AMC+ Has a Heartbreaking, Hilarious Hit with This Is Going to Hurt

TV Reviews This Is Going to Hurt
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AMC+ Has a Heartbreaking, Hilarious Hit with This Is Going to Hurt

One of the most pressing problems for… well, for our entire world… is how to make a large number of people care about something that doesn’t directly affect them, and that may be hard to understand without the kind of effort that the vast majority of people won’t make. The obvious example here is climate change, which is so relatively incremental (for now) that even though the concept is widely known, it’s proven impossible to foment a serious mass movement with the power to force real change. That one might actually kill us, eventually, but there are countless “smaller” examples that prevent us from understanding the plight of other people. Should we care about Amazon warehouse workers, if we don’t work in an Amazon warehouse or know anybody who does? What about UPS drivers? What about immigrants?

Yes. The answer is that yes, of course we should, but simple calls for empathy aren’t effective. So what will be? One cheat code is art, because art can mean entertainment, entertainment means pleasure, and while someone is entertained, he or she might be more open to understanding and empathizing with an unfamiliar group. Adam Kay, the British writer, seems to have pulled off the trick magically with the phenomenal success of his 2017 book This Is Going to Hurt. A review in The Scotsman said it all, noting that Kay’s book “will make your eyes water… and it may well make you choke on hot tea.” Because he combined pathos with humor and an engaging story, he managed to shine real light on a societal problem.

And who was his sympathetic group? Doctors. That might not seem quite as impressive now, in a pandemic world in which the strain and exhaustion on healthcare workers is more apparent and more appreciated than ever before, but in 2017, it was quite a feat. Through his work, readers saw firsthand the horrific pressures and responsibilities of junior doctors in the UK’s NHS system. It was written partly in response to accusations by the conservative politician Jeremy Hunt that people like Kay, a former doctor of obstetrics and gynecology, were “greedy.” Instead, as more than 2.5 million readers have found out so far, their lives are grim, stressful, and thankless. This is called moving the societal needle.

The seven-part TV series that came from this, also titled This Is Going to Hurt, debuts on streaming service AMC+ (and Sundance Now) after running on BBC One earlier this year. It is, in a word, spectacular; different from the book, as it needed to be, but every bit as effective in conveying the central theme while still being hugely funny and hugely watchable.

Ben Whishaw (Fargo, the Bond movies) stars as Kay, a junior doctor on a nearly decrepit NHS ward. He’s tetchy, he’s snobby, and he’s repressed even by British standards. But he’s also sincere and funny, and he’s more than up to the task of shouldering the heaviest dramatic burden in a show that revolves around him. We meet his partner Harry (Rory Fleck Byrne), his horrifying-but-hilarious mother (the ridiculously good Harriet Walter, who is playing a juiced-up version of her role as Logan’s ex-wife on Succession) and various other outside friends, but the thick of the action happens inside the hospital, where an alternating array of tragic and comic situations mark off the long days and nights of trying to ensure the health of his nation’s pregnant women and babies.

His co-workers are cynical, the conditions are just this side of mortifying, and the comedy has to be wrenched from the darkness, but it works at nearly every turn. Ambika Mod as Shruti and Ashley McGuire as Miss Houghton deserve special praise for embodying two very different types of specialists: the ones who can’t take it, and are ground into dust, and the ones who can, and not only maintain their humanity against the odds but make a gift of that humanity to their suffering patients.

It is so difficult for a show to be funny and socially constructive without bending too far in one direction, and either becoming so focused on laughter that the commentary fails, or so intent on lecturing that there’s no space for comedy… particularly the biting, cynical, and occasionally cruel comedy that the situation usually dictates. For This Is Going to Hurt to walk that line with such self-confidence is a rare achievement, and one that I think might only be possible outside America, where the rules for how to approach Real Problems have become too standardized for creativity. The UK, though, with its history, its optimistic defeatism, and its lingering pride, makes the perfect home; and in some ways the NHS is the perfect venue. Where a film like Don’t Look Up wants sincerely to shine light on a serious issue (climate change), the forced choice to hide behind satire limited its scope and therefore its impact. In contrast, This Is Going to Hurt deals with the miserable professional lives of junior doctors with grim realism, empty of any disguise, and carries an emotional hammer that can devastate the viewer at any moment—and sometimes mid-laugh.

Bitingly funny, searingly sad, and fully educational—how can you beat that combination? If you’re like me, you’ll blaze through the seven episodes and find yourself wishing for more. Perhaps what we should wish for, instead, is that this series serves as a blueprint. If you want to entertain, raise awareness, and create a piece of lasting art while you’re there, look no further: this is how it’s done.

This Is Going to Hurt debuts Thursday, June 2 on AMC+ and Sundance Now, with new episodes released weekly.

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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