Media Scene

Go inside a real hospital

HOPKINS 24 / 7

10 p.m. today, ABC, Channel 9

It's tough to beat a hospital as a stage for drama, and that's why so many shows – soap operas to “Grey's Anatomy” – make them a setting.

But in “Hopkins 24 / 7,” ABC's documentary unit delivers a real-life chronicle of a respected medical center that matches and sometimes exceeds the imaginative plots of Hollywood screen writers.

In six gripping, intimate hours beginning tonight, “Hopkins” takes us into the anguish and triumph of life and death. A doctor's marriage unravels. Parents decide whether to take life support away from their brain-damaged daughter. A couple wrestles with fertility issues and the private issues involved.

We meet Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinjosa, who illegally crossed the border from Mexico years ago to pick fruit in California. Now he uses his hands to pluck tumors from patients' brains.

We meet Karen Boyle, the first woman to join the urology department. Her frankness on sexual health makes her counseling sessions uncommonly effective.

And we meet Peyton Penrod, a toddler who needs a new heart, and needs it fast. Like any desperate mission, this one hits wrenching problems.

ABC is the last of the big networks to retain a documentary unit. Public television and cable nets have taken over the genre. Commercial TV prefers to feed viewers “reality” shows that are anything but.

“We can't choreograph anything,” says producer Terence Wrong, whose documentaries for the network have included the insightful “Boston 24 / 7” and “NYPD 24 / 7.” “Nobody ever walks through a door twice for us.”

Wrong says it is unlikely any other production could have gotten the access afforded his unit. Hospitals are concerned about liability issues and patients are suspicious of being exploited by TV.

But eight years ago, Wrong produced the first special on Johns Hopkins, which was widely praised and much imitated. Through that relationship, the prestigious Baltimore medical center was comfortable inviting his crew back for another view.

Wrong says documentarians adhere to a higher standard than “reality” programs, where events are often staged, then reshot, then edited into a montage that heightens the friction. It is frustrating to him that viewers can't tell the difference anymore.

“We don't get points for being authentic,” he says.

But it is the authentic nature that makes “Hopkins” so remarkable. There is high art in penetrating to such deep levels of the human condition, a surgical wonder in its own right.