Over the past couple months I’ve been working my way through all seven seasons of Childrens Hospital (2008-2016), which began as a short-form web-series spoofing serious medical dramas, before evolving into an Emmy-award-winning TV show (via Adult Swim) and setting its absurdist sights on a wider range of genres. The style and format of each episode could vary quite wildly, with the characters and their relationships morphing to suit whatever the revolving writers felt like doing with/to them that week, but the main cast remained largely unchanged, throughout the years…
Lake Bell played ‘Catholomule “Cat” Black’, a bi-curious (and occasionally nude) doctor, whose navel-gazing narration was a highlight of the first season, along with her deeply disturbing lust for ‘Little Nicky’ (Nick Kroll), a six-year-old boy with an advanced ageing disease that made him appear outwardly adult. When she (seemingly) died giving birth to Nicky’s child, she was replaced in the second season (but not my heart) by ‘Dr Valerie Flame’, played by Malin Åkerman… though Cat later returned to work and slack-off alongside her successor. Meanwhile, Megan Mullally played ‘Chief’, the handicapable head of staff, who bravely soldiered-on despite an array of infirmities, and the suggestion that she was simply a figment of someone else’s insanity. Despite the presence of these more familiar names/faces, my pick for the show’s MVP would have to be Erinn Hayes, who played ‘Lola Spratt’, a doctor who also happened to be a fully-qualified attorney, ventriloquist, ace impressionist, and secret government agent, with super-powerful puppy-eyes! Remarkably, Hayes managed to remain consistently charming, funny, and natural, no matter what ridiculousness she was asked to deliver, or how many tonal and stylistic shifts she had to navigate… and frankly her performance here is nothing short of Herculean, comedy-wise! I can’t say I was familiar with her before watching this show, but she’s leapt way up my watch-list now… and it boggles my mind that she hasn’t landed her own star-vehicle already, though there is some consolation in the fact that she’s been nominated for an Emmy this year (Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series)!
The doctors were ably assisted by two dutiful nurses, ‘Dori’ (played by Zandy Hartig) and ‘Beth’ (played by Beth Dover)… and if I absolutely had to pick a fave episode at scalpel-point, it would be #6.4, which was presented as the work of a competition winner (‘Carol Torton’, played by Liz Cackowski), who had never written for television before, but was an avid “fan fiction” author, and had chosen to explore Nurse Beth’s status as an “outsider” in love with two sparring doctors, who were also a secret vampire and werewolf respectively. Besides giving the very funny Dover more screen-time (which is always appreciated), I’ve always been a sucker for deliberately bad writing… though obviously as an aspiring author myself, there’s a certain amount of self-recrimination mixed in with the laughter!
That episode was also one of a select handful that stepped back from the mutable “reality” of the eponymous hospital to provide a (fictional) glimpse behind-the-scenes of the show… although director/co-star David Wain always appeared as “himself”, the rest of the cast took on secondary alter-egos, to portray the eccentric actors who supposedly appeared in the long-running, top-rated medical drama: Bell played ‘Dixie Peters’, a pretentious thesp who favours goth-y/glam-rock make-up and outfits (hotcha!)… Åkerman played ‘Ingrid Hagerstown’, a Swedish actress who speaks no English, and learns all of her lines phonetically (Fun fact: Åkerman was actually born in Sweden, but her family moved to Canada when she was two years-old)… Mullally played ‘Lady Jane Bentick-Smith’, a theatrically-trained English toff, who occasionally lapses into faux-”British”-nonsense-slang… and Hayes played ‘Lynn Williams’, a unibrowed narcissist, who faked an alcohol-abuse problem in order to attract tabloid press attention. Tch!
Over the course of its 86 episodes, the series also attracted an all-star roster of guest-stars, including: Eva Longoria (ep #1.10), Eva Amurri (ep #2.3), Kerri Kenney-Silver (ep #2.4, 5.12), Laura Marano (ep #2.4/7), Abigail Spencer (ep #2.6, 4.3/9), Lizzy Caplan (ep #2.10, 3.13), Rachael Harris (ep #2.11), Lisa Edelstein (ep #3.1), Sarah Silverman* (ep #3.2), Alicia Silverstone (ep #3.10), Michaela Watkins (ep #4.6), Kathryn Hahn (ep #4.12), Julie Bowen (ep #6.2), Constance Wu (ep #6.7), Mimi Kennedy (ep #6.13), Rachel Blanchard (ep #6.14), JoBeth Williams (ep #7.6), Valerie Harper (ep #7.9), Molly Shannon (ep #7.10), and Shirley Jones (ep #7.11). Phew!
Verdict: Although individual episodes could be a little hit-and-miss, depending on the conceit and style of comedy employed by the disparate writers from week to week, and the inconsistent characterisations made it hard to form any real attachment to their joke-dispensing-puppets, the performances were always very watchable, and overall there were more than enough hilarious diamonds-in-the-rough to make for a very welcome comedy chaser!
* I can’t really mention Big S in a hospital-related context without also touching on her recent and very real life-threatening medical emergency, after a suspected sore throat turned out to be “a freak case of epiglottitis”… i.e., an inflammation of the flap of cartilage at the root of the tongue, which could theoretically cover the windpipe completely, cutting off the air supply and causing death within minutes. Eep! Thankfully she was spared that fate by the good folks at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (Los Angeles), and is now on the mend again… so best wishes to her, and her friends/family.