When it comes to popular TV show formats, nothing beats shows about doctors. And it’s obvious why. The medical profession lends itself to drama. Doctors deal with heart-pounding life-and-death situations every day of the week. It feels more realistic, too: while it’s somewhat ridiculous for an ongoing detective show to revolve around murder after murder every week (although some do), people are always being rushed to hospital.
Illness and death are something we’re all scared of but watching them happen in the comfort of our home on our TV screen, well, that allows us to deal with them in a way that doesn’t affect us personally. What follows are 10 of the best medical shows on TV ever, based on ratings, awards and longevity. A list of 10, however, will inevitably leave some shows, perhaps your favorites, out. So let us list the ones that were great, but didn’t make the list of 10. Our runners up: Marcus Welby, M.D., Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and Medical Center.
10. Dr. Kildare/Ben Casey (tie)
These two shows harkened in the birth of popular, mainstream doctor-as-hero shows. Up to the early 1960s, TV ratings were dominated by westerns, like Wagon Train and, of course, Bonanza. Then along came Dr. Kildare, a series based on the popular movies, and starring the strikingly handsome Richard Chamberlain. About the same time another network aired its own medical show, Ben Casey. Here was the “anti-Kildare.” Casey, as portrayed by Vince Edwards was a brilliant surgeon but a bit gruff (with a heart of gold of course). Sound familiar? Casey was Dr. House before there was a Dr. House. Both shows were ratings winners and made stars of their lead actors.
Vital signs (Kildare):
Years ran: 1961-1966
Star: Richard Chamberlain, Raymond Massey
Awards: 9 nominations, 2 wins, including Best Actor (Chamberlain)
Vital signs (Ben Casey):
Years ran: 1961-1966
Star: Vince Edwards, Sam Jafee
Awards: 14 nominations, 3 awards
9. Nurse Jackie
Edie Falco had just left The Sopranos, when she landed this role as a nurse with a bucketload of personal problems. One of SHOWTIME’s most popular original series ever, Jackie Peyton, an overworked RN, got through her days on drugs, which made each story either dramatic, comedic or both, often at the same time. The show ended its run this past June.
Years ran: 2009-2015
Star: Edie Falco
Awards: Falco won an Emmy for Best Actress in 2010; Show has had 79 nominations for various awards and won 13, including Falco’s Emmy.
A medical drama that is as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. The insidious adventures, often sexual, of two plastic surgeons, with South Florida and Beverly Hills practices as backdrop. Watching it, you often didn’t know if it was satire or drama; maybe best to call it dramedy. Through the years you were treated to several star turns (satire, Ms. Rivers?) as viewers joyfully watched the wretched personal lives of two very successful business partners, and surgeons.
Years ran: 2003-2010
Stars: Dylan Walsh, Joley Richardson, with notable guest stars, including Joan Rivers
Awards: 50 nominations, 10 wins, including program of the year. Emmy and Golden Globe award winner.
Everyone knows that hospitals are a barrel of laughs, and Scrubs proved it. Very few medical shows make it as pure comedies … MASH is an example of a drama masked as comedy, or vice versa. But Scrubs was clearly an outrageous comedy, set in a hospital you’d never want to be in. The show focuses on the bizarre experiences of John “J.D.” Dorian (wonderfully played by Zach Braff) as he begins his medical career in a wacked-out hospital crammed full of unpredictable staffers and patients – where humor and tragedy can merge paths at any time. Drama? Maybe a little. But lots of laughs.
Years ran: 2001-201
Star: Zach Braff, with guest appearances by Brendan Fraser, Heather Graham, and Colin Farrell.
Awards: 117 nominations and 31 wins, including lead acting by Braff
6. St. Elsewhere
There is no denying that St. Elsewhere, in Boston, was one of the most popular medical TV series we have ever seen. More than anything else, it had a great star cast, from Denzel Washington and Mark Harmon to Howie Mendel and David Morse. It ran from 1982 to 1988 and stunned the audience with its phenomenal ending. No spoilers here. Funny, sad, dramatic, this show had it all. And what a twist at the end.
Years ran: 1982-1988
Star: Ed Begley Jr., William Daniels, Howie Mandel, Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon
Awards: 83 nominations, 24 wins, including Outstanding Drama (Emmy) and Best Actor (Daniels, an Emmy).
5: General Hospital
You mean you’ve never seen an episode of this long-running afternoon soap opera? Or you’ve never heard of Luke and Laura? Where have you been the last 50 years? Like most soap operas, this one had its share of murders, marriages, mistresses and general all around mayhem. But what really stands out are the number of big stars who got their start on GH. And Elizabeth Taylor, who was such a fan that she signed up for a series of guest appearances as one of the key characters in a story arc.
Years ran: 1963- present
Star: Demi Moore, John Stamos, Elizabeth Taylor, Ricky Martin, Kristin Davis, Mark Hamill, Rick Springfield, Richard Dean Anderson, Genie Francis, Jack Wagner,
Awards: 494 nominations, 246 wins including many best actress, best show, best actor awards.
4. Grey’s Anatomy
There was no stopping Grey’s Anatomy when it first aired in 2005. Ratings and awards were a given. Women swooned over McDreamy (Dempsey)…but the core of the show were the women doctors, strong, sexy and very smart. Yes, the show is a soap opera of sorts, and a long running one at that. But despite cast changes, the show rolls on, still popular, still ground-breaking.
Years ran: 2005-present
Star: Ellen Pompeo, Patrick Dempsey, Katherine Heigl, Jeffery Dean Morgan, Chris O’Donnell
Awards: 172 nominations, 61 wins, including best drama and best actress
A classic, in every sense of the word. Based on the Robert Altman movie of the same name, no one could have expected the TV series to even approach the popularity of the flick, which was a not so veiled criticism of war in general, and the Vietnam War in particular (though the TV show took place in Korea). But it did. Alan Alda, already a star, became a mega star as the wise cracking surgeon, using his wits to remain sane in a blood soaked makeshift operating room. Radar, Hot Lips…what great characters. These are shows that never grow old.
Years ran: 1972-1983
Star: Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, Loretta Swit
Awards: 153 nominations (Golden Globes, Emmy) and 61wins, including Best Comedy, Best Actor (Alda)
You may fight us on this one. Many critics think that House is the best medical show ever, and that would be hard to deny. The original pitch was simple: Sherlock Holmes as doctor who solves mysterious cases every week. So far, so good. But the way actor Hugh Laurie played the character broke all the rules. How many drug addicted, grumpy, rude genius doctors become heroes and star in a long running TV show? House was never likeable, but the shows were brilliantly written and acted. A show for the ages.
Years ran: 2004-2012
Star: Hugh Laurie, Olivia Wilde, Sela Ward, Chi McBride
Awards: 116 nominations (Golden Globes, Emmy) and 53 wins, including Best Drama, Best Actor (Laurie, 2006,2007)
Remember E.R.? It ruled the airwaves for 15 years, with its mix of drama, comedy, and angst, set in a large city emergency room. And the stars… George Clooney became a mega star based on his work in ER. Julianne Margulies (she of The Good Wife) as well, was introduced to the world. Created by best-selling author Michael Crichton, ER was more than about just love and lives gained and lost. It was must see-TV at the very highest level of artistic achievement.
Years ran: 1994-2009
Star: George Clooney, Julianne Margulies, Noah Wylie, Anthony Edwards, Alex Kingston
Awards: 356 nominations, 151 wins, including Best Series, and many Best Actor and Actresses Emmy, Golden Globes.