Hospitals in crisis. Natural disasters that bring terrible fire or flooding. These are staples of the news headlines right now. It is uncanny that the timing could not be better for a must-see drama about a hospital in a catastrophic crisis caused by flooding.
Five Days At Memorial (streams AppleTV+ from Friday) is about the horrifying events at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck in August of 2005. This isn’t fiction, nor is it the final word. It is based on Sheri Fink’s bestselling non-fiction book of the same title. It is, for the most part, about real people, and some of them are doctors still practising medicine today.
The mini-series, made in and around Toronto and Hamilton, Ont., opens fifteen days after the hurricane struck. Rescuers and other officials are examining the flooded city as best they can. At Memorial Hospital they find 45 dead bodies. How and why did they die? That’s the story, and it becomes one of terrifying tension and decisions made in the midst of a calamity that would become national disgrace in the U.S. The fragility of so much was exposed when the hurricane hit land, and almost everything in a major city failed to function.
To begin, the staff at the hospital gather for what they think is a routine situation. When Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga, who is brilliant here in nerve-shredding performance) arrives at the hospital, other staff tell her to expect to be in lockdown for three days, as usual during weather emergencies. The person in charge, Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones), the hospital’s nursing director and incident commander, appears confident and capable. Later on, it is Mulderick who is stunned to discover that Memorial has no official evacuation plan for this emergency.
The building in which events unfold contained two facilities, Memorial Hospital and a long-term care facility that occupied upper floors. The first, ominous signal comes when the long-term care facility reports water coming through the ceilings. At a gathering of doctors and officials, it becomes clear that even a few feet of water could endanger everyone. As Susan Mulderick discovers, there is an official plan for every type of emergency, including a terrorist attack, but not for a flood.
The series uses news footage from the Katrina period, and yes it’s a disaster drama meant to frighten you about nature’s ferocity. But it is also is small-scale and intimate, offering whispered conversations between staff, or between patients and family members, all of them in shock and distress.
Things only get worse. A National Guard officer shouts the grim truth at Mulderick: “No one is in charge. No one knows what they’re doing. If you’re waiting for an official order, it’s not coming.”
As conditions worsen, doctors and nurses must make choices. Were those choices valid? Was there negligence or misconduct? For most of its hours – three arrive Friday, the remaining five arrive weekly – this is not a fun watch. It is about a moral crisis in the middle of a terrible disaster. You feel for everyone in it, from the no-nonsense doctors to the frail, elderly patients unsure that what is happening is real.
Made for TV by John Ridley (Academy Award winner for 12 Years A Slave) and Carlton Cuse (Lost) the series is like a living document, not about heroes and heroines, but about the toll of events as real and horrifying as the daily headlines. You’ve never seen a medical drama like it.
It is one of a short list of notable shows upcoming later in August, to take note of now. The Girl in the Mirror (streams Netflix from Aug. 19) is an eerie and unsettling horror-thriller from Spain. Alma (Mireia Oriol) wakes up in hospital, after a bus accident which killed most of her classmates, with no memory of her past. Then strange patterns in her life become clear to her.
House of the Dragon (starts HBO, streams Crave from Aug. 21) is the much-awaited Game of Thrones spinoff, based on George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood. Set 200 years before Game of Thrones, it’s about yes, the House Targaryen, the shiny-haired dragon keepers. Fakes (streams CBC Gem Sept. 1) is a strong made-in-Canada comedy series that follows a group of teens who accidentally build one of the largest fake ID empires in North America.
And with that I leave you for a few weeks. Do enjoy everything you watch, enjoy the rest of summer, and be kind to each other.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.