Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It’s easy to see why NBC made Heartbeat, the network’s newest stab at the hyper-tense world of surgeries and sexual workplace politics – a world which it made popular with ER and subsequently lost ground to with ABC’s similarly unending Grey’s Anatomy. Heartbeat, like those shows, mixes an over-the-top medical emergency each week into the personal drama of its diverse cast. It’s a formula that the network has proved can work for a few seasons, even when the show surrounding it can be middling at best, like The Night Shift.
With Heartbeat, the stories are now (somewhat) real, thanks to the show’s source material, “Heart Matters: A Memoir of a Female Heart Surgeon” by Dr. Kathy Magliato. The intrigue of that is quickly negated though by the network TV need to shock and drop bombs every five minutes (Did Magliato face suicidal boyfriends every week? Doubtful). Some characters spark and it’s far from the mess it could have been, but like every medical show since Grey’s Anatomy‘s 8th season (yes, including Grey’s Anatomy), it employs the genre’s tropes in a manner that barely feels like it has a pulse of its own.
The show centers around Dr. Alexandra Panttiere (Melissa George, playing a version of Magliato), a world-renowned heart surgeon who we first meet ducking from the responsibility of saving a man’s life when flight attendants on her airplane begin yelling for a doctor. It’s a sour introduction to a character that quickly becomes Heartbeat‘s saving grace – Alex is exactly the kind of brusque, faux rude, MVP-in-her-field badass that TV doesn’t need right now, but George embodies her so wholly that the redundancy dissolves quickly. By the third episode, she’s so well-defined and fun to watch she feels like a character from a show in its tenth season, not its first.
But there’s still mystery to her. That’s mainly surrounding her chaotic home life, in which she’s divorced from her gay ex Max (Joshua Leonard), though they’re still best friends and he babysits their two rambunctious kids (with two abrupt casting changes in episode two), and she’s dating her coworker Pierce (Dave Annable). She has a straight-shooting work friend Gi-Sung (Maya Erskine), feuds with her bitchy boss Millicent (Shelley Conn), and – duh – has to deal with the re-emerging romance she had with an older doc, Jessie (Don Hany).
All of it is like Mad Libs: Surgical Drama Edition, and creator Jill Gordon doesn’t find much of a cause for distinction from the multitude of shows in the genre. The second episode, detailing an incident around a case of siamese twins and their attempted separation, is so familiar you’ll probably get deja-vu. The patient comes in, the doctors argue, Alex goes against protocol, a third-act surgery risks everything, someone almost dies, someone else does die, and tears are shared in recovery rooms. That’s every episode of Heartbeat, as clinical and precise as Alex in the operating room.
There are upticks in the generic flatlining, though. The pilot has a well-constructed case surrounding a young woman’s desperate need for a heart transplant; the way she gets it is as grisly as it is compelling. Alex’s relationship with Max is endearing for the sheer honesty of it, but he’s not around much. More functional to the plot is Pierce, and there’s a definite shot at Annable fueling some McDreamy-esque comparisons if Heartbeat is so lucky as to get an audience big enough to care about such a thing.
But then it flatlines again. Hany gives no explanation as to why Alex would have ever fallen for Jessie ten years prior; there’s an attempt to create the inevitable love triangle between Alex and her two suitors, but Jessie is a brick wall of blah so any drama emerging from Alex’s indecision is hilariously implausible. And for every good member of the cast (Erskine plays with the cliché of the non-white BFF with amusing snark), there’s two duds.
Those outliers mainly come in the form of Dr. Hackett (D.L. Hughley) and Dr. Callahan (Jamie Kennedy), both of whom never feel like they’re actually a part of the show. Hackett mainly pops up when Alex needs someone to talk at; every time a case erupts the hospital in drama, he’s there to give his two cents on the psychiatric aspect. People usually don’t listen, and it’s hard to not follow suit. Callahan is Heartbeat‘s vestigial tail: he’s supposed to be the comedic relief, but the show already has that in Alex, who’s far from Meredith Grey’s ice queen the more we find out about her.
Alex isn’t a perfect creation, though. Some of her quirks are far too “quirky” – she spits on people when talking and acknowledges it every time – and the show doesn’t really know how to balance her professional badassery with deep emotional immaturity, which is understandable for a series this young. Still, inconsistencies surrounding her only highlight those in other characters, like Forrester (JLouis Mills), whom some doctors refer to as the “One-Eyed Black Guy” and the writers seem agreeably content to let that characterization be his single calling. All he does is creep Callahan out and lurk around the hospital; it’s hard to tell whether Heartbeat is telling a joke or building a mystery and it’s very easy to be unconvinced by either possibility.
In the pilot, during that case surrounding the young woman in search for a new heart, Alex performs a breakthrough procedure only a handful of doctors in the world can do (of course). What it boils down to is her patient keeping her old heart, but receiving a new and healthy one that will piggyback on the failing organ, copying its heartbeat, and performing all of its duties with just enough energy for both. Heartbeat is like that second heart: it’s healthy, it has just enough life in it, but it’s latched itself onto the somewhat dying-in-popularity medical shenanigans sub genre and is following every beat with unsurprising, largely unexciting, medical-grade precision.
Tense moments and a few well-drawn characters stand out in Heartbeat, but they're trapped behind the doors of a series as predictable and sterile as the operating rooms through which those aforementioned characters roam.