This past week saw the debut of the CBS hospital melodrama Code Black, a show that cranked up the tension by having the chief doctor snarl, "Life is measured here in split seconds. Hesitate, and someone dies."
That's all very well, but it's fiction. The most powerful drama airing this week is also a medical one – based on fact, not fiction. It's a look at how Canada's health-care system works, without punditry or arguments about funding. And it is both frightening and uplifting.
Keeping Canada Alive (Sunday, CBC 9 p.m.) is a new six-part factual series that is breathtaking in its scope – 60 camera crews shooting in 24 cities across 10 provinces and one territory in a single 24-hour period last May to capture how our hospitals and other medical facilities work. One day only, but the show points out that on an average day in Canada, 700 people die and another 1,000 are born.
It's the in-between that matters daily, of course. The injured and ill and how their care unfolds. The number of compelling storylines is staggering. (There is a companion online feature with almost 40 hours of extra footage.) We witness a three-month-old baby having open-heart surgery as his parents wait anxiously. We see a young man, a guy who was in the Armed Forces and is an Afghan war vet, get treatment after an accident playing hockey compromises his entire body.
There are those large-scale narratives with powerful ingredients. But the more significant stories in terms of grasping what Canada looks like from the perspective of the medical profession are the ones about the old and infirm. An ambulance arrives in response to a call about an elderly man who seems to have had a mini-stroke. What happens next? Another elderly man has Alzheimer's and medication is helping, but as we watch him move alone to collect the mail in his apartment building and then go outside to but a lottery ticket, the ramifications pile up. What happens next? Not immediately, but in the years to come?
There are outright good-news vignettes. There is an instance of reconstructive surgery and laser treatment for a young woman who was seriously scarred in an accident when she was a small child in Jamaica. Her short life has been dominated by how her body looks. Now, when she talks about the treatment and the doctor who is talking care of her, she beams in near-ecstasy and declares: "This doctor is the coolest doctor I've ever met in my life!"
The series – narrated by Kiefer Sutherland, by the way – comes with a standard warning from CBC: "The following program may contain scenes that may be disturbing to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised." This might seem odd for a fly-on-the-wall documentary series about our medical system, but it's valid. There are scenes that are not for the squeamish.
And, yet, what is more profoundly disturbing is the feeling that Canada is getting older. So much of the footage deals with older people who have common ailments but need treatment or support. Nobody turns up to make speeches or offer statistics, but it is scary to see what faces us and, more important, how the system we rely upon for support is sagging.
Also airing this weekend
Homeland (Sunday, SuperChannel, 9 p.m.) is back for its fifth season. This is the gist of the start: "While Carrie tries to build a new life in Berlin, a request from her boss forces her back into the world she abandoned." The series was rebooted with aplomb last season, in what was a risky manoeuvre after the departure of the Brody character. Its strength, apart from Claire Danes as Carrie, is its ability to attach the fictional drama to very real current events. Syria features in this season. What unfolds is at first complex, as Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) tries his best to lure Carrie back into the espionage game. At the same time, it's very simple – there is a touch of 24 to Homeland now, with Carrie as a version of Jack Bauer.
The Affair (Sunday, TMN, Movie Central, 10 p.m.) starts its second season. It won a Golden Globe for its first season and started strongly, but then alienated many viewers. Last time out, the story of an extramarital affair between Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) was told from their own often conflicting perspectives. This season, the storytelling POV also includes those of their partners, Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson). Noah and Alison are now together, there was a murder and, well, it's a very big mess from anyone's view.
On the networks, note the return of Madame Secretary (Sunday, CBS, Global, 8 p.m.) and The Good Wife (Sunday, CBS, Global, 9 p.m.); and don't forget the return of the bracing, bleak The Leftovers (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.), which I wrote about on Thursday.