A friend who was in a brutal traffic accident a few years ago told me once of his utter anger at Casualty: a character had a similar accident and because he wasn’t fairly immediately sanguine about losing his legs, the doctors and nurses fretted that he was unusual. They’d been treating him for several minutes, he should cop on to himself, sort himself out. I’m told it recently had a side story, a B-story in which someone learned they had cancer, went through all the chemotherapy and died within the one episode.
I did explain to my friend that it’s written into Casualty that all accident stories, all guest stories will be completely dealt with in a single episode and, moreover, that one episode will cover one shift at A&E. Maybe we’ll see someone going into work first, maybe coming out after, but otherwise, it’s in that eight-hour period. But of course really what I was saying was precisely the same as my friend: we were both saying Casualty is unrealistic and aggravating, I was just using more words.
We all know this one-shift approach is rubbish and we have all complained about TV characters, in many shows, miraculously getting over amnesia/nuclear war/dry cleaning within a single episode. But I think we’ve been trained to accept it anyway.
I was just re-watching Noél, a particular favourite episode of The West Wing from December 2000. I remember it being criticised a lot at the time for how, it was said, Josh Lyman gets over his post-traumatic stress in an hour.
But he didn’t. The episode concentrated on the ten or so hours of one day, the first day in which he is diagnosed and after which he will begin treatment. More, the episode was actually set over a two-week period as we saw Josh crumble. So, two weeks, ten hours, the start of longterm treatment, it was exactly right. More, the reason for doing the episode was directly because Josh had been shot at the start of the season, the makers didn’t want to pretend that goes away easily.
So how does The West Wing get criticised when it seems you have to be ill or in an accident to get mad at Casualty?
I don’t know. I thought I’d figure it out if I just talked it over with you but I have to say you’re being very quiet so far. I don’t doubt that you agree Cas is wrong, Wing is right, but why the difference in perception for most people? It can’t be that we expect less of Casualty, though I believe we do, because that suggests we expect more of the Wing and that it let us down but I can’t see how. Nor can it really be that The West Wing is more popular than Casualty because, again while that’s patently true worldwide, it’s utterly the reverse in the UK. And it cannot be acting,it surely cannot be acting because Bradley Whitford is superb as Josh and, er, there are probably people in Casualty too, presumably.
Perhaps it’s to do with how Casualty is bone-numbingly sequential: it will only tell a story in one direction, will only ever do this happens and then that happens and then the other happens. That West Wing, quite typically for the series, was focused on one day but it jumped through it while simultaneously taking us through those two weeks beforehand.
But I don’t know, I really do not know. And because you have no doubt which approach I favour, I’m troubled by it all.