Director: Amrit Raj Gupta
Writers: Dr. Pravin Yadav, Puneet Batra, Ayesha Nair
Cast: Anshul Chauhan, Ayush Mehra, Sarah Hashmi, Pratiek Pachori, Gitanjali Kulkarni
Streaming On: YouTube
What do we want from a 'pandemic show'? Do we want to see the turmoil of the last year recreated in an otherwise feel-good web series? Do we want to bear the emotional impact of the Coronavirus in real life and on-screen? These are but some of the things that watching season 2 of Dice Media's Operation MBBS left me wondering.
The popular YouTube series follows three students, Sakshi (Anshul Chauhan), Nishant (Ayush Mehra) and Huma (Sarah Hashmi) navigating medical college and all of the connections, competition and crippling pressure that comes with it. The first season was a well-acted, feel-good comfort watch, brimming with the distinct Dice DNA – a dependable blend of comedy, drama, warmth and life lessons. (As we've seen in their other shows like What The Folks and Little Things).
While season one came out almost a year ago, during the early days of the pandemic, season two is actually about the pandemic and the sacrifices of the medical community. It's an ambitious undertaking, as a result of which the episodes are longer and the stakes higher. But it also means that the show gets lost between focusing on Covid and its characters.
The (far stronger) first three episodes covers the months leading up to the pandemic and focuses on Nishant, Sakshi and Huma navigating their second year and facing new challenges. This time around, Sakshi is dealing with medical negligence of a senior doctor and must come to terms with the idea that doctors can, in fact, make mistakes. Huma, the resident geek and class-topper, has crippling anxiety about no longer being the best, and Nishant struggles to carve out an identity for himself.
For the most part, this first leg of the season gives us more of what made the first season so successful, taking us deeper into the journey of these characters. Writers Dr. Pravin Yadav, Puneet Batra, Ayesha Nair also do well to balance all three arcs and keep us equally invested in all of them. Season 2 also gives more attention to the supporting characters, such as the lovably wacky KC Bhai (Pratiek Pachori), responsible for a number of laugh out loud scenes, and the stern yet supportive college dean played by Gitanjali Kulkarni.
Episodes 4 and 5 are when the focus shifts away from the people and the pandemic takes centre stage. (It's also hard not to see the irony in the fourth episode opening with the Prime Minister's announcement about the (first) lockdown, just as we are entering a second quasi-lockdown). This last leg is also where things get inconsistent and bumpy. The least you'd hope for from any series tackling the Coronavirus would be the promise of a new perspective or angle. Something that goes beyond the facts. (Memorable examples from the last year include The Gone Game's thriller approach, the migrant crisis as explored in the Vishaanu segment of Amazon Prime Video's Unpaused or the endearing Delivering Smiles segment of Netflix's Home Stories).
But Operation MBBS' approach to the pandemic doesn't go beyond the widely known point that doctors have had it very tough and have made large sacrifices to save lives. The show doesn't do much with that statement aside from underline it and repeatedly remind us of it. So much so that characters frequently break into monologues about bravery and hardship, such as in one scene a difficult patient is lectured by a doctor about their sacrifices. (Which begs the question, after the heroics-of-the-armed-forces genre, is superhero-doctors the next big trend we'll see a factory line of projects about?).
These sequences are sincere in their intent and feel authentic in their portrayal as we see doctors grapple with the overflow of patients, the lack of beds and PPE, and so on. But rarely do they prove to be more than visuals we've seen on the news time and again. There are, however, stray moments which are genuinely affecting, such as one sequence where we see a young resident break down under the weight of having to deliver news to family members that their loved ones have passed away.
But among all the pandemic proceedings, the series seems to lose sight of its main characters who feel almost like a footnote of the final two episodes. I don't see why the makers felt that they had to make a choice between the two rather see them as one. I would've liked some perspective on what it's like to be a medical student in the last year and explore the helplessness of having the intention to save people without yet having the capability. An aspects the series doesn't seem interested in.
And then, there's the matter of the jarring product placement. It's something that most YouTube series from the TVF and Dice Media stable tend to struggle with. And I get it. That's where the money comes from and sitting through these forced sequences is the cost of us getting a well-produced show for free.
What I do take issue with, however, is how painfully clunky the brand integrations are this season. The title sponsor is educational platform Unacademy, so it's mentioned at least 2-3 times in each episode. Episode 2 even has a character give another an entire walk through of the Unacademy app. It's a one-minute scene that drags on for a lifetime. But my personal favourites are the other products which are randomly advertised through the season. This includes a shaving kit and its benefits discussed in detail, as well as a character giving another a head massage whilst the camera zooms in and stays fixed on the brand of hair oil.
Still, despite the pandemic bumps and brands bruises, season two makes for a mostly satisfying watch and proves to be what we've come to expect from season twos – bigger, more ambitious and a lot more scattered. While I care about these characters and remain invested in their journeys, I just hope that season 3 aspires to more than recreating the current lockdown 2.