That “Heart Matters” and “Heartbreaker” were the two titles affixed to NBC’s latest medical drama before it finally settled on “Heartbeat” should tell you everything you need to know about its MO.
Landing somewhere between “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” the series, which premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. before moving to Wednesdays, revolves around Dr. Alex Panttiere (Melissa George), a brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon who’d much rather “crack a patient’s chest open like a lobster first thing in the morning” than take stock of her tangled personal life.
One of the biggest flaws with “peak TV” over the past few years is that far too much of it is still devoted to complicated male antiheroes, without enough shows working to construct comparably complex female characters. And at least in that department, “Heartbeat” turns out to be quite healthy.
Panttiere isn’t just the center of the show — she’s the entire show, performing impossibly complicated operations with prodigious focus, stoking the flames of a red-hot romance with a McDreamy-esque co-worker (Dave Annable), playing super-mom to two kids, and even taking the time to scare interns with rhetorical questions like, “Do you know how rare it is to watch a surgeon do a hemi-portacaval transposition for an occluded portal vein?”
Committed, compassionate, and charismatic, she’s an exceptional anchor for a series like this — partly because George (a “Grey’s Anatomy” vet) absolutely nails the role, and partly because she’s based on renowned, real-life heart surgeon Kathy Magliato, who’s become something of a glass ceiling-shattering celebrity in her boy’s-club field. “Heartbeat” renders Panttiere almost superhuman in her skill set, but a little research into the woman who inspired her character makes such hero worship feel more justified than usual.
Yet surely Magliato’s life outside the OR was never quite as soapy as depicted here; Panttiere’s sphere also includes a gay rocker ex-husband (Joshua Leonard), who helps raise their kids, and a hunky, doctor ex (Don Hany) who’s suddenly back in the picture as the unavoidable co-worker for whom she harbors unresolved feelings. But this show knows its suds-loving audience, and there’s a salacious kick to the love triangle.
It’s a shame, though, that this “Heartbeat” doesn’t showcase much of one when it comes to secondary characters or setting. All the caregiver clichés are present and/or accounted for, from the hospital administrator who disapproves of Panttiere’s methods (Shelley Conn) to the obnoxious surgeon everyone just barely tolerates (Jamie Kennedy). Admittedly, it might be hard for any medical drama to spruce up its hospital’s halls with novel personalities, but this show doesn’t even try. That creative indolence carries over to silly smaller touches: the watering hole where MDs go to nurse their sorrows is called The Waiting Room, and there are not one but two “wise black men” stereotypes on call (played by D.L. Hughley and JLouis Mills) to help Panttiere and others sort through their emotional baggage.
The series is also suffering from too many staple sequences where heart monitors beep dutifully as patients oh-so-slowly open their eyes, eliciting tears of joy from relieved family members and heroic nods of approval from Panttiere. And are there dire complications during surgery that can only be overcome by a medical mastermind’s innovative intervention? Try two a week.
TV is glutted with generic medical dramas, from the ridiculous “Night Shift” to the thoroughly middle-of-the-road “Code Black.” This one marks a very slight improvement, elevated by a fine protagonist played by a fine actress. Its weekly medical mysteries (involving conjoined twins in one installment, and a severe form of speech dyslexia in another) don’t flatline as frequently as you might think, and some sustain surprising tension. Given that, one wishes the series would fixate less on the chaos of Panttiere’s love life.
For all the longing gazes and hasty workplace hookups, “Heartbeat” is at its most pulse-pounding when it simply steps back to let her do her job.
Starring Melissa George, Dave Annable, Joshua Leonard, Don Hany. On NBC, Tuesday at 9 p.m.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.