The brain’s a magic trick, and you can choose to believe it or not.
—Dr. Adrianne Holland (Indira Varma), “Lost for Words”
What makes a muskrat guard his musk?
—Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr), The Wizard of Oz
Dr. Jonathan Seger (Mark Feuerstein) arrives at the Hanson Foundation eager to do good work. He’s a familiar sort, the bright, appealing newbie who leads viewers into a new ensemble-ish melodrama. In this case, he steps out of a New York City cab into 3 Lbs., all wide-eyed and impressed, whereupon he’s greeted with the news that he’s late.
His greeter is Melania Ortiz (Zabryna Guevara), assistant to the great and wonderful Oz of the show, Dr. Doug Hanson (Stanley Tucci). He’s grumpy, brilliant, and insufferably smug, refusing to sweet-talk his patients or treat his colleagues with respect. Hanson Neuro is where everyone wants to be, even though, as Melania observes, rather poetically, it’s “an old hospital, with groaning pipes and cracking tiles and ghosts in the attic.” Hanson keeps it going, apparently by sheer force of will, and his attraction of all manner of patients and underlings, because he’s just that good.
3 Lbs. wants to be House. Replacing the best new series of the season, Smith (cancelled after only three episodes), CBS’ hospital melodrama sticks closely to formula in its first episode, “Lost for Words.” It opens with the week’s primary “case,” a young violinist, Cassie (Madeline Zima), who suffers a grand mal seizure while performing with her mother Roberta (Julia Campbell) in their string trio (the missing fourth member providing poignant backstory). The camera swings through the women on stage, predictably dynamic in its revelation of their determined faces and deft strokes, before it dives inside Cassie’s nervous system. The digital effects offer lit-up electrical discharges as she misses her finger and looks sadly at Roberta. “Mommy!” she says as she collapses.
Clearly in need of tender bedside manner, the distraught mother is not a little angry when she runs into Hanson, who makes his diagnosis in a couple of minutes (a tumor), instructs Melania to schedule surgery, then walks out. Jonathan defends his new boss, whom he’s only just met that second, while Roberta looks stunned. “Is that your new job, to tell people how great he is after he takes off?” She doesn’t actually stamp her foot, but the terms are set: Jonathan will be the emotional and moral go-between for Hanson and his patients and their families. It’s a tedious role, but apparently someone has to play it.
It appears that Jonathan has seen House, or at least recognizes the stereotype confronting him. “Do you think in this business you have to have some glaring personality defect to be taken seriously as a genius?” he asks Hanson’s archrival at the Foundation, Dr. Jeffrey Coles (Griffin Dunne). everyone else appears to believe it, so Hanson persists, his colleagues anticipating his petulance at every turn. You, however, get access to a bit of Hanson that they do not, namely, his hallucinations (a more personal, less immediately visible kind of vulnerability than, say, walking with a limp).
Hanson’s visions involve a little girl in a yellow bathing suit, sometimes carrying a pail of sand. How poignant, and how allusive to his own now-teenaged daughter, glimpsed briefly in this episode as she mistakes Jonathan for her dad’s driver. These hallucinations are at once metaphorical for you and troubling for him, as he has his brain scanned (anonymously) in order to check their potential source. Hanson tends to have the visions just as he’s facing a difficult moment, say, an argument with Coles, and following a shot of what he’s seeing (girl looking up at him) and a reverse to the vacant look on Hanson’s face, he harrumphs a response to whoever’s in front of him and stalks off, leaving you to ponder the wondrous workings of his own abnormal brain.
Given the lesson of Numb3rs, such abnormality is unlikely to impinge on Hanson’s performance. (The lesson being, Charlie’s neurotic vulnerability was initially cute, soon tiresome.) Hanson’s medical “issue,” if revealed to colleagues or worse, patients, would be alarming, no doubt. Still, it’s a pretty perfect test case for the show’s predominant conflict: is the brain “wires in a box,” as Hanson describes and treats it, or is it only one factor in human complexity. This side would be voiced by Jonathan, who explains his determination to have actually conversations with patients in this way: “I can’t screw around in somebody’s head and not know whose soul I’m bumping up against.” Such division into “sides” may be this unoriginal show’s least original notion, leaving limited room for plotting beyond a weekly repetitive of this clash.
One possible alternative is embodied by an obvious other, the sensual neurologist Adrianne Holland (Indira Varma). She likes to go barefoot while examining her patients (“We have as many nerves in our feet as we have in our hands,” she doesn’t quite explain) and appears in this first episode in three primary modes. She flirts with Jonathan (who claims an off-screen girlfriend even as the show seems headed into Grey’s Anatomy territory), chides Hanson for his crankiness (citing the much-cited mating practices of praying mantises, she says the “boys perform better without their heads”), and treats a patient (Michael O’Neill) who’s losing his memory and imagines all kinds of awfulness in his brain. “This is gonna be bad,” he says, “When I opened my eyes this morning, the alarm clock read 9/11.” Adrianne coos, “That’s the beauty of being human. There’s not another species for a billion miles that can make itself scared.” Not exactly soothing, but distracting for a moment.
Like everyone else in the pilot, Adrianne is reductively characterized: her hair is long and loose, she eats in nearly all of her scenes (candy, Chinese food), and she advises Hanson to keep the new guy, a decision he will have to take, of course (reportedly, this is the second cast; an unaired pilot starred Dylan McDermott and Reiko Aylesworth as Hanson and Adrianne, along with Feuerstein). And like everyone else, she has to bear up under the terminally insipid montage sequence under Coldplay’s worn-out “Fix You.”
Adrianne is also mostly out of the loop as the guy doctors vie for dominance in the violinist’s case, which means she doesn’t get the chance to comment on the girl’s loss of speech in relation to fear. This is too bad, because the show imagines Cassie’s internal panic in an almost creative, if literal way: words on the ceiling above her performance stage fall to the floor, as she tries vainly to keep them in place. When Hanson does his own imitation of a nice guy just before her surgery (“I’ll get your words back for you,”), it’s clear that the show is unable to manage its most potentially interesting aspect, namely, these glimpses of what goes on inside characters’ heads.
Hanson’s mechanical prowess and retread surliness can’t match the beguiling strangeness of these approximations of how the “wires” connect or disconnect. He’s stuck inside a part you’ve seen before. “Do you know what ego means?” he asks Jonathan. Hanson has his own answer: “Self. It’s what opens our eyes in the morning. It’s the thing that allows us to have an effect on the world. Our loved ones don’t like it, but it saves lives.” Ah yes, the old “loved ones” plot twist. Again.