The 2020 fall TV season continues its long, COVID-delayed rollout, and the question is, does it matter anymore? Fall TV was getting less relevant (and less interesting) by the year, even before the great American shut-in. Last week, in between promos for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, CBS let viewers know that there were finally enough episodes in the can of beloved schedule-fillers Blue Bloods and Magnum P.I. to bring them back.
Now it’s NBC’s turn. Nurses, a Canadian import, follows five recent nursing graduates and the exciting cases they take on in a typical day in a Toronto hospital. It’s nicely written, with the kind of diversity you find in Commonwealth shows. The head of nursing is Irish-Canadian. The Black nurse is African-Canadian (a patient mistakes him for a doctor, which is a refreshing twist). Of course there’s an Indian-Canadian in there along with the Caucasian-Canadians.
As TV drama goes, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Nurses. It’s well-done. Not every show can take a storyline about two severed fingers in a beer cooler and shift the tone from quirky to poignant over the course of an hour. But its appearance in the U.S. reflects the ongoing globalization and de-network-ization of television, two trends that have sped up during the 2020 lockdown.
Nurses joins Transplant, another Canadian pickup, as the second medical drama that NBC has had added to its schedule in recent months to plug the holes left behind when shooting stopped on all of its existing shows. Nurses will get the Zoey’s Playlist treatment, airing two episodes this month before taking a long pause. The remaining eight episodes from its first season, which were all shot pre-COVID, will air in early 2021.
I remember when it was nearly impossible to find a Canadian TV show this side of the border. American networks avoided them. All those funny accents and references to Alberta. All that weird racial diversity. Canadians, being the nice people they are, gobbled up our mediocre network fare, but the flow rarely went in reverse.
In the 1990s there was a dramedy on CBS called Due South, about a Mountie who solved crimes in Chicago. It was notable, not because it was that great, but because it introduced the world to Paul Haggis, a Canadian who would go on to write and direct Million Dollar Baby and Crash; and because it was the first prime-time series from Canada to make it on American TV. At the time I thought for sure that Due South would open the doors for more shows of quality from up north to come south, but this turned out not to be the case.
What finally turned the tide was Netflix. The world’s biggest and most voracious streamer has become a global clearinghouse. Netflix discovered what the networks could never figure out, which is that if a TV show is well-done, viewers won’t care that it originally aired in Britain, or New Zealand, or Canada, or hell, Colombia or Germany or Spain. Streaming also finally broke the network business model, which insisted on mammoth season orders of 20 or more episodes. In the end, no one who fell in love with Derry Girls cared that it was set in 1990s Northern Ireland or that it produced only six episodes at a time.
So while the immediate cause of NBC picking up Nurses and Transplant is the COVID crisis and the need to plug holes in its prime-time schedule, a secondary cause is the sudden success of its new streaming service Peacock. By the end of October Peacock could already count 22 million subscribers and at the rate it's growing will probably hit 30 million by Christmas, four years ahead of schedule. I’ve said good things about Peacock in the past and I still mean them. It’s the only streamer besides Netflix that I check daily.
Peacock gives NBC another way to monetize its investment in shows like Nurses by offering them on-demand. This is not a new idea around NBC — it was one of the original investors in Hulu, after all — but now it’s a different world. Viewers demand on-demand. Even if they still subscribe to cable and watch network shows, their habits are being transformed by Netflix and Hulu and Disney+ and, for that matter, all those apps on their phones. On-demand TV is so easy now, why channel-flip? Why pay for a DVR just to hoard a bunch of shows you refuse to watch? An NBC suit told THR that he sees Peacock becoming “the default experience that we really want to drive for customers.” He was spot on except for one thing — the customers are doing the driving, not NBC.
This is great news for a quality show like Nurses, which is getting its American debut in the rather inauspicious month of December. It may not be a hit on the network, yet it might pay for itself now that it can be paired on Peacock with the Syrian-Canadian doctor show Transplant. Canadian, Canadian, Canadian. It’s just fun to say.
Nurses premieres on NBC December 7 at 10:00 PM ET.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.