Friday, February 23, 2024

The Second Best Hospital in the Galaxy, on Prime Video

For years, the setting of James White’s Sector General novels was science fiction’s classic space hospital. It probably still should be. His long-standing series was known for its pacifism and tolerant depictions of alien species, yet compared to sex and identity politics that dominate recent “trendy” sf writing, White’s books probably seem rather old-fashioned to many editors (but not necessarily to readers). This space hospital clearly reflects current trends. Nevertheless, viewers can easily see how White’s concept might have been cannibalized in creator Cirocco Dunlap’s animated series The Second Best Hospital in the Galaxy, which premieres today on Prime Video.

Friends since med school, Dr. Klak and Dr. Sleech (try not to call her “Screech,” that’s another show) are hot-shot surgeons at a space hospital that takes all varieties of aliens, no matter how weird. Dr. Klak suffers from debilitating anxiety that her own mother fuels to generate fodder for her pop psychology books. Sleech is recklessly confident, both professionally and in her promiscuous hook-ups, but they are platonically devoted to each other, when they are not arguing like grumpy old men.

In episode one, Klak and Sleech discover a parasitic brain worm that eats anxiety. Unfortunately for Klak, if the worm grows too large, it can burst the host’s skull. Nevertheless, it seems like such a promising avenue of research, they keep it in containment, violating all kinds of laws and protocols. Their experiments will continue throughout the first eight-episode season, while they also navigate dysfunctional romantic relationships.

Klak still carries a torch for the spider-like Dr. Azel, who is chief of surgeon at the number one hospital in the galaxy, thanks its highly compromising corporate sponsorship. Meanwhile, despite her aversion to commitment, Sleech can never quite disentangle herself from Dr. Plowp, a bird-like empath, who is feeling especially needy, because of his species’ late-adult puberty.

There is a lot of sexual content and slapstick fluid splattering, but it is not as exhaustingly and self-indulgently edgy as the aggressively abrasive
Hazbin Hotel. Frankly, most of the sex scenes in Second Best are visual gags built around bizarre alien anatomy. Like most successful sitcoms, just about all of the characters are unlikable and annoying, but that is what Dunlap and the writers derive humor from. We can laugh at all of Sleech’s humiliations, because she has them coming and we groan at Klak’s Charlie Brown self-sabotaging, because she just cannot help herself.

However, relentlessly sarcastic Nurse Tup gets the most laughs, by far, thanks equally to her mordantly observant dialogue and Natasha Lyonne’s sly voice-over performance. Kieran Culkin also outdoes the Crane Brothers expressing Plowp’s neuroses. However, the voices of Keke Palmer and Stephanie Hsu are not particularly memorable as Klak and Sleech.

Dunlap and the writing team are not writing speculative first contact fiction at James White’s level, but the third episode, “Tomorrow’s Death is Yesterday’s Problem” is a surprisingly cool and original take on time loops and time-travel. They also cleverly build on it in later episodes. The animation produced by Titmouse is very cartoony, but it suits the unapologetically goofy and scatological vibe.

Second Best
is light years better than Hazbin Hotel, but that is a sadly low bar to clear. The world-building is hot-or-miss and the characters are guaranteed to get on viewers’ nerves, but its weirdest science fiction elements are appealingly nutty. Episode three is specifically recommended and if you are still up for more, just keep moving forward (rather than catching up with the first two installments). The Second Best Hospital in the Galaxy is wildly inconsistent, but there are funny parts worth cherry-picking when it starts streaming today (2/23) on Prime Video.