The oddest thing about Vutha on SABC2 and Durban Gen on e.tv is that there is little mask-wearing visible on the two new local hospital dramas. Despite being produced in the midst of the Covid-19 coronavirus, the producers of both took conscious decisions to keep the masks and hand sanitisers behind the scenes.
Both dramas fail to model medical behaviour during the era of Covid-19, but the creative decisions carried more weight – the actors’ faces need to be seen, even in the ER corridors. TV is a ratings-based operation, after all.
Both Vutha (produced by Clive Morris Productions) and Durban Gen (produced by Stained Glass TV) are pretty much operations of frustration. Neither really moves the needle from what soapy hospital prime-time series such as Hillside and Jozi H have offered viewers years before, although both diligently measure out the medicine required by the mandate of the respective channels that they’re broadcast on.
Vutha, possibly the more successful of the two, offers a gritty Soul City 2.0 feel – struggling staff at the township-based Edward Dondolo Hospital serve the struggling Daveyton community.
Executive produced by Lala Tuku, Dom Gumede and Clive Morris, Vutha mostly revolves around common issues in public healthcare, and broaches medical problems and how medical care is influenced by failing policy and things like corruption.
But the show needs a prescription for some cheerfulness amid its depressing gloom. You almost wish for a doctor to inject a measure of gloss into the trauma.
Over at e.tv, the brightly lit Durban Gen – with Mbali (played by Nelisiwe Sibiya) as a thinly veiled Meredith Grey – is basically a localised knock-off Birkin bag of Grey’s Anatomy.
Highly dramatised and with overacting and histrionics, romantic entanglements, sex shenanigans, and a lot of elevator, corridor and stairwell talk, Durban Gen is a soap within a hospital setting on a commercial broadcaster. Executive producers Gugulethu Zuma-Ncube, Mmamitse Thibedi, Pepsi Pokane and Theogaren Moodley have churned out a show that is mostly over-the-top relationship-driven – who is sexing who and keeping what secret from whom?
Interestingly, there’s a third – and better – choice on SABC3. British series The Good Karma Hospital revolves around the life and work of disillusioned young doctor Ruby Walker (played by Amrita Acharia), who has settled in south India to make a fresh start in her life.
Wired into the DNA of this sanguine series is a bit of the life essence that Vutha and Durban Gen seem to miss – an underlying sense of optimism despite difficult circumstances.
The gloomy Vutha needs some Patch Adams, and the sex-in-the-back-of-an-ambulance fantasy of Durban Gen’s escapism could do with a reality check from Dr Phil.
Local medical dramas, especially in the time and context of Covid-19, don’t need to be preachy edutainment, overdramatised or vapid frivolous fun; there are many American hospital dramas – from The Good Doctor and The Resident to New Amsterdam – doing the corridor walk and talk.
Thought-provoking, slowly unfolding, and more tender love and care local medical dramas that are character-based are what South Africans want. Mask or not, it’s the believable and irresistibly compelling characters who first draw the viewer in, after which the medicine can be administered inside a spoonful of TV sugar.
Catch Vutha on Thursdays at 9.30pm on SABC2(DStv channel 192); Durban Gen on weekdays at 6.30pmon e.tv (DStv channel 194); and The Good Karma Hospitalon weekdays at 6.30pm on SABC3 (DStv channel 193)