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Medical Center: The Complete Fifth Season (Warner Archive Collection)

Warner Archive // Unrated // July 18, 2014
List Price: $59.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Paul Mavis | posted October 19, 2014 | E-mail the Author

" do what I have to do, I need the cooperation of my patient."
"You've got my consent--what more do you want?"
"I could also use your good vibes, your positive thinking and desire to get well...and maybe a smile."

"Dr. Gannon, they're evac-ing an Ebola case to Medical Center...mind if I slip into that haz-mat suit with you?" Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released, Medical Center: The Complete Fifth Season, a 6-disc, 24-episode collection of the hit CBS medico's 1973-1974 season. Starring Chad Everett and James Daly, one-time Top Ten Nielsen hit Medical Center continued its ratings slide as it fell out of the coveted Nielsen Top Thirty rankings this season, due in no small part to a certain sameness to previously featured storylines and guest well as the curious absence of Daly for almost half of this season. A mixed bag of episodes to be sure...but still entertaining. No extras for these very nice fullscreen color transfers (...although someone in the WB Art Department went a little crazy with Paint when boosting Everett's eyes for the DVD cover--he looks like one of those Village of the Damned brats).

Los Angeles, California, 1973 B.O.C. (Before ObamaCare). At the state-of-the-art Medical Center, strapping, square-jawed, tastefully mutton-chopped, 100% insured-against-malpractice Dr. Joe Gannon (Chad Everett) strides through the beige-colored halls of this teaching institution like an Olympic god crossed with Wayne Newton, dispensing pithy bromides and lightning-fast scalpel incisions with eerie aplomb. In Room 447, there's Stefani Powers with bad kidneys. In Room 443, there's little bastard Lee Montgomery with a dicky tummy. In Room 441, there's call girl Jessica Walter with some busted ribs. And in Room 439, there's Pamela Franklin with, what else, a brain tumor. And calmly, calmly, Dr. Joe moves from one room to the next, working slowly and carefully through his diagnosis before whipping out a number 10 Dermatome and striking like a cat, much to the consternation of flibbertigibbet parents, joy-boy scalpel jockeys, and administrators who don't know their catheters from their elbows. Usually offering sage backup--when he's around this season--is Chief of Staff Dr. Paul Lochner (James Daly), who knows Dr. Joe is the best surgeon around; who knows Dr. Joe is almost always right...and who knows Dr. Joe is certainly the best-dressed cat on his staff. That doesn't mean they don't scrap and spark a little over procedure, or over diagnoses; however, their relationship is basically sound: Dr. Joe gets the sighs from adoring female patients, and Dr. Paul has board meetings and drinks a lot of coffee. Into these halls come the sick, the broken, and the dying, and they leave...healed.

I've written several Medical Center reviews that look closely at the series' aesthetics, so I'll try not to go over the same ground again here...particularly when so much of Season Five looks and feels like previous years' offerings. Of course it was standard practice back during the "Big Three's" heyday for producers to draw from the same pool of performers year after year to "guest star" on their weekly dramatic anthologies like Medical Center. Depending on if a particular actor's talent agency had a relationship with a certain studio production company or television network, that performer might find him or herself regularly "doing a Medical Center" once a year or so, just like a singer might establish a tradition of performing at a certain nightclub every fall or summer (series producers also encouraged this practice, reliably getting known pros they could plug, hassle-free, into their shoots). However, in this fifth season of Medical Center, its established (or perhaps more accurately, "rigidly adhered to") pool of performers seems to be narrowing, with too-familiar faces like William Windom, Lois Nettleton, Bradford Dillman, Stefanie Powers, and Jessica Walter by this point engendering a definite sense of deja vu for loyal viewers when they pop up. That repetitious tone certainly isn't these talented performers' fault; they had to eat, and work's work for an actor. But they weren't helped here by the inherent sameness of the series' set-up: Jessica Walter in a hospital bed one year with this backstory, and Jessica Walter in a hospital bed the next year with that backstory...just looks like the same thing to most viewers--Jessica Walter is on Medical Center. Again. I could live with that, though (especially since they're such talented actors), had the producers and the writers strived for a little diversity in terms of storylines. However, when I see, for instance, Lois Nettleton play a suffering surgeon in this year's Impasse, it just reminds me of Lois Nettleton as a suffering doctor in last season's No Way Out...while signaling to me that the same three or four series' regular scripters, are running out of ideas (the most egregious example this time out is Stranger in Two Worlds, where Lynne Marta plays an endangered high year after playing an endangered tight rope walker in season four's End of the Line).

Even more off-putting is the prolonged absence of James Daly from this fifth season. I couldn't find any news items from that time that might have explained why he was away--perhaps ill? A commitment to some other project? A walkout?--but for the first 9 episode of Medical Center, he's nowhere to be found (when Daly does return, rather unceremoniously in episode 10, A Life at Stake, he looks terrible, like he's quite unwell himself). His disappearance (a vacation to Paris, apparently) isn't even alluded to until episode 7, Stranger in Two Worlds, where we suddenly notice that Andrew Duggan has been hanging around in the background as Assistant Chief of Staff Dr. Oliver Garson. Now, I've mentioned in my previous reviews that Daly had very little to do on Medical Center in the first place, with fan hunk Chad Everett taking up most of the screen time (a decision that hurt the series, in the end). However, television fans--particularly back during this stage of network television evolution--craved continuity and that "family feeling" that necessarily went along with a product that featured a handful of characters closely interacting with each other week after week. Daly may have only had a scene or two per episode in previous seasons of Medical Center, but he was there--an avuncular, pleasingly reassuring authoritarian presence that the audience took as one of the conventions of Medical Center's "young doctor/wise mentor" genre. So when Daly, for whatever reason, took a powder during the opening half of this season, it's not improbable that it threw loyal viewers who spent more time wondering where Daly's little cameos went, rather than wondering about that week's patients and their troubles.

Two words that always get my attention--"wife swapping"--are at the core of the season's opener, The Guilty, a surprisingly frank entry from regular contributor Don Brinkley. Belinda Montgomery suffers from hysterical paralysis when she discovers shirtless next door neighbor Stephen Brooks coming out of her mother Julie Harris' bedroom. Eventually, Montgomery is forced to see her idolized father Steve Forrest for what he really is: a user who married his rich wife for money...and then pimped her out for a job contract (Forrest definitely gets the trade-up in the swap: Dark Shadows's sexy-as-hell Lara Parker, who isn't in this one nearly enough). Medical Center slides over into Mannix territory with Time of Darkness, a well-structured, intriguing Bad Day at Black Rock variation from series regular Barry Oringer. Dr. Joe plays detective in a remote town with a secret--a secret locked up in street urchin Pamela Franklin's tumor-riddled brain. Except for the unfortunate cliche of utilizing a simpering flute for Franklin's music cues (the dire instrument of choice for producers wishing to convey innocent addle-patedness), this is a tight, well-executed mystery, with solid performances (Franklin, a fav, is always good, while pro Jo Van Fleet has several stand-out scenes). Performances are the best things going for Broken Image, from Oringer (who frankly penned too many episodes this season): William Windom is going through cranky male menopause before winsome Amanda McBroom puts the moves on him--much to the consternation of his wife, Laraine Day. The two pros are fine, particularly Day, who has several well-wrought scenes expressing her anger and disgust at her husband's immaturity; however, the story is predictably cliched, and some of the directing choices are comical (what's with that corny, bizarre, solitary shot of Windom and McBroom sitting on a bench, filmed through the bottom of a Vaseline-smeared shot glass?). Far better is Impasse, from Oringer again, which concerns Joe's romantic relationship with Dr. Lois Nettleton, who happens to be homosexual. Having grown up on 70s network television, I can assure you that the subject of homosexuality was rarely featured on serial dramas, so Impasse's positive sensitivity on the subject--no matter how ameliorated for Standards and Practices--is still noteworthy. Far from being apologetic about her orientation--back during a time when I believe the established medical journals still officially listed homosexuality as a psychological "disease"--Nettleton states who and what she is without asking for Joe's forgiveness or pity (indeed, when a clearly-floored Joe--he's even crying--gets nasty and suggests that lesbian doctors should have to be upfront about their orientation when dealing with female patients, she angrily counters that the only difference in their situations is that his preferences are in the majority, and thus immune from scrutiny or pre-judgment). A thought-provoking's too bad more like this one weren't forthcoming this season.

Martin Roth's Clash of Shadows, however, is quite dull: Diane Baker and Martin Sheen (there's a believable couple...) lose a child to "crib death," before she discovers she's pregnant again--something Sheen doesn't want. About the only thing of interest here is the Andrew Duggan-as-James Daly trial balloon sent up (I always liked Duggan...but you can tell he knows he's nothing but an office temp here). Scripter Jack Guss comes up with a good entry in The Casualty, a pre-Rolling Thunder outing (without the ultra-violence) that finds Dr. Joe in the middle of a love triangle between his girlfriend, nurse Barbara Anderson, and her long-thought dead Vietnam POW husband, Joseph Campanella. The dynamics seem right, without any easy answers...or easy resolutions (the only wrong note: the arbitrary, distracting inclusion of the anti-smoking messages from Joe). The overly familiar Stranger in Two Worlds fails to drum up any interest (Joe's goofy "stress tests"--filming divers with 16mm cameras--are laughable), with poor support from headliner Gary Lockwood not helping (Joan Blondell hams it up something no effect). The season's wrong notes continue with Child of Violence, from Don Brinkley, which concerns Irish orphan Lee Montgomery (yes, the kid from Ben, and no...he's still not any good) and his relationship with writer Gena Rowlands (who looks embarrassed to be here). Sketchy and poorly constructed. Not much better is Woman for Hire, from Barry Oringer, which plays like an obvious retread of Oringer's previous season's The Torn Man, with Barry Primus stepping into Harry Guardino's shoes as an over-involved intern set on winning patient/call girl Jessica Walter (forget all the obvious flubs like the ethical impossibilities of Dr. Joe blithely okaying Primus' pursuit of Walter--what really stinks here is Primus' obnoxious turn. Even Walter looks at him in disbelief.). A Life at Stake, from Don Brinkley, flirts with narrative silliness, too--wife Stefanie Powers insists degenerate gambler/surgeon husband Bradford Dillman perform her operation...and Dr. Joe actually agrees--but at least it's put over with some melodramatic juice, as Dillman wallows in self-destructive self-pity as the doc with a jones for dice (I love confident, capable Dr. Joe lasering in on Shakes Dillman and intoning, "I was wrong about you,'re a loser." Beautiful.).

Keeping the pulpy fun going, Nightmare, from Oringer, delivers up our first Vietnam psycho of the 1973-1974 Medical Center season: someone is issuing death threats to Dr. Joe, and it could be anyone from heavily sedated zombie Neanderthal William Devane, to former ordinance expert Perry King (take a wild guess...). Directed with some speed by Michael Caffey, and with zippy performances (with every empty 1,000 yard stare, a quietly seething Devane lets us know he despises the entire universe, while old pro Ted Gehring scores some laughs with his put-upon sound expert), Nightmare is the kind of vintage 70s TV outing fans of the medium love. Scripter Martin Roth repurposes Lady for a Day for Deadly Game, a far-fetched but surprisingly effectively outing that finds Dr. Joe graciously allowing his apartment to be used by a bag lady to impress her out-of-town daughter (he even lets the nurses redecorate for that "feminine touch"). While the structure is pure fantasy (every charity case that's admitted to Medical Center somehow seems to score a luxurious private room, rather than a simple bed in a crowded, noisy ward...), there's nothing phony about Kay Medford's flat-out remarkable performance as the Apple Annie in question (it's as good a turn as anything I've seen from 70s drama TV. Period.), while Tyne Daly (thanks, Dad!) is fine as Medford's estranged daughter. Old Hollywood pro Vincent Sherman knows how to deliver the melodrama. Jack Guss' Web of Intrigue could very well have been a "backdoor pilot" for Michael Brandon as rebellious hippie Dr. Lensko, complete with his own groovy free clinic, spooky-eyed girlfriend (who else? Meg Foster), out of wedlock baby, and attitude to spare (when the fade-out comes, and intensely unconventional Lensko, wrapped around Foster, demands time off from Dr. Joe to "be with my woman," I hit the floor...). Oliver Crawford's Trial by Knife, about "knife happy" new Chief of Surgery Rosemary Murphy butting heads with more cautious Dr. Joe (now Dr. Joe is the more cautious one? Uh oh...) doesn't offer much that we haven't seen already, although its feminist slant (she was bullied into her career, and then only taught technique, like a slave, rather than independence through diagnostic prowess) is pretty interesting--too bad more of the episode wasn't about that aspect.

Jack Guss' Choice of Evils tries mightily, but it can't help but wind up alternately unsettling and hilarious. 50-year-old dynamo Paul Burke just won't slow down (amazing how perceptions of who is official "old" now has changed), particularly since he's now hooked up with "baby girl" Jill Clayburgh. But an aortic aneurism has the potential to either kill him...or render him impotent from the complicated surgical procedure, and without lead in his pencil, he's ready to write-off his marriage to Clayburgh and settle for "just love" with ex, Barbara Rush. While the issues here are interesting, you can't get past Burke's decidedly creepy (and possibly even criminal) macho baby talk with Clayburgh ("You're everything rolled into one: my wife, my playmate, and daughter." Uh...okay....), nor the unintentional hysteria while everyone waits around to see if Burke can get a boner (on second thought...this may be my favorite episode this season). Jack Guss is back with the much better No Escape: Lola Albright's kid is a piano prodigy, but she needs a new kidney. Enter father and murderer Cameron Mitchell, who's willing to give the kid one of his. The only thing: Mitchell isn't really the father of the girl--Mitchell killed him 16 years before, and now it's the law that says Mitchell needs to know he's not the biological father before giving up his organ. Good twists and a particularly fine, emotional performance from the always underrated Mitchell make this one a highlight of the season. Another fine actor, Ed Nelson, is given a good showcase in Martin Roth's absorbing Dark Warning: Joanna Miles needs microsurgery and the only expert on her condition is her ex-husband, Nelson...who's suffering from a temporal lobe lesion resulting in psycho-motor epilepsy. Now he needs help from the woman who always needed his help...and didn't get it during their marriage. This is the kind of episode that Medical Center excelled at: a well-wrought emotional conflict that's tied directly to an equally compelling medical problem. Now...Don Brinkley's Girl from Bedlam may not be the typical Medical Center outing, but it's deliciously silly and melodramatic. Funny things are happening at seedy ex-Medical Center head shrinker Murray Hamilton's private sanatorium, so Dr. Joe goes undercover as a psychotic to see what's what. You want proof that he's actually insane? He shows up at the clinic in skin tight acid-washed jeans, a denim jacket...and white goat hair apres-ski yeti boots (the jacket is bad enough, but those boots demand 400cc of Thorazin stat). Once inside this Shock Treatment/Lilith combo rip-off, he falls for confused patient Joanna Pettet (such a talented performer, and forever stuck in pointless projects like this one). It's criminal that one of my favs, The Boys in the Band's Leonard Frey, doesn't have any lines here, but Vincent Sherman delivers the goofy goods (I love his commercial-grade FDS nut house love montage).

Having grown up thinking Dean Jones was a god because of his superstar status at the Walt Disney studios, it's amusing to watch him the year he starred in Snowball Express playing a morphine junkie trying to kill the pain of his terminal cancer (you haven't lived until you see Jim Douglas frantically tying off and shooting up). Stockard Channing is quirky, as usual, in Barry Oringer's predictable script. Jack Guss' The Enemies predates Little Man Tate by a few decades, but it's essentially the same story, with little Willie Aames quite infectious as the tiny genius, and Anne Meara strong and touching as his adoptive mother (Broadway performer Carol Lawrence, however, is arch and stiff and phony, as expected). The Conspirators, from Don Brinkley, should have been a pulpy little exploiter: hot-as-hell Kay Lenz is raped, and her psycho gang leader boyfriend Joey Aresco thinks college-bound punk John David Carson did it. Gold, right? Wrong--it's all rather flatly delivered (even the sure-fire confrontation between Dr. Joe and the gang is muted, for some unknown reason). Nick Nolte shows up here for another bit part this season. Much better is Martin Roth's The World's a Balloon, where two-bit ventriloquist Dom DeLuise tries to hold onto ward Lee Montgomery, in the little charmer' second--and unasked for--appearance this season (Dom should have just hung onto the dummy...who sounds exactly like Joe Pesci). A good cast, including Norman Fell and Beverley Garland (always right on target) support DeLuise in his fine, dramatic turn as the entertainer who can't seem to see the reality of his plight until it's almost too late (it's a shame DeLuise couldn't have periodically returned to serious work like this, after he hooked up with Burt Reynolds a few years later). Tapping into all that Exorcist pop culture frenzy, Hexed, from Oringer, features Louise Sorel possessed by a Santeria voodoo curse which head shrinker Peter Haskell spots right away...but which Dr. Joe scoffs at until the last possible moment (of course the script makes it clear at the end that nobody at Medical Center really buys all that mumbo jumbo...or do they?). Lots of fun freak-out scenes (by director Lee Philips) when Sorel sees people like her guardian, Will Geer, as devils. Finally, Al C. Ward's Appointment with Danger is a familiar outing about a dedicated scientist (Nancy Kelly) realizing she's thrown away the love of her life: Leif Erickson (really? Leif Erickson? Okay...) Nicely performed by the pro cast...but far too generic by this point in the series...even with the oh-so-casual anti-nuke power b.s..

When CBS finally caved to the ratings beating The ABC Wednesday Movie of the Week was delivering to Medical Center during its previous fourth season, the Tiffany network moved their premier medico show to Monday nights at a new, later time, 10:00pm...with no better luck in the Nielsen's. While CBS's Monday night lineup started strong with nearly-ancient-but-still-potent war horse Gunsmoke (15th for the 1973-1974 season) and nearly-ancient-but-still-potent war horse Lucille Ball (Here's Lucy finished a respectable 29th for the year), Medical Center's immediate lead-in, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, a ratings' winner the year before, didn't survive a timeslot change, dropping out of the Nielsen Top Thirty. That drag, combined with heavy competition from ABC NFL Monday Night Football in the fall (19th for the year), and then The ABC Monday Movie in the winter (26th)--as well as NBC's own okay-performing Monday Night at the Movies--Medical Center dropped out of the Nielsen Top Thirty this fifth season. A momentary ratings' bump during its penultimate season next year, though, would briefly buoy the long-running medical show.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 color transfers for Medical Center: The Complete Fifth Season look very sharp, with brightly-valued color, mostly good contrast (a few scenes here and there might be a tad blown out), a sharp image, and little in the way of noticeable anomalies.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is just fine, with little hiss and a decent re-recording level. No subtitles or closed-captions available.

The Extras:
No extras for Medical Center: The Complete Fifth Season.

Final Thoughts:
The viewers patients are beginning to build up an immunity. No question at all that there are a lot of fun episodes in this fifth go-around of CBS' once mighty Medical Center. However, it's clear that its weekly dosage of drama was diluted by familiarity at this point in the game, a situation not helped at the beginning of the season--an absolutely critical time in securing new and returning viewers--by the absence of James Daly. Of course I'm recommending this fifth season of Medical Center--good god it's Chad, after all--but only for established fans of the series.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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