Lee Sandlin     Squibs    Essays    Books    Home 

On TV: The Doctor Is In

ER and Chicago Hope: Choosing Between the Big-Time Operators

TV review, March 31, 1995

Since Chicago Hope got stomped by ER early in the season, CBS has done evertything for it but hold a bake sale. They've run episodes all over the program grid, as though they were giving away free samples; now they've shouldered aside Northern Exposure (granted, a show long overdue for the phasers) just so Chicago Hope can bask in a sunnier time slot. If yuo called them up and told them you were going to be out Monday night, they'd have a truck over at your house inside of an hour to help you set your VCR.

You can't help but be moved by their compassion. And, as it happens, there are worse shows than Chicago Hope to watch out of pity. It does have one thing going for it: no kick boxing. This is especially refreshing when the big style in series this season, from Walker, Texas Ranger to Grace Under Fire, is to make the hero a truculent thug. Oh, sure, the people on Chicago Hope say brutally insensitive things all the time--but that's just to prove they're doctors. And unlike real doctors they often apologize.

It's also a pleasure to see any TV show with a cast that's wildly overqualified for the material. I'm in urgent need of a rest from all these series starring stand-up comics impatient and resentful about elementary acting techniques like listening while somebody else is talking (Ellen DeGeneres still glazes over into a baleful funk whenever anybody else on her show gets a laugh). Chicago Hope's cast can tear through the most stilted and preposterous dialogue as though they really mean it, and--more impressively--they look as though they really believe it when they hear their colleagues saying it.

The only problem with the show, really, is that it's so creepy and dead. It's some kind of monstrous Darwinian blind alley, generated by TV's ever-accelerating evolution, where certain characteristics of the archetypical 80s ensemble drama are magnified to their freakish final stage. It's startling as all hell to look at; it just falls over and expires, like the Martians at the end of The War of the Worlds, because it can't possibly survive in the changed atmosphere of the 90s.

The setting is the world's greatest hospital, which happens to be located somewhere in Chicago -- I don't know where, but I'm positive it's not affiliated with my HMO. Our two heroes are the world's greatest heart surgeon (Mandy Patinkin) and the world's greatest brain surgeon (Adam Arkin). One wholly typical episode went as follows. Patinkin, like all true superheroes, has a secret sorrow: his beloved wife is in a mental hospital. He learns of a fantastically risky new form of lobotomy that may restore her to sanity. Arkin, who is Patinkin's best friend, volunteers to perform the procedure--shrugging off any silly qualms about a surgeon taking on a case in which he's personally involved. Then comes the plot twist: the wife has acquired a new boyfriend in the hospital. This fellow patient just happens to be a brilliant attorney--I don't think this was supposed to be a joke, but read on--and he files suit to stop the operation.

So far the episode was a lurid but still recognizable version of the standard issues-oriented postmodern TV drama. There was a hotly controversial issue of medicine and ethics--or, anyway, an imaginary issue with the illusion of topicality; a poignant and ambiguous undercurrent--was Patinkin's real motive curing his wife or preventing her from having a new relationship; and inevitably a courtroom confrontation for a climax--court being the only place anything is settled in America any longer. All in all it could have been an off week on Picket Fences (not coincidentally the work of Chicago Hope creator David E. Kelley). But then we got to Chicago Hope's signature gimmick: a sudden unexplained intrusion from The Twilight Zone.

The little weakness that had landed the lawyer in the bin was a suicidal psychosis caused by the failure of the Boston Red Sox to get into the World Series. Patinkin's attorney turned this flaw to his advantage during the summations by the simple expedient of murmuring, at a volume only the boyfriend could hear, an imitation of a radio announcer doing a play-by-play of a particularly catastrophic Red Sox playoff game. The boyfriend pretty quickly went berserk and leapt for the attorney's throat: a lapse in judgment that cost him the case--although I personally didn't find this dramatically inevitable; it probably wouldn't even have been worth a recess over in Judge Ito's court. Anyway, Arkin was now free to perform the operation. But in a poignant last twist, when Patinkin realized how much his wife and her new boyfriend truly loved each other, he called it off. Fade-out.

I've rarely seen anything on TV more self-defeating than that grotesque swerve from melodrama to vaudeville and back again. After the whole Red Sox issue was mooted, it was impossible to take the rest of the episode as anything other than a joke, and it retrospectively trashed the fierce and somber sincerity the actors had succeeded in building up before then. But what was most strange about it was that it was so typical. It's the way Chicago Hope tells every story: a deeply dramatic buildup, a freakishly unlikely joke, and a pretense of poignancy at the end. One week a soap-opera plot about a rabbi needing a heart transplant suddenly turned into a splatter version of the Three Stooges when the new heart was accidentally drop-kicked behind the refrigerator; another week the hospital psychiatrist persuaded the head nurse to dress up as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz to reach a particularly disturbed patient. Surely, you say to yourself, that has to be this week's comic subplot. But then what do you make of what followed: the governing board threatening to fire the shrink for this stupid stunt, the shrink making a speech of Socratic passion before his accusers, the patient cured, and the shrink fired?

Beats me. To me it seemed like one of those improv games where the actors have to change styles every 30 seconds. And yet there was a way in which it did seem familiar. It's a degenerate version of the kind of scripts Steven Bochco devised for Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law, where the grim and the goofy keep alternating until a mob hit mutates into a replay of the Menendez case, or the Baby Doe trial ends up being about black-market cloning. The difference is that a Bochco show has a clear logic that amounts to a kind of worldview--that of the tough-minded liberal who knows the world is getting progressively freakier and yet still tries to hold to professionalism and honor. In Bochco's world every social issue reveals a labyrinth of moral confusion; every seemingly normal person you meet soon reveals a streak of wholly private derangement; but the cops still enforce the law, and justice still sometimes gets done.

Chicago Hope appears to be trying for that same tone. But they don't believe in that message. Well, who does any longer, really? And they've made things worse by upping the ante with ridiculously tangled and imaginary ethical issues, a casually escalating explicitness about operating-room gore (their taboo-stretching equivalent of NYPD Blue's nudity) and ever more surreal visitations of cosmic absurdity. Comedy and melodrama don't tip into each other with swift unexpectedness, as they do on a Bochco show--instead they seem to have merged into a single nerve-wracking zone of anxiety, where you can never quite decide whether to cry or giggle. It's remarkably like seeing an old friend display the symptoms of an incipient nervous breakdown.

This is the exact opposite feeling that you get from Chicago Hope's triumphant nemesis ER. This show deals with the same issues in a style of hectic frazzle--except that its dominant mood is exhilaration. It takes up the same surreal and nightmarish dregs of modern America and hurtles through them with the ease of an arcade master racking up world-champion scores. Its accelerating narrative challenges, its perpetually racing camera, its rapid racket of medibabble--they all play out as a kind of flattery of the audience for its skill at keeping up. After a season of ER, most of the country probably feels like they could do pretty well in a medical emergency themselves.

The trick is an underlying conservatism: beneath the warp-speed approach to story, the scripts consist wholly of ancient TV cliches, and the only demand made by them is simple pattern recognition. Just like Chicago Hope, they've made a big deal out of the hero's unhappy marriage. But not for them any slow, brooding melancholy suggestive of Jane Eyre; their version was like a perfume commercial edited by Subliminal Man. The nerdy hero, played by Anthony Edwards, has somehow married a fabulously chic babe who looks like she's straying in from Red Shoe Diaries--and, oddly enough, she's only listed in the credits as a guest star. If that doesn't spell out Trouble Ahead, you're just not cut out to watch TV. One week he's offered the job he most wants in the world: attending physician in the ER. "I had a good day today," he says to her later that episode--and right then his good day and his marriage are over. It's like the scene in any detective show when the friend calls up to say he's solved the murder, but can't go into it over the phone: even the dullest viewer knows the man has just signed his own death warrant.

What followed between husband and wife was a concentrated and excruciating version of one of those old Thirtysomething arguments about his "career" versus her "job," mounting up to that dread moment when the woman says, "I want it to be about me now." This is TV-speak for "female character instantly forfeits all sympathy and is written out of the show." God forbid that a two-career marriage be shown as anything other than an exercise in futility; what made this scene more annoying than most was its naked contrivance. The wife was only written into the show in the first place so she could leave and cause the hero to suffer pangs of nice-guy guilt that would pass for character development. So they didn't need to give her reasons for walking out. If she'd ever had the slightest chance of it (whatever "it" is) being about her, after all, she would have been working in the ER herself, rather than at some job so boring and irrelevant the show can't even be bothered to set as much as one scene there.

The universe of significance on this show consists of the ER, a couple of apartments, and an alley that is perpetually filled with snow. There's no room within such a tiny space for ambiguity. Everything has to be exactly as simple as it appears to be. The wife is fated to be hateful just as surely as any parent bringing in an injured kid is bound to be an abuser. They can't fit in any clues that would lead to a subtler story--and anyway what would be the point? If you've seen it before, you've seen it before, and there's no time for any damn nonsense about reasons or motives when the crash cart is racing in and the interns are screaming "Clear!"

The most bloodcurdling such moment so far was a scene where a ten-year-old boy was brought into the ER with a bullet wound. A second boy wandered in after him. He drew a gun, pointed it at the dying boy on the table, and waited. When he was satisfied that his first shot had been fatal, he walked out without saying a word. It was a grabber of a scene, no doubt about it, and you can hardly suppress a shudder at the thought of how Chicago Hope would have handled the same idea. They would have been all over it for weeks, what with the child psychologists and social workers to be called in; and in the end the kid with the gun would only have been cured if Mandy Patinkin had dressed up as the Lion King. But is ER's version really all that preferable? It was as though every social problem in America had been reduced to a single moment of horror and then dismissed. Did I mention, by the way, that both kids were black? I didn't need to, did I? And did anybody try to stop the kid with the gun? Of course not--why bother?

This is what I find most depressing about the duel between Chicago Hope and ER. The hospital in Chicago Hope is rich, well staffed, and free to do whatever it chooses in order to solve the problems that confront it; the hospital in ER is overloaded, understaffed, and barely able to do triage on the unending, incomprehensible crises flooding through its doors. Guess which image of our society America is currently most comfortable watching. Evidently it's easy to view contemporary life the way ER does: as the implacable expression on a black child's face as he points a gun at somebody else. There's nothing more to be said about it, nothing to be understood, nothing to be done--and anyway we're already late getting on to the hopeless case in the next stretcher. Wallace Stevens 50 years ago called the conviction that you will someday understand the world "the last nostalgia." The incoherent failure of Chicago Hope, and the surging success of ER, tells us that America is no longer in a nostalgic mood.