The Quiet Queerness of “New Amsterdam”

The Quiet Queerness of “New Amsterdam”

Not to be confused with the brief, one-season-wonder, named New Amsterdam about a man who was cursed to not die, NBC took the memoir of Dr. Eric Manheimer Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, which was about his 15 years as medical director at Bellevue.

For those who don’t know about the history of Bellevue, the short summary is that it happens to be the oldest public hospital in the United States. Historically, it was where the mentally ill were housed, which gave rise to the pejorative slang of ‘Bellevue’ as any psychiatric hospital. What makes Bellevue ‘special’ though is that it won’t turn anyone away. Public means it’s not for profit, and owned by the government, but Bellevue (and New Amsterdam) are also safety net hospitals. No insurance? No problem.

Unlike it’s inspiration, New Amsterdam is a full-blown, handles everything, hospital, which has been recently taken over by the rebellious Max Goodwin. Max wants to help people above all else, so he starts his ‘run’ by firing everyone. Every episode is about Max challenging the status quo, steamrolling bureaucracy, and generally giving people ulcers. He means well, but if you read that and thought “Oh, white saviour.” then you have properly identified Max’s character flaw.

The good news is everyone else regularly put Max in his place, and he doesn’t succeed every episode. Heck, the current season is about him failing miserably. But we’re not here to talk about Max. We’re going to talk about the queers.

Warning: This post contains spoilers of season 3 and 4 for New Amsterdam

The Obvious Queers

One of the main characters, Iggy Frome, has been queer and out since day one. He’s married to a wonderful man, they have four wonderful kids together, and an active sex life. To be honest, I was delighted that the episode where ‘everyone gets laid’ included them because I’m so used to a fade-to-black, but this was equal for everyone.

Iggy has his issues, don’t get me wrong, but he’s a delight and the kind of psychiatrist a lot of us wish we had. As the Head of Psychiatry, he has a lot on his plate all the time, and his primary character flaw is that he cares too much about everyone. Yes, it’s an old-as-time trope, but it’s still nice to see. Iggy is soft, kind, and empathetic. He’s imperfect, but he’s the kind of guy I like.

He is, however, what I call the ‘Obvious Queer.’ You can’t miss he’s gay, and he’s incredibly open from the start.

No, I want to talk about the queers you maybe missed.

Queers of The Week

Every show, especially a medical drama, has a ‘queer of the week.’ One week it’s a ‘surprise!’ transgender patient whose parents don’t know they’re trying to transition. The next week it’s someone who attempted suicide because of lack of support. The next it’s one half of a long term relationship who’s sick.

You get the idea.

New Amsterdam has had 12 one-episode queers in their four seasons, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, ER had 8 (note: I’m sure we’re missing some, please do feel free to help us out and send us some we’re missing). Now of course, it you look at Grey’s Anatomy, they have 15 guests and then 12 recurring and 5 regular over the years. But that’s in 15 years. In 4? New Amsterdam is doing pretty darn well!

The Queer Who Told Their Story

Kai Brunstetter didn’t surprise me except that they were non-binary. You see a blue-haired, ED nurse, and you mentally file them on the queer spectrum. Over time, they clarified how Kai identified (trans-non-binary) and save for the episode where Max wants Kai to help him understand queers. Yeah, Max is an idealist, we know, but the video actually is powerful:

Kai also had a fantastic role in the season 4 episode “In a Strange Land,” where a transgender refugee may have breast cancer and needs a scan. Temi is from Nigeria and was abused and tortured there, but when he has to get a mammogram, it sends him into a panic spiral. Kai steps in to help, empathizing:

I can tell you from personal experience that getting a mammogram sucks. It’s like stepping back into a body that isn’t mine. Does that sound familiar? So, for people like us, trans men, it’s tempting to ignore cancer screenings and walk away from God-awful machines like this one.

The Queer Who Surprised Us

Okay, so when we finally got around to the regular character who’s queer, I didn’t really see that coming at all. Certainly not a slow burn with payoff.

Dr. Lauren Bloom is the head of the ED and, to put it mildly, she’s a total fucking mean lady. She’s angry a lot of the time, and as it turns out, there are a lot of reasons for this. Lauren is addicted to Adderall (originally legit prescribed for her ADHD), which was exacerbated by her father pretty much leaving the family to itself, while running a multimillion dollar dermatology clinic. Now, that wouldn’t have been so bad except that Lauren’s mother is an addict, so basically from 7 on, Lauren was the adult for her, her mom, and her sister.

In the first season, Iggy and Lauren take on her addiction, and she goes to rehab (which isn’t easy). Once she’s back, however, Lauren ends up in an ambulance crash where she breaks her leg (compound fracture of the tibia) and has a hellish recovery. Most of season two, Lauren has to deal with pain management as an addict while waiting for her leg to heal enough to allow a second surgery. She figures out that sex is a good way to not feel the pain, and ends up dating her physical therapist. The downside there is he’s also an addict, and gaslights her, stealing the meds she gets after the surgery.

By season three, Lauren’s physically better, and has started to try and correct the relationship with her mother, when she meets an Uber driver named Leyla, who correctly diagnoses and then treats a patient. Lauren’s a total crank case with her, kicking her out, but later hunts Leyla down to apologize. Leyla was a doctor in Pakistan, and is currently homeless.

Over the season, Lauren and Leyla come to an awkward friendship. First Lauren is smuggling Leyla into the hospital for showers and a safe place to sleep, but when that gets busted, she asks Leyla to move in with her so Leyla could study to be a doctor again.

That was when my eyebrows lifted. They kept showing more and more bits of a happy domestic ‘roommate’ life of Lauren and Leyla. Lauren was legitimately happy to be around Leyla. And then the day happened that Leyla passed the boards and could train to be a doctor in the U.S. She was so happy, she kissed Lauren.

At the end of that episode, Lauren was in. She wasn’t freaked about the gay, she was just freaked because her life has a history of destructive relationships.

The Ship Sinks

Alas, it’s a soapy drama, and right now Lauren fucking torpedoed her relationship by paying off New Amsterdam in order to get Leyla a residency slot. And by paying off I mean a donation that’s probably more than many of us will see in a lifetime. Leyla was not okay with that when she found out. The relationship dynamic was shattered. Had Lauren been cosseting Leyla all the time? Was she a sugar daddy?

Whatever it was, Leyla wanted her freedom and walked. She even transferred to another hospital.

Lauren freaked, but as it turned out she just wanted Leyla to be safe and okay and happy, which resulted in Lauren quitting New Amsterdam to let Leyla be there instead.

Now, though, as we pick up the second half of the fourth season, Lauren’s helping Max ‘save’ New Amsterdam (long story, but Max screwed it up by leaving the wrong person as his replacement, and yada yada the hospital is in trouble). This means her story will again twine with Leyla, who is in fact back at the hospital, but will they have a happy reunion?

We don’t know yet!

I’m looking forward to Tuesday nights on NBC, though, to see where it’s going to go.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.
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