The first episode of Proof suffers from a severe case of pilotitis, but there are inklings of possible medical ethics debates which could be intriguing.
Back in my junior year of undergrad I took a course called Ethical Issues in Death and Dying–or as I liked to call it: Deathics. The course examined the topic of death from multiple perspectives, including the grief cycle presented in On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, philosophical ruminations from Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, and a fictionalized account courtesy of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Thanatology, as the academic study of death is called, is a fascinating exploration of something that everyone will encounter.
The writers of TNT’s new drama Proof might benefit from consulting a thanatologist or reading any of the above books.
Proof stars Jennifer Beals plays a surgeon1 named Caroline “Cat” Tyler who also practices international philanthropic medicine. Her family life experienced upheaval when her teenage son Will died, leading to a divorce from fellow doctor Len (David Sutcliffe) and a tense relationship with daughter Sophie (Annie Thurman). Following a surgery where the patient was almost pronounced dead, Cat is summoned to multi-billionaire Ivan Turing’s (Matthew Modine) home for a potential funding opportunity. Turing has terminal cancer, but he is willing to donate his entire fortune to Tyler’s causes and hospital if she can find definitive proof of an afterlife.
Before getting too deep into the details of the pilot, let’s discuss the concept of the series. First, the reasoning behind why Tyler is selected for this project is flimsy at best. We learn she had her own near-death experience during a relief mission in Japan a few years prior, but that hardly makes her uniquely qualified. She is not a thanatologist and finds the exercise somewhat preposterous. Turing says Tyler is devoted to hard science, which is what caught his attention. You know, because most medical professionals have zero interest in science. Also, the central question being explored is asking to prove a negative, which is not the way scientific inquiry works, though it does set up a procedural structure for the narrative.
This is demonstrated with the patient of the week, a young girl who almost died of meningitis and had encounters with people who had died while she was on the operating table. Tyler and her intern Zed (Eli Gathegi) investigate the claims by talking with family members and the patient. The family made the story public, catching the attention of author (and possible antagonist) Peter Van Owen (Callum Blue), but there are some weird HIPAA issues that may need to be discussed down the pike.
Tyler becomes convinced she should take on Turing’s challenge when the patient of the week has a relapse and requires surgery. Her parents refuse to sign the consent forms when they learn the surgery has a 70% mortality rate, possibly at the urging of Van Owen. Yes, it is a high-risk surgery, but 30% success rate versus not doing anything seems worthwhile.2 Tyler convinces the parents to not be monsters and the surgery proves to be successful.