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john doyle

There have been a lot of genre-specific shows on Canadian TV. Too many, if you ask me. It speaks to the tiresome timidity of Canadian broadcasting executives – if it ain't a familiar concept, it's not getting made.

We've had one cop show after another. Each with some tincture of a twist that is meant to make it a little different from 1,000 other cop series, but that usually fails as a tactic to get attention or to mandate quality. There's a vast array of sci-fi shows, some good, some awful, that appear to be churned out of a factory in Vancouver.

In the legal genre we've had CBC deliver both the very square Street Legal and the over-the-top This Is Wonderland, the latter an innovative effort written by playwright George F. Walker. In medical dramas we've had too many to mention here. Since socialized medicine defines us, apparently, we worship at the altar of hospital melodrama, wired to be attentive to them. Fact is, we're soppy about them.

So it's a relief to tell you about another medical drama that isn't ordinary or banal – one that's pithy, funny and inventive.

Hard Rock Medical (APTN, 7 p.m.) it is, and it's very good. It's not spanking new but hasn't been on the radar because it was the first scripted drama made by TVOntario and, that being a provincial outlet, it didn't get national exposure. Now that it's on APTN, it does, and deservedly so.

Yes, it is that well-established Canadian thing, the familiar concept with a twist, but here it actually clicks beautifully. It's about medical students, yet this is as far from Grey's Anatomy and its copycats as you can get. Loosely based on the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, the location is both a central character and defines the ambience. This is no folksy-rustic medical show. At times it is a drama of smart, sophisticated construction. And with each episode 30 minutes long, there's no room for unnecessary fuddling with the plot.

Signs of smart humour and élan are in the opening episode. (Most episodes are available online at The medical school is interviewing prospective students. People who want to be trained as doctors and work in the North. In what looks like news footage, a school official says he needs people willing to "practise medicine in the bow of a canoe or 5,000 feet underground."

And so the students are interviewed. They are the expected motley crew – the oddballs, the naive, the cocky, the ones who want to be in Northern Ontario to escape somebody or something.

They're asked unusual questions – "What citrus fruit is your body?", "What is your solution to terrorism?" – or given examples of tricky non-medical situations and asked what they would do. In many instances, we see these scenarios acted out. In another deft manoeuvre, we sometimes see subtitles on the screen telling us what the character is really saying while they're spouting pieties or self-regarding nonsense.

There's an absurdist quality to all if this, making Hard Rock Medical a constant surprise. You think you know where the story is going, and then it utterly surprises you.

It also benefits from an excellent ensemble cast. Patrick McKenna, whom we haven't seen for so long in a juicy role, is first-rate as the deadpan senior doctor. Angela Asher is superb as Nancy, a fortysomething nurse who has figured she does medicine better than most of the doctors she's worked with. Asher's gravelly voice is ideal for the skeptical, fiery woman that is Nancy under the reliable nurse exterior. "I know a lot of nurses who would make kick-ass doctors, but I don't know too many doctors who would be kick-ass nurses," she deftly jeers in the interviews.

There is also Melissa Jane Shaw, who is the cockiest of would-be students, declaring, "I'm a lawyer, I have two degrees, an IQ of 150 and a great pair of legs." As it happens, of course, none of this will matter much in Northern Ontario.

There are too many great performmces to list here. Let's just say Hard Rock Medical (created by Derek Diorio and Smith Corindia) is a fine surprise in the medical-drama genre and well worth your time. You just have to see the enactments of the role-playing questions at the interviews: "You've just run over your neighbour's cat – how do you explain it to them?"

All times ET. Check local listings.