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Ken Burns’ crush on Mayo Clinic dominates new documentary

September 24, 2018

TV doctors dedicate an exorbitant amount of their shifts to fighting bureaucracy.

In the NBC series New Amsterdam, premiering Tuesday night, the savior in scrubs battles bosses over his freewheeling approach to the budget. The title character in ABCs The Good Doctor must constantly prove to the board that his autism isnt an insurance liability. The newbie in Foxs The Resident is so busy bucking the system that he barely has time to make out with the on-call nurse.

The Mayo Clinic: Faith-Hope-Science has a different take on medicine. In the two-hour documentary, premiering Tuesday on PBS, its the system thats the hero.

Executive producer Ken Burns has fallen in love before, but its almost always with humans: Jackie Robinson in Baseball. Shelby Foote in The Civil War. Louis Armstrong in Jazz.

This time out, the Emmy-winning filmmaker is head over heels for the Minnesota-based health care provider and its nonprofit, patient-first philosophy. He insists that Mayo administrators had no editorial control, but the film is so laudatory, youd swear the Mayos public relations department had final cut.

Burns, who co-directed alongside Chris and Erik Ewers, never comes right out and lambastes the state of health care in the rest of the country, but his message to Washington is clear: Stop playing politics and embrace the Mayo Model.

The filmmakers are smart enough to know its hard to feel warm fuzzies for an institution. They do offer some flesh-and-blood protagonists, most notably the Mayo clan having Tom Hanks read Dr. Charles Mayos letters is more valuable than a million-dollar ad campaign and the Sisters of St. Francis, who combined forces with the Darwin-worshiping family after a devastating 1883 tornado tore Rochester apart.

I could have spent the entire two hours getting to know these pioneers better. But doing so would rob viewers of the chance to meet modern-day patients who echo Burns sentiments.

Theres an inspiring sequence featuring Minnesota Orchestra violinist Roger Frisch undergoing brain surgery to steady his hands thats more thrilling than watching Greys Anatomy surgeons try to remove an explosive from a victims chest.

If youd rather hear testimony from famous folks, theres Tom Brokaw and the Dalai Lama, giving the clinic their seals of approval. And youre guaranteed to get a lump in your throat when the late Sen. John McCain appears on screen, thanking doctors for the way they told him that time was running out.

But make no mistake. The star of the show is the Mayo itself. Burns mission to dissect its success is front and center throughout.

It may be his most clinical documentary to date.

njustin@startribune.com

612-673-7431

Twitter: @nealjustin

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