Welcome to my new series of TV reviews! Since we stream a lot (A LOT) of TV shows in my house, I’ve been coming across series that I missed out on during their first run, or their first explosion into the pop culture zeitgeist. I thought it would be interesting to write my thoughts about them behind the curve.
First up is the 1990s series, Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman.
To be perfectly honest, I probably did watch a few episodes here and there when it was first broadcast, but I didn’t remember much about it. You’d think I would have been all over it from Day 1: I’m a big fan of Westerns, it has a woman as the lead character, and it was enormously popular.
For some reason, I erroneously thought it was mainly a romantic drama, and not my personal cup of tea.
Yes, it’s true. I am not immune to making wrong assumptions solely because a story focuses on a woman instead of a man.
For those not aware, the shows stars Jane Seymour as Dr. Michaela Quinn, an upper-class Bostonian woman who becomes a doctor during the mid-1880s, when women rarely practiced medicine. She is her father’s partner in his practice until he dies. Then she finds it almost impossible to join another practice, because no one wants to hire a woman. Desperate to continue her career, she decides to leave everything she knows behind to take a job in the Colorado territory.
Turns out THEY don’t want a woman doctor, either. By the end of the pilot episode, she is not only fighting to get her practice going, she finds herself an adoptive mother to the children of one of her dead patients.
Along with the family drama you would expect from this insta-adoption, there is of course romance, though it takes a while to get going: Sully (Joe Lando), a widower who is great friends with the neighboring Cheyenne tribe.
Here’s the thing that is so amazing about the show: unlike most Westerns, that either completely erase or marginalize people of color or portray the majority of pioneers as open-minded (with maybe one racist character who is clearly the villain), nearly every character on the show is an unapologetic bigot.
And no, I’m not overstating this. The only way Michaela can get the town to give her a modicum of respect is to go to the local barber and have a healthy tooth pulled out without anesthesia. Even so, she is constantly fighting against the perception that she’s not as good as a male doctor.
When it comes to the issue of racism, the show is pretty explicit about how horribly Native and African Americans were treated. There are searing episodes about the way the government treated the Native Americans, breaking treaties, taking their land away, forcing their children into schools that erased their culture, and massacres that wiped out entire tribes.
But it’s the everyday bigotry that truly stands out. Here’s the most fascinating part: the townspeople, over the entire six seasons of the series, never really change. There’s never a “Very Special Episode” where they see the error of their ways.
The show also deals with a softer, more insidious kind of bigotry: when African-American residents of the town Robert E. and his wife Grace (Henry G. Sanders and Jonelle Allen) want to buy a house in the town, even Michaela’s best friend Dorothy (Barbara Babcock), who is a journalist and supposedly more “enlightened,” argues that “like should stay with like.”
It’s still not perfect on these issues. Larry Sellers, who plays Cloud Dancing, the neighboring tribe’s medicine man, felt the show was not portraying the Native characters accurately. He was made the show’s consultant on Native Americans. Then there’s Sully, who is practically a poster boy for cultural appropriation. There are also times when the white characters are treated as the ones truly suffering when the native characters are oppressed. I’m sure there are other instances I’m not sensitive to not being Native American or African-American myself.
However, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is unique in the way it portrays the darker side of Manifest Destiny. Yes, moving West gives Michaela an opportunity she didn’t have in her own society, but she never has to stop fighting for respect. In one episode, Michaela runs for mayor of the town. Even Robert E.—who was almost lynched in an earlier episode while his neighbors stood by and did nothing, and who was literally saved by Michaela—preferred to vote for a man who was part of that group. The show doesn’t let you forget that patriarchy is upheld even by those oppressed by it.
This is a show that has everything I love about Westerns: characters getting a clean slate, the creation of community from nothing, adventure, friendships between those who would never have known each other in their original spheres of life. But it does all that without overlooking the heavy human cost of the Western expansion.
I am SO happy I was able to rediscover this remarkable show. It’s even more the case when one considers how twenty years later it still seems remarkable. It is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime and very much worth another look.