At just 32 minutes, “Pandemic” could be its own short film. Recorded over two and a half months at the height of New York City’s COVID-19 outbreak, it works as a stand-alone PSA. Doctors and nurses struggle to staff a clearly overwhelmed system, strapping on N95 masks and passing refrigerated morgue trucks on their way into work. “Look what we just went through,” goes the unspoken message. “Do what you need to make sure you don’t go through it, too.” It’s a warning that could just as easily be a dispatch from the future as much of the Sun Belt threatens to spiral out of control.
But “Pandemic” works precisely because it comes to us in context. The half-hour is the ninth and final episode of the Netflix series Lenox Hill, a longform exploration of life inside the storied Manhattan hospital. (The main campus is located on the Upper East Side, while the former St. Vincent Hospital in Greenwich Village operates as Lenox Hill’s freestanding ER.) Directed by Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash, the partners behind similarly conceived Israeli series Ichilov and Ambulance, Lenox Hill is an intimate look inside a profession that’s difficult even in the best of times.
In its combination of tasteful restraint—the series opens with a disclaimer stressing the importance of patient privacy and subjects’ consent to be filmed—and intense curiosity, Lenox Hill recalls such past sensations as Cheer and Couples Therapy, a comparison made by Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk. “Pandemic” was uploaded on June 24, but the first batch of episodes, released in early June, invoked the oncoming pandemic without portraying it directly. Lenox Hill was filmed in two separate stints: the first shoot spanned from late 2018 to late 2019, and the second was a solo sprint by Barash, who ventured back inside the hospital in mid-March to document its part in an extraordinary event. For most viewers, however, Lenox Hill is one continuous watch, with little to separate the world before and after COVID-19.
As a result, the caretakers in “Pandemic” aren’t anonymous heroes. They’re people we’ve already observed in the job, catching mid-shift micro-naps and even operating on patients. (A bare-bones film crew was permitted inside the OR.) Barash and Shatz wisely narrow their focus to just four main characters chosen for a broad range of backgrounds and experiences. Chief obstetrics resident Amanda Little-Richardson and emergency specialist Mirtha Macri are both women of color who gave birth during production. Neurosurgery chair David Langer and vice chair John Boockvar work in a more glamorous—and, not coincidentally, whiter and more male—field, but have to balance their practice with administration and the bureaucracy of American healthcare.
Little-Richardson relocated to California at the end of Lenox Hill’s initial filming. Macri, Langer, and Boockvar, however, all remained in the city, which became the early epicenter of the American outbreak in mid-March, with an estimated peak in mid-April. Macri, pregnant with her second child, self-quarantined alone while her husband and firstborn moved in with her parents. “I feel like I’ve been training my whole life for this,” she says of a career already dedicated to frontline response. Meanwhile, Langer and Boockvar shift their focus from a narrow specialty to an all-hands-on-deck relief effort. Elective surgeries are phased out, while what Boockvar calls “the first line of defense” falls sick themselves, necessitating backup.
Shatz and Barash didn’t have months of post-production to edit “Pandemic” into a smooth, overarching narrative. The result is choppier and more staccato than the prior eight episodes, racing through a montage of scenes collected over 33 shooting days. The effect is a display of the pandemic’s rapid escalation and overwhelming impact. One interlude has dozens of people packed into a conference room, without a mask in sight; another shows just three people squinting at a graphic, 6 feet apart. The doctors vacillate between pride and despair, buckling under the strain but soldiering on.
“Pandemic” may be a break from the rest of Lenox Hill, but it also builds on what Shatz and Barash have already accomplished, drawing on our knowledge of these doctors’ routines and motivations. Lenox Hill had already spent a season honing in on the contradictory demands of the medical profession: empathy on the one hand, detachment on the other. Langer, Macri, and their colleagues have to be present for their patients and their families; they also have to witness death, destitution, and grief for years on end without losing the ability to do their jobs. Even under less extraordinary circumstances, Macri’s emergency room regularly fields patients who are without housing, or struggling with mental illness or substance misuse. In neurosurgery, Langer and Boockvar turn on a dime from geeking out over a new procedure to walking a spouse through a terminal diagnosis.
The application may be new, but to those who watch Lenox Hill from the beginning, the mindset on display in “Pandemic” is already familiar. One of the questions Lenox Hill seeks to answer is the sort of personality that’s drawn to, and can withstand the intensity of, its central occupation. Little-Richardson and Macri describe themselves as primarily altruistic; Macri enjoys working with marginalized populations, and Little-Richardson is acutely conscious of being a Black obstetrician in a country where patients like her suffer elevated maternal mortality rates. Langer and Boockvar, while deeply conscientious, come off as more compulsive: Both are multigenerational physicians whose fathers died relatively young. Their attraction to the bleeding edge of technology—Boockvar oversees clinical trials for treatment of brain cancer, though he’s now shifted his focus to COVID-19—shows that their interest in medicine runs deeper than the basic instinct to help others. Like all human beings, these doctors are complex, and Lenox Hill has had hours to draw out their psychologies before we see them in (even more) action.
“Pandemic” does have its lighter moments, most of them drawn from watching the quirks we’ve come to love manifest in a new setting. Boockvar, in particular, has the sort of larger-than-life fervor it’s easy to imagine getting the impression treatment on SNL. When he whips out a spray bottle to start Windexing a random office chair, the natural response is to think, “He would.” Macri, for her part, has a wry and reassuring bedside manner. We’ve already watched her talk down patients in pain from sickle cell anemia or a dislocated jaw. In “Pandemic,” she dubs herself a “wounded soldier,” then lets out a stifled half-laugh.
Such bits of relief punctuate an otherwise sober experience. Langer notes how difficult it is to form a relationship with a patient when they’re plugged into a ventilator and unable to speak. Another doctor notifies a family over the phone that their relative’s case is likely terminal. The hospital’s executive director leads an impromptu memorial for the dead. The scenes unfold not until the pandemic is over, because it isn’t, but until it merges with our present timeline. The final minutes of “Pandemic” show a Black Lives Matter protest passing through upper Manhattan. Marchers cheer for the hospital staff; a nurse high fives a masked participant. The final shot shows essential workers, including Langer and Boockvar, gathered around a sign that reads “You clap for us, we’ll kneel for you.”
The status quo—any kind of status quo—is nowhere in sight. It’ll be months, if not years, before we get the distance necessary to start processing the pandemic as a whole. Projects are already in the works, including a Wuhan-focused feature from Big Short writer Charles Randolph, though most film sets are shut down along with the rest of the economy. In the meantime, Lenox Hill has given us one of the first depictions of the pandemic as it actually was. More crafted than a news report, less stylized than fiction, “Pandemic” is something in between: a time capsule.