Its characters are familiar medical drama types and its storylines are somewhat predictable, but Monroe (2011-present) otherwise is so well made that it hardly matters. The program, created and written by playwright Peter Bowker (Blackpool/Viva Laughlin, Occupation) and starring the always interesting James Nesbitt (Occupation, Murphy's Law, The Hobbit) as a cocky neurosurgeon, grapples simultaneously with myriad thought-provoking issues of consciousness, the soul, identity, and family, among other things.
Acorn Media's Monroe - Series 1 includes all six of season/series one's 46-minute episodes, on two single-sided, dual-layered discs. The shows, in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, look and sound great, though nitpicky videophiles may object to the show's visual scheme, which employs an extremely shallow-focus effect most of the time.
Nesbitt is Dr. Gabriel Monroe, a skilled brain surgeon equally intelligent and empathetic toward his understandably terrified and often confused patients, men and women facing the prospect of possibly losing forever what defines them as a person. Monroe earns their trust with his forthrightness; he never sugarcoats his answers to their questions while acknowledging and directly addressing their worst fears.
Somewhat predictably, as brilliant and emotionally together as he is in the operating room or with patients and their distraught relatives, Monroe's home life is a mess, having spiraled out of control in the years following the tragic death of his daughter. In the first episode he and his wife, Anna (Susan Lynch), send their surviving offspring off to college and, once done, she announces that she's leaving him, partly because of an affair Monroe had years earlier at the height of their grieving.
Back at the hospital, Monroe's irreverent ways begin to wear out their welcome as close friend and colleague, anesthetist Dr. Lawrence Shepherd (Tom Riley, Lost in Austen), secretly begins dating Monroe's arch-nemesis, pithy heart surgeon Dr. Jenny Bremmer (Sarah Parish, Blackpool, The Pillars of the Earth). While equally skilled, Bremmer is Monroe's opposite number in terms of bedside manner. Hiding behind an austere persona, she's clueless when it comes to understanding the emotional needs of her patients.
Despite these overly-familiar characterizations and somewhat predictable storylines (it's easy to guess which of Monroe's patients are going to make it and which are not), Monroe is eminently engrossing anyway, partly because its subject matter is so inherently fascinating/terrifying, and because while less graphic than other recent medical shows it doesn't shy away from the philosophical issues of brain surgery, its effects and endless mysteries.
Further, the across-the-board fine acting effectively makes the drama intimate, believable, and easy for its audience to relate emotionally and intellectually with the problems its patients face.
Probably to distinguish itself from other medical shows, Monroe adopts a broad visual scheme employing something like shallow depth-of-field about 80% of the time. Typically only one part of the frame will be in focus, with the rest of the frame remains deliberately blurred, thus directing the viewer's attentions toward one character/image and away from everything else. There are other visual effects, such as the recurring use of shooting the actors through CT scans, X-rays and the like, with the actors looking toward the camera lens as they assess the data therein.
Additionally, the program was filmed in the former Leeds Girls' High School, making the series' St. Matthews Hospital setting darker and with an interesting contrast of older, decaying architectural backgrounds populated with modern medical technology. Dominik Scherrer's (Marple, Inspector George Gently) musical score, more dominant than in most medical dramas, further adds to the program's overall effectiveness.
Nesbitt, who's hit upon this uniquely Irish, breezily cynical and iconoclastic screen persona, here is less dark than his brooding undercover detective from Murphy's Law, mixed with a little Hawkeye Pierce. International stardom beckons, if he's interested in such things.
Video & Audio
Monroe - Series 1 is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, the 1.78:1 frame used to good advantage. The six 46-minute episodes are on two single-sided discs. The Dolby Digital Stereo is impressive and up to contemporary television standards, and the shows include optional English subtitles. No Extra Features, however.
An intensely engrossing, thought-provoking medical drama, Monroe comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.