March 23, 2016

Additions to the Top Ten: Breaking Point

EDUARD FRANZ (LEFT) AND PAUL RICHARDS: THE DOCTORS OF BREAKING POINT

I've written a couple of times these last few months about Breaking Point, the Ben Casey spinoff that ran in the 1963-64 season on ABC. As was the case with so many series from that era, I first became acquainted with it through TV Guide, where I would see it in the listings each week, reading the description of an episode that sounded intriguing or provocative.

Like Casey, the show followed the tried-and-true formula: Paul Richards plays Dr. McKinley Thompson, the young chief resident in psychiatry; Eduard Franz, as psychiatric clinic director Dr. Edward Raymer, is the older mentor. Although each story tends to focus on one doctor*, both men appear in most episodes. And, as is the case in so many dramas of the era, plots revolve around the guest stars more than the doctors themselves.

*The emphasis, as was the case in most medical dramas, was on the younger of the two men; Franz, noting this and pointing out to the producers that his contract stipulated co-star status, calmly mentioned he'd be asking to be released from his contract unless the imbalance was corrected. Fortunately, it was.

In one particularly fine episode, "And If Thy Hand Offend Thee," James Daly (Medical Center) portrays Mitchell Farnum, a veteran of the Pacific theater in World War II, who appears to be dealing with what today we'd call PTSD, spending nights in an Asian bar, raving about his experiences with the Japanese. Just when it looks as if a fight might break out, though, he finds his right hand cramping and breaking out in a rash. Since his regular doctor can't find anything physically wrong, he sends Farnum to see Dr. Thompson.

Slowly, through Thompson's questions, Farnum's story begins to unfold in unexpected directions. First, we find that Farnum has had this problem with his hand for several years. We are told that Farnum has been separated from his wife for over a decade, and then discover that his wife is Japanese, that he met her during the occupation, that she lived in Hiroshima but was not caught in the blast. We learn that they spent several happy years in Japan, but that the problems began once they relocated to the United States. We see a flashback in which Farnum's unit has a hatred of Japanese drillled into them - that they lack emotions, that they will kill without scruples, that they are not even human. Fine, we think - this confirms our initial theory that Farnum has a bitter hatred of the Japanese based on what he saw in the Pacific.

James Daly (left) with Paul Richards
But then the story begins to shift, as Farnum tells Thompson that he was involved in testing of the atomic bomb. that he played the key role in testing the trigger mechanism. As he describes the horror that unfolded at Hiroshima (in a stunning, documentary-like look at the damage), Dr. Thompson begins to understand the situation. Farnum's hatred of the Japanese is merely a defense mechanism to mask his true problem - an intense hatred of himself, fueled by guilt over his role in the bombing. Having unlocked the key to understanding the situation, Thompson stresses, does not mean Farnum's illness will go away magically. It will take work, it will take desire on Farnum's part to get better, but Thompson will be there to help him get there.

And in truth, one of the best parts about Breaking Point is that it usually avoids the easy answer. It is clear that Farnum and his wife still love each other after all these years, but Farnum tells her it will take time for him to accept all this. When he checks out of the hospital, to continue his therapy as an outpatient, he tells Dr. Thompson that he's not ready to return to his wife yet. He wants to, but it isn't going to happen overnight. The episode ends, on a note of hope, but with no certainty that Farnum and his wife will live happily ever after.

This is far from an unusual episode of Breaking Point, however. Another standout, "My Hands Are Clean," involves Telly Savalas as Vincenzo Gracchi, a loan shark who may be experiencing the Stigmata, bleeding that mimics Christ's wounds on the Cross. His priest, played by Henry Silva, refuses to believe that this is a miracle - Gracchi is an unrepentant loan shark, after all* - and convinces Cracchi to see his old friend Dr. Thompson, who through patient but persistent questioning determines that Gracchi's problems have something to do with his father. Sounds Freudian, right? Gracchi says his father was the best man he's ever known, and that he'd wanted Gracchi to become a priest, but the young Gracchi was too consumed with succeeding, with rising above his station in life, the area where Gracchi feels his father was a failure.

*In doing so, the priest's comments echo those of G.K. Chesterton, who said that it was only because he believed in the existence of miracles that he could discount those that were not real.

What does this have to do with the Stigmata? Thompson confesses his frustration to Dr. Raymer, who shrewdly reminds the younger doctor that there was more than one man on the hill at Calvary. And with that, Thompson gets to the bottom of Gracchi's problem - his guilt is about the kind of lifestyle he has chosen, the way he has unscrupulously taken advantage of so many people, and in doing so he is identifying not with Christ, but with the Good Thief. It's more of a happy ending than most episodes, with Gracchi vowing to give up loan sharking and become an honest businessman, but both he and the viewers know that he'll need continued therapy to get over what has plagued him for so long.

In many respects, "My Hands Are Clean" illustrates why Breaking Point is so good. We see the patient struggling (and initially rejecting) the idea of psychiatric help. The doctors ask questions, probe, but are never intrusive. They stress the reasons the patient needs help, but don't force the issue. Eventually, we see the patients hit bottom, and in desperation return to the hospital - where Drs. McKinley or Raymer are there, waiting for them. They are never dismissive of the problems faced by their patients, nor do they scoff at things like religious belief, which they give great respect.

Most of all, a couple of things I mentioned earlier: first, that there are no easy answers. In an episode featuring Bradford Dillman as a doctor blinded in an accident, the episode ends with Dillman finally adjusting to a future without sight, and returning home with his new guide dog - only to find his wife, unable to provide him with the support he needs, has left him. Dillman starts the process of learning how to function as a sightless doctor, but we have no idea whether or not he and his wife will reconcile. A similar situation occurs in an episode I wrote about earlier, with Dr. Raymer treating Gena Rowlands, a woman with a drinking problem. At the conclusion of the episode her husband, fed up with her repeated promises to stop drinking, has left her. She's determined, with Dr. Raymer's help, to overcome her problems and win her husband back - and on that hopeful note, but with no guarantee that the couple will get back together, the episode ends. Some people might complain that the story isn't tied up in a nice bow, as would be the case with so many other shows of the era - I simply call it real life.

In writing about that episode, I also mention the other thing that I like so much about Breaking Point - there is no personal drama concerning the doctors. Are they married, do they have girlfriends, are their lives like those on, say, Gray's Anatomy? As Dr. Raymer says, "Does it matter?" Breaking Point is a medical drama, not a soap opera, with the story concentrating on the lives of the patients, people at the very breaking point. See that picture above of Daly with Paul Richards? It's a key point in the episode, played with Richards' back to the camera, and that's symbolic of how the show lets those lives take center stage. It never becomes melodramatic, and only rarely does it even try to pull strings or manipulate viewers. The cast is first-rate, the writing is quality, the episodes demonstrate the intense drama of the human condition, and remind us that this drama doesn't need to be tarted up to be compelling. Breaking Point is compelling, consistently, and it's unfortunate that the show lasted only the one season, competing with East Side/West Side on CBS and Sing Along With Mitch on NBC.

Breaking Point reminds us that television has always been capable of delivering quality drama, and that the human mind is perhaps the most fertile ground for such drama. My question is simple: where is this kind of drama today?

4 comments:

  1. Much like Dr Kildare in the early '60's where patients didn't make it because of the level of medicine then (as compared to the medical advances we have now), Breaking Point and The Eleventh Hour did not have the myriad of medications in the '60's that are now available to psychiatrists today. In reality, it made for better stories as the docs had to use actual psychiatry vs. handful of meds. Maybe this is the reason we still have medical shows in the 2010's but none focused on psychiatry...

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    1. Interesting point - one I hadn't considered before. Not unlike how technical advances have made the private investigator's job less interesting, and thus less worthy of television time today...

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  2. I remember reading at the time (I was in high school then) that Breaking Point was the usual winner of its timeslot, against East Side/West Side and Sing Along With Mitch.

    So why was it cancelled?

    The following is "educated guesswork":

    Breaking Point came from the producers of Ben Casey.
    Its first showing was a Casey episode (what would nowadays be called a "backdoor pilot"), in that show's regular Monday night slot.
    The following Monday, Breaking Point took over the Monday slot, with Ben Casey moving to Wednesday.
    As things turned out, BP held on to much, but not all, of the Casey audience on Mondays, while Casey didn't do as well on Wednesdays.
    Came renewal time and Bing Crosby Productions, which produced both shows, met resistance at ABC to two renewals.
    Since Casey was the established show, it got the pickup (and the old Monday slot back), and bye-bye Breaking Point.
    This situation cropped up fairly frequently back in the three-network days.

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    1. I recall Cleveland Amory writing that of all the programs that were cancelled that season, he got more letters of complaint about Breaking Point than any other.

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And now for something completely different.