Why Jed Mercurio’s Critical should be your next box set
Ivan Radford | On 08, Mar 2015
You have three minutes to read this review.
There’s a lot to be said for a time limit. It can make anything exciting. Secret service operations. Bomb disposal. In a hospital’s major trauma centre, it’s the difference between life and death.
Critical follows the “golden hour” of treatment for severe trauma patients; the first 60 minutes after they arrive in the building, when every second counts. Events occur in real-time, something demonstrated by a large red clock on the wall, which visibly ticks away the moments between vital decisions. The message is clear: we’re a long way from Casualty.
Into the ward steps newcomer Harry (Kimberley Nixon), who finds herself the object of a male gaze. Leading the team is the wonderfully-named Lorraine Rappaport (a hardened Claire Skinner), but she is locked in a power struggle with those running the hospital, leaving Catherine Walker’s younger (and likably stubborn) Fiona to fill her shoes.
Two episodes in, and consultant Glen (Lennie James) shows up to do some of the dirty work, after a plea from Fiona. “I’ve practised all over the world in the forces,” he barks at the room. “I specialise in critical injuries.” It’s not long before we find out that Fiona and Glen have got history, as they help each other out of their scrubs.
Old flames. Office politics. New girl on the block. These are all tried and tested soap opera staples, but there are no cheesy cliches here – there’s no simply no time for them. Not when there’s blood gushing out of hidden wounds or a fence post in a place where a fence post shouldn’t be.
People step out to take phone calls or shoot meaningful glances over their surgical masks, but the doctors take second place to the patients. After all, they’re not there to chat or have sex in the closet: they’re there to save lives. Before you can say “important first lesson”, our newbie has her finger in someone’s heart, trying to plug a leak.
It’s a thrillingly fast-paced approach that has you hooked from start to finish. Creator Jed Mercurio, who gave us the similarly nail-biting Line of Duty, makes sure we never leave the hospital, which makes things even more intense and claustrophobic. We only ever see our staff in their work clothes, surrounded by shiny white surfaces and touch-screen displays that would be at home on the set of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek.
Director Jon East, who worked on Mercurio’s other medical series, Bodies, films it all with a glossy, kinetic energy. Cameras seem to jump inside bodies, while gory prosthetics makes every squelch squirmingly realistic. But it’s testament to Jed’s scripting – and the cast’s uniformly convincing delivery of rapid-fire medical lingo – that things are never confusing. You can easily follow what’s happening; you just might not want to. (Did we mention the fence post?)
Whether it’s a tracheotomy or an emergency transfusion, each episode revolves around a different patient, putting the focus firmly on beating the clock. Different problem, same tension. It’s hard to imagine such ruthlessly efficient storytelling getting old.
The result is a blistering bit of telly that gives the medical drama genre a shot of adrenaline. What, you wonder, was House doing for all those episodes? Where exactly did Holby City’s staff find the time to chat about their private lives? Critical may be lacking emotional depth compared to, say Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s lean, graphic and gripping telly. It’s 24 with scalpels. Speed on a hospital bed instead of a bus. As the timer runs out, you feel your pulse racing every episode.
Critical Season 1 is available on Sky One. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW, for £9.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.