TV Review: MONROE, 1.1

The "maverick doctor" is a staple of television, with the contemporary benchmark being Fox's House; a series ITV1's new medical drama won't escape lazy comparison to. But neurosurgeon Gabriel Monroe (James Nesbitt) isn't a grouchy Holmesian genius -- he's an egomaniac with a better bedside manner, and a repertoire of great lines like "you're taking a knife to someone's head; the only difference between you and a psychopath is good A-levels."

Nothing about Monroe's premise is exactly fresh and original, but it's a good example of classic ideas, elevated by Nesbitt's magnetic performance, an intelligent script from Peter Bowker (Blackpool), and slick direction by Paul McGuigan (the filmmaker behind Gangster No1 who's carving a niche for himself on UK drama between this and BBC1's Sherlock.) McGuigan brings plenty of stylish tricks to the party; flashy scene transitions, staccato camera moves (usually to highlight signs), and superimposed images whenever doctors peer anxiously into the screens of medical equipment. It all helps give the show a confidence and buzzing energy that smoothes most of the clich├ęs encountered by the script -- like giving Monroe a wife (Susan Lynch) who walks out on him, after 22-years of marriage, the day their 19-year-old son (Perry Millward) leaves home for university. Of course Monroe deserves everything he gets because he's a workaholic who can't find time for his family, and set himself down the path to divorce by having an affair with a doctor 6 years ago. And of course there's a tragedy in his past -- how could there not be in a show like this?

I saw a documentary about brain surgery that writer Peter Bowker may have also seen, as the episode's basic plot and jargon felt familiar. Here, a woman called Alison (Sarah Smart) needed an operation to remove a tumour that, if left untreated, will grow and kill her within 5 years, but she risks memory loss and paralysis if she has it removed. There's no decision as far as Monroe is concerned (being confident in his ability to operate successfully), but for Allison and her boyfriend Lee (Shaun Evans) quality of life is something worth deeper consideration. A lifetime spent coping with possible brain damage, or a few years of decent health to live out your days?

It was a simple but effective storyline, getting to the core of why brain surgery is a particularly fascinating branch of medicine. The show did a terrific job with mood; putting you in headspace of Alison and eliciting that weird tension before and during operations. Surgery can feel very impersonal, with medical teams covering a patient's features during the process, but it's slightly different with brain surgery. Alison was woken up halfway through her operation, then asked to perform simple games of recognition and numeracy as Monroe's scalpel poked around in her brain, trying not to damage any healthy brain tissue surrounding her tumour. One slip of the knife and Alison would slur her words or fail to identify illustrations of everyday objects.

Nesbitt has undoubtedly found his best role since Jekyll as Gabriel Monroe; a character that allows the Irish actor to play to his strengths as someone fiercely intelligent and quite egocentric, but also compassionate and flawed. It feels like it was written for him specifically, which it perhaps was considering Bowker worked with Nesbitt on the modern-day Canterbury Tales episode "The Miller's Wife" some years back. The presence of Blackpool alums Thomas Morrison and Sarah Parish (playing heart surgeon Jenny Bremner) would see to confirm Bowker wanted to assemble some talents from yesteryear.

Overall, Monroe isn't rewriting the rulebook when it comes to medical dramas on TV, but it's a perfectly enjoyable and very entertaining addition to the genre. Some may complain that Monroe's not hugely interesting as a character, being such a fundamentally likeable non-conformist, but I like my mavericks that way. ITV appear to have found another good drama for their schedule (averaging 6m for this premiere), to sit alongside Downton Abbey and Marchlands, which is great news for a channel that struggled to find hit dramas in the late-'00s.

WRITER: Peter Bowker DIRECTOR: Paul McGuigan CAST: James Nesbitt, Sarah Parish, Tom Riley, Susan Lynch, Manjinder Virk, Luke Allen-Gale, Michelle Asante & Christina Chong TRANSMISSION: 10 March 2011, ITV, 9PM
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