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'New Heart' can't put life into old formula

2008/01/17 Source

After hitting the top with its first episode, MBC's medical drama "New Heart" has kept its No. 1 spot in the ratings race. And it's showing no signs of slowing down.

With ratings at 25.9 percent (AGB Nielsen Media Research) following Wednesday's broadcast, up 1.4 percent from the previous episode, more and more viewers are tuning into "New Heart". Good news for MBC, bad news for KBS and SBS.

But the drama's success comes as no surprise. Medical dramas are all the rage in Korea. From America's "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" to MBC's "White Tower" in 2007 and SBS' "Surgeon Bong Dal-hee" last year, medical dramas have been lighting up screens nationwide with great success over the past few years.

After all, who can resist handsome doctors in scrubs -- veritable modern-day heroes? Add to that the thrill of surgery in all its bloody, heart-pumping glory and a dash of humanity as doctors struggle to help patients, it's a wonder there's still time for some romance and family. There's no denying, it's a winning formula.

But there's a downside. Coming at the end of a long string of American and domestic medical dramas, "New Heart" is destined to be compared to its predecessors, which means viewers expect MBC's newest medical installment to surpass the likes of epic greats like "Grey's Anatomy" and "ER". From the moment "New Heart" hit screens viewers have been comparing it to previous medical dramas, posting up their scathing comments on the show's official bulletin board.

While some viewers applaud "New Heart" for creating a high quality domestic take on the genre, overall, the commentary leans towards the negative.

One viewer wrote, "When will our country have something original ... that's why Korean dramas aren't as good as Japanese ones and can't even dream of following the creativity of American ones".

"It really seems like it's combined 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Surgeon Bong Dal-hee' ... I don't think people who have already seen 'Grey's Anatomy' and 'Surgeon Bong Dal-hee' will watch "New Heart"", commented another viewer.

Yet another viewer wrote, "While watching "New Heart" I felt that the characters, incidents and operation scenes were familiar ... While the acting takes the drama's finesse up a notch, the predictable situations and lines disappoint".

But it's this viewer's following comment that really brings the knife home. After a thorough comparative analysis of "New Heart" and "Doctor Bong", the viewer wrote: "Please create a fresh medical drama with new content".

In defense of "New Heart", some news reports pointed out that MBC's latest medical drama has only one writer on staff while "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" not only have several writers but that they also have state-of-the-art sets.

There's no denying that well-financed shows like "ER" and "Grey's Anatomy" have one-up on "New Heart", but that won't stop domestic viewers from wanting more. From here on out, every future medical drama faces the challenge of beating out its predecessors.

But that's not the only challenge that medical dramas face. The very nature of the genre itself demands a high degree of medical accuracy from its scriptwriters. And unfortunately, "New Heart" seems to be floundering in that area too, at the expense of its solid acting and initially strong plotline.

The most glaringly obvious medical faux pas hit screens in episode nine, when heroine Nam Hye-seok, played by actress Kim Min-jung, gets sprayed by blood while assisting in the operation of an HIV positive patient.

The drama plays up the level of danger first year resident Nam has of getting infected with the deadly condition.

Following surgery, Nam and others involved are immediately tested for the virus. And all fall into a state of despair as they await the impending test results.

But according to the official website of the internationally renowned medical practice, the Mayo Clinic, "To become infected with HIV, infected blood, semen or vaginal secretions must enter your body. You can't become infected through ordinary contact -- hugging, dancing or shaking hands -- with someone who has HIV or AIDS".

In other words, the chances that surgeons can get HIV by getting sprayed by blood are significantly lower unless the blood came into contact with an open wound.

While it might be understandable for someone outside of the medical practice to be unaware of this, to have a first year medical resident panic over the possibility of infection significantly lessens the realistic nature of the show.

Following episode nine, one viewer commented, "The scriptwriter adds in HIV as entertainment fodder, turning a drama that focused on the unstable lives of heart surgeons into a predictable melodrama".

But medical accuracy is the least of "New Heart's" worries. The drama has somehow managed to anger oriental medicine practitioners in Korea, leading to a lawsuit Monday.

The Korean Han Medical Practitioners Association sued "New Heart" for defamation because offending scenes from episodes six and seven were not removed from the Internet versions of the show.

In the offending scenes, which aired on Jan. 2-3, a pack of oriental medicine is tossed aside and a medical resident implies that consuming oriental medicine increases liver damage. MBC immediately broadcast an official letter of apology at the end of episode eight on Jan. 9 and stated that it would remove the offending scenes from both the Internet versions and the repeat versions of the two episodes.

But according to the medical association, the offending scenes were still playing on the Internet versions.

It remains to be seen whether or not MBC will manage to sidestep this lawsuit. But one thing is clear, producing and airing a medical drama is no easy task.

But the hardships seem to be paying off. Despite all this, viewers are still tuning into "New Heart". Following Monday's lawsuit, viewer ratings still ranked No. 1 nationwide after Wednesday's show.

"New Heart" plays on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9:55 p.m. on MBC.

By Jean Oh

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