seems to be to work more, which in turn causes further trouble in his romantic life. The narrative involving his long-term partner and Adam’s reluctance to come out to both his family and friends doesn’t feel particularly innovative or memorable, especially because Adam’s romance plays second fiddle to work drama, but it’s an interesting approach to a queer protagonist in a drama that isn’t strictly about queerness — at times, Adam seems just as uncomfortable with his sexuality as his homophobic mother is.
The bright-eyed ingenue to his world-weary teacher is Mod’s Shruti, a harried med student struggling to finish her exams and find a place for herself among the hospital’s staff of overworked underpaid doctors. The world of the NHS is cruel and unforgiving to the green Shruti, who quickly learns to develop a thick skin. Though certainly based in truth, it’s disheartening to see such an idealistic young mind become so quickly jaded, but Shruti’s arc over the course of the series is perhaps the most effective demonstration of how brutal the medical profession can be.
Mod, like Whishaw, has the ever-exhausted look in her eyes down to a science, and with the help of some clever hair and makeup design, it’s almost painful to look at how tired she is at the midpoint of the series. Though Shruti doesn’t get as much narrative relevance or screentime as Adam, she’s still a well-written and well-acted supporting player who works beautifully as both a foil to Adam and a cautionary tale for viewers.
That’s not to say “This is Going to Hurt” is perfect. As previously mentioned, the show’s critique of the NHS (though entirely justified) is at times heavy-handed, bordering on hijinks that might be more commonplace in an episode of “The Office” than a medical drama attempting to blur the line between fact and fiction. Still, its comedic undertones allow for some of the more far-fetched moments, and the sometimes clunky writing can be forgiven by the stellar cast — not one of whom puts a foot wrong. Unflinchingly honest, disparagingly relatable, and undeniably funny, “This is Going to Hurt” is a much-needed examination of the NHS and the trials of working in medicine. [B]