Netflix's Lenox Hill Shows Doctors on the Front Lines in a Pre-COVID World

Grey's Anatomy it isn't, but this eight-part docuseries is gripping nonetheless.
  • An image from Lenox Hill (Netflix)
    An image from Lenox Hill (Netflix)

    Just a few weeks before the COVID-19 shutdowns, I found myself needing a short hospital stay for medical treatment, and I did so at Lenox Hill hospital on the Upper East Side of New York City. During a not un-scary moment, I found myself experiencing the dual emotions of anxiety over my medical condition but also a strange kind of comfort at being in an environment with capable health professionals who were very good at their jobs. I saw that same mixture of stress and grateful confidence in the patients and doctors profiled in Netflix's new docuseries Lenox Hill. The eight-part series follows a handful of doctors — two neurosurgeons, an OB-GYN, and an ER doctor — as they provide care to a wide range of patients. While the series is more of a sober documentary than it is a can't-miss reality obsession, it's also a chance to bask in the simple goodness of competent health care professionals operating in a time before COVID-19 made that a harrowing and hazardous calling.

    Which isn't to say that being a doctor isn't plenty harrowing, even in the well-funded confines of Lenox Hill. The quartet of doctors we follow end up caring for patients with everything from brain tumors to problem pregnancies to TMJ, and the outcomes run the gamut as well. And, in what is the show's one point of comparison to scripted drama like Grey's Anatomy, the doctors become the patients themselves in more than a few cases.

    The series begins with Dr. David Langer, head of neurosurgery at Lenox Hill's 77th Street location. Langer is both an incredibly dedicated surgeon and a hardheaded bureaucrat, butting up against institutional resistance as he tries to grow his neuro program. Langer's second-in-command is Dr. John Boockvar, whose approach to neuro puts him on the cutting edge of various clinical trials, which also makes his roster of patients a rather grim procession of near-hopeless causes, with one particular patient and his wife a heartbreaking recurring presence throughout the season.

    Both Langer and Boockvar speak at various points about how the respective deaths of their fathers — Langer's from a stroke, Boockvar's from complications from chemotherapy — spurred them on to their careers, and they clearly invest a lot of themselves into their work. But this isn't some slick Bravo-style "doctors and their families" reality show. At times the show feels more akin to a Frederick Wiseman documentary, with a lived-in look where the people at work make up the patchwork of a greater system that moves and operates on its own. But as the series moves on, it definitely burrows deeper into its main characters.

    If TV has perhaps oversold the notion of the hotshot brain surgeon, Langer gives us an alternate version — a kind, compassionate, almost low-key man with real perspective on the work he does. We see him on more than a few occasions leading his surgical team in a moment of mindfulness for the patient at hand, reciting their names, occupations, and personal histories before they begin operating. We also get to meet Dr. Amanda Little-Richardson, an OB-GYN who is reluctantly planning to follow her husband's job to California. She's also pregnant, and following that journey becomes one of the season's most gripping storylines, including the discovery of a genetic condition in utero. Watching Dr. Little-Richardson play both doctor and patient throughout the season is a window into her personality and the ways in which the hospital staff acts as a family unto itself.

    The fourth major character, Dr. Mirtha Macri, works at the Lenox emergency room in Greenwich Village. She actually begins the season well into her pregnancy, and is so dedicated to her work that she seems to want to continue working until the minute her water breaks. She returns to work within a couple episodes (the season appears to cover roughly one year), and it's through Dr. Macri's experience that we see some of the more challenging social aspects of modern day patient care, including homelessness, mental illness, drug dependency, and more insurance hurdles than you can imagine. Macri's experience is both geographically and conceptually distant from the high-end surgeons on the Upper West Side, but it helps to paint a far more complete picture of health services in NYC.

    For as much as watching patients with brain tumors look death right in the face might not be your idea of fun streaming entertainment in this or any era, there is something genuinely calming and comforting about watching these health care workers operate competently and compassionately. Through post-op complications and heartbreaking personal stories, these doctors display a clear-eyed dedication that is undeniably comforting at a time when things could not feel more uncertain.

    All eight episodes of Lenox Hill drop today on Netflix.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Lenox Hill, Netflix, Documentaries