From the halls of hospitals to the depths of examination rooms, medical television shows mix procedural thrillers, romantic dramas, and sitcom-style comedies. For decades, television viewers have eaten up narratives that involve doctors, nurses, and aides working around the clock to save lives.
While the scientific accuracy of these shows is, at times, debatable, their settings provide a compelling background for character studies, investigations of medical practices, and who-dun-it mysteries. While Grey’s Anatomy may be the most popular medical drama on television, there are many others out there that came before, during, and after this genre-defying series. Here are the top ten, ranked by how well they capture the world of medical professionals.
Updated on February 1st, 2022, by Shawn S. Lealos: It almost seems amazing, but Grey’s Anatomy was just renewed for its record-breaking 19th season, the longest-running American primetime medical drama series in history. There have been so many other medical dramas inspired by Grey’s Anatomy that will never reach that level.
There are also a lot of shows that came before Grey’s Anatomy that it owes something to, but they also never reached the overwhelming level of popularity and success as Ellen Pompeo’s medical drama. While cast members came and went, fans are still sticking with the doctors and nurses working at the hospital, though there’s more out there that they’d likely love.
New Amsterdam (2018)
Hitting NBC in 2018 and based on the book, Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, New Amsterdam arrived and offered a different look at the hospital medical drama. While most shows of this sort focused on the doctors, this went behind the scenes.
New Amsterdam was about running the hospital and starred Ryan Eggold as the new medical director of one of the United States’ oldest hospitals. The doctors had to do their jobs, the new director tried to destroy the bureaucracy always got in the way and make things better for patients, but always faced pushback from people on the top.
Chicago Med (2015)
If any medical drama has a chance to challenge Grey’s Anatomy for the public’s attention, it is Chicago Med. That is because this is one of three shows in the Chicago One block of television on NBC, along with Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire.
Outside of the fun crossover events between the three shows, Chicago Med has made a life of its own as one of the best medical dramas on TV today. Currently in its seventh season, Chicago Med follows the ER doctors at the hospital and focuses as much on their relationships as it does on their medical adventures.
Private Practice (2007)
Private Practice arrived in 2007 as a spin-off series from Grey’s Anatomy. The series launched when Dr. Addison Montgomery left the hospital in Seattle, where she worked with Meredith Grey and her ex-husband Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd, with her moving on to her own private practice group. Here, she teamed with other doctors and took on patients in a smaller setting.
Without the bright lights of the hospital surrounding them, this show offered a more personal look at the lives and personal struggles of the doctors. It lasted for six seasons before ABC canceled the series.
The Resident (2018)
One of the newest medical dramas on television today is The Resident. The Fox series followed the staff members of a hospital that always had to face the bureaucratic practices holding them down. The original setup was similar to New Amsterdam, but this show went in the opposite direction.
While New Amsterdam made things better for patients, the hospital board here had regulations and rules in effect that made it hard to properly care for patients, making the drama a lot more intense for doctors that just wanted to save lives.
St. Elsewhere (1982)
Before Grey’s Anatomy, and even before ER., the one medical drama that sat at the top of the mountain was St. Elsewhere. This show ran from 1982 until 1988 and had some very recognizable names in the cast, including Mark Harmon, Ed Begley Jr, Howie Mandel, and Denzel Washington.
The show was one of the most successful on television, matching the success of the police procedural Hill Street Blues at that time. Unlike many medical dramas over the years, St. Elsewhere kept things gritty and realistic. To this day, it is one of the best medical dramas ever to air on television.
The Good Doctor (Since 2017)
Derived from an award-winning South Korean drama of the same name, this ABC series focuses on Shaun Murphy, a young autistic surgeon whose skills and knowledge are unsurpassed. Freddie Highmore plays Murphy, and he earned a Golden Globe nomination for his performance.
Many critics believe the show’s success hinges on Highmore’s performance. As the newest surgeon at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital, Murphy has a unique ability to visualize the human body, which helps him with diagnosis and treatment. The Good Doctor is in its 5th season, and fans hope it continues to push the envelope in terms of character development.
Scrubs was a widely-popular sitcom-style drama that aired on both NBC and ABC. The series follows a group of low-level hospital employees who perform a lot of the grunt work at Sacred Heart Hospital, which functions as a medical university facility.
With its ensemble rotating cast that includes Zach Braff, Sarah Chalke, Donald Faison, and JohnC. McGinley, Scrubs lasted nine seasons before its run ended. The show’s slapstick humor, daydream sequences, and relatable characters drew viewers in, and its unique insight into a part of a hospital rarely highlighted in film or TV kept it on air for so long.
This FX dark satire about the world of plastic surgery was the antidote to all the feel-good hospital dramas clogging the airwaves. A Ryan Murphy enterprise, Nip/Tuck predicted the glamorized and excessive style that would make American Horror Story such a success.
Nip/Tuck‘s action unfolds within the walls of McNamara/Troy, a new plastic surgery facility opened by doctors Sean McNamara and Christian Troy. Every episode after the pilot is named for a patient receiving treatment, and the show graphically depicts the procedures, digging into what people put their bodies through in order to achieve perfection.
Call The Midwife (Since 2012)
This British period drama from the BBC tells the story of London midwives working at a time of great social upheaval: the late 1950s and early 1960s. The midwives in the show are ordained Anglican nuns who are part of a nursing order called Nonnatus House, and the show’s events unravel without the excess violence or melodrama many other shows on this list possess.
Call The Midwife provides an honest portrayal of mid-century British medical practices, especially as they relate to birthing and sexual health. Its narrative is supported by the real historical events that affected the British population, from the post-World War II baby boom to the founding of the National Health Service.
Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993)
The quintessential cheerful hospital sitcom, Doogie Howser, M.D.‘s absurd presence was the very thing that lured and continues to lure, viewers in. Neil Patrick Harris stars as the eponymous medical doctor who happens to be 14-years-old. Dr. Howser, a certified genius, graduated college at 10 and then finished medical school at 14, becoming the youngest licensed doctor in the country.
The show begins on Doogie’s 16th birthday. The teenager is a second-year resident surgeon at Eastman Medical Center in Los Angeles. The series, which lasted four seasons, matches teenage melodrama with suspenseful medical scenarios, incorporating relevant social issues like racism, homophobia, and poverty.
Nurse Jackie (2009-2015)
Edie Falco is at the helm of this Showtime dark comedy about an ER nurse at All Saint’s Hospital in New York City. The show’s premiere was Showtime’s most successful ever, and it was on air for seven award-winning seasons.
Nurse Jackie proves how much doctors rely on nurses, who often make much less money and work longer hours than their superiors. Falco brings a comedic realism to her portrayal of Jackie, a woman who sometimes relies on prescription drugs to get through her grueling shifts. With its strongly female cast and contemporary themes, Nurse Jackie is a feminist daydream.
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Hugh Laurie plays the sarcastic and antisocial Dr. Gregory House, who won large audiences over in this series that takes place at the fictional Princeton–Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey. Dr. House, while unlikeable, is a genius, and he develops a reputation for solving the most perplexing medical cases.
The show does a good job of combining mystery, methodology, and character studies. House has often been equated to Sherlock Holmes. A cast of well-known actors supports Laurie’s performance, including Robert Sean Leonard, Olivia Wilde, and Amber Tamlyn. House won many awards during its eight-season run.
The Knick (2014-2015)
This Steven Soderbergh-led tour-de-force paints a dismal portrait of the dawn of modern medical practices. The Knick takes place in New York City right after 1900, focused on the surgical staff at the Knickerbocker hospital.
Clive Owen plays a brilliant surgeon rattled by an addiction to injectible cocaine, while Andre Holland plays the new assistant surgeon, a black man whose skills are undermined by the systemic racism that haunts the hospital and the city. With its moody, natural lighting and graphic depictions of surgical procedures, The Knick is a dramatic gem that should not have been canceled after just two seasons on Showtime.
Inspired by the Robert Altman film of the same name, this long-running television show is a testament to the mid-century wars that forever altered the course of history around the world. The show tracks the struggles of a US Army Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950-1953.
The 1970 movie and the early seasons of the TV show both aired concurrent to the Vietnam War, and many critics see the show as an allegory for that devastating conflict. Employing comedy, situational drama, and character development, this ensemble show focuses on a part of the military many people don’t think about: the medical units.
ER is number one for being the first contemporary hospital drama. It set the tone for future such television endeavors and launched the careers of some of the biggest celebrities in the world: George Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Julianna Margulies, and Noah Wyle. Created by Michael Crichton, it is the second-longest-running primetime medical drama after Grey’s Anatomy.
The show takes place at the fictional County General Hospital in Chicago, and it has no problem being bloody, emotional, and tense. Over its 15 season run, ER won 116 awards.
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