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City of Angels

Season Premiere
Cast: Blair Underwood, Michael Warren, Hill Harper, Kyle Secor, Phil Buckman, T.E. Russell, Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union
Regular airtime: "Leg Erie," Thursday, 9pm EST, 12 October 2000

("Leg Erie," Thursday, 9pm EST, 12 October 2000)

That foot is history!

Lillian Price (Vivica A. Fox) is only one episode gone, and already Ben Turner (Blair Underwood) is looking to get with someone else.


Well, okay, in television series time, Lillian’s departure is more distant, apparently a matter of months. Television series can do that sort of time stretch and collapse because they expect that viewers forget over the summer, when the series go into reruns, or, in the case of City of Angels, off the air altogether, for refurbishing and presumed upgrading. During this incalculable off-the-air period, it appears that the difficulties in Lillian and Ben’s illicit romance became insurmountable. I feel badly about this, mainly because I thought that Fox was the most exciting and consistently surprising aspect of the show: the woman has nerve and crack timing, even when delivering the lectures on racism and sexism that too often appeared to be her primary function on the show. And yet, I’m willing to give the series sans-Vivica a chance.


The 12 October City of Angels season premiere opens with some familiar shots (from last season, the exterior of the Angels of Mercy Hospital where the characters spend so much of their time) and some new ones (characters in “action”), accompanied by a Brian McKnight theme song, sad and soulful and full of longing, you know, the way he does. After the expected rehash of pertinent events that occurred “Previously on City of Angels,” to catch up anyone who didn’t watch last season, the episode sets about introducing its new cast members and explaining the absence of others. And within minutes, it’s clear that even with the personnel changes, the series will be using precious few new ideas and a lot more old ones. To start, Ben has to go around explaining to more than one other character “what happened to Lillian.” For one thing, he says not-very-sadly, external pressures on their relationship accumulated quickly, primarily the “frivolous lawsuit” still working Ben’s last nerve, wherein he is being sued for his conduct in treating a racist white cop (a cop who had not incidentally racial-profiled Ben shortly before he ended up in the emergency room and proceeded — from his gurney — to abuse the good doctor verbally).


Add to that the fact that Lillian was technically Ben’s supervisor, which led her supervisor, Ron Harris (Michael Warren) to suggest that they cut it off or shift their professional situations. Lillian, apparently, did both. Which may be just as well — after all the groping and heavy breathing in supply rooms last season, now Ben is able to sigh a bit and confide in his likely new romantic interest, staff shrink Dr. Gwen Pennington, that really, he and Lillian were “never right together.” Well damn! And all this time I thought they had something going on. Such is the emotional havoc wreaked by new tv seasons.


But in case you’re worried that poor Ben might be mourning his loss, the premiere lays out plenty of conflicts to take up his time and energy. Boom: in the first two minutes, he’s fighting with a smug new superior, Lillian’s replacement as Medical Director, to be exact, Dr. Ambrose (GregAlan Williams). Ben is trolling the ER for disasters to oversee, as is his wont, when young Dr. Wesley Williams (Hill Harper) calls him to look at a forklift driver’s mangled leg. Ambrose descends on the scene in what seems only a heartbeat, and after a brief glance at the limb in question, pronounces, “Call ortho! That foot is history!” Obviously, Ben won’t be having such cavalier disrespect for patients in his hospital. And so he confronts Ambrose, backed by a plastic surgeon he’s found wandering about in the ER, one who happens to concur with Ben. Raleigh Stewart (Kyle Secor), appears to have wandered in off the street (or maybe from Baltimore, where Secor’s late, great, much-lamented series Homicide was filmed). Stewart is a little scruffy, because, as it turns out, he’s been off in Mozambique, Afghanistan, and the Congo, working with Doctors International, under stressful and underfunded conditions, a demanding experience that conveniently makes him a perfect candidate for duty at Angels of Mercy.


As these five or so minutes of intro might suggest, the premiere episode comes with a slew of weighty, likely-to-be-ongoing issues right away, on top of the usual (lack of funding and staff, labor-management conflicts, competition among the residents). One, involving Dr. Arthur Jackson (T.E. Russell), begins with a gangbanger’s death following a gunshot wound. As often happens in hospital dramas set in LA and featuring black doctors, Arthur knew the dead man when they were kids. Volunteering to break the news to the mother, he learns that her eldest son (coincidentally, another friend of Arthur’s), is already dead, and she’s having trouble with her youngest, Marcus (Aldis Hodge). Good-hearted and feeling guilty that he’s left his neighborhood behind, Arthur steps into Marcus’s vacuum of positive black male influences, and runs his own mini-“scared straight” program on the boy, that is, he brings Marcus to watch the autopsy on his brother. The autopsy scene is theatrical and overwrought — the light is fabulously bluish and the excavated chest is graphically bloody — making it among the nastiest few minutes I’ve seen on network television. Still, the fact that when it ends (it takes only a couple of minutes) and Marcus is completely undone and so, ready to follow Arthur’s advice, makes it even more overtly manipulative than the standard “conversion” scene in network television.


Another issue evolves out of a plotline that will be familiar to anyone who watched the 1980s hospital series, St. Elsewhere: the “rapist among us” plot. As the show starts, there have already been two rapes in the hospital, and you see another take place. None of the characters know who he is, not even his victim, on whom the camera focuses during the assault, showing her face in dark and brutal close-ups. But you see his identity from jump, so there’s no surprise factor, as there was back when Peter White’s (Terence Knox) mask was pulled off so long ago at St. Eligius. Still, you might wonder why this storyline is so compelling that it should be repeated. As well as providing obvious upset for the women at the hospital (who call in sick rather than work the night shift), this turn of events provides a moral gauge for the men in charge. For all the primetime-melodramatic cliches at work in the men’s conflicts — the moral and political posturing, not to mention the dick-swinging —it is significant that these battles are waged by black men (Ambrose, Turner, and Harris), pitted against one another as they wrangle over the scant resources allotted them by a larger governing system.


Into this contentious atmosphere step the second season’s newbies. In addition to Gwen Pennington and Raleigh Stewart, these comprise Dr. Damon Bradley (always intense Bokeem Woodbine), still reeling from what he describes to Wesley as a rough time with “rednecks” during his internship in Montana, and spirited surgical resident Courtney Ellis (Gabrielle Union, last seen in this summer’s smart cheerleader movie, Bring It On), whose famous father just happened to be Ben’s mentor. As these young, ambitious, and angry characters bring still more energy to City of Angels‘s already roiling mix of passions and crises, it appears that for its second season, the show is charged up and ready to take some risks. While its creators — notably, Bochco — have said repeatedly that they see their “primary responsibility in making this show is to make a really good, entertaining hospital drama, the vast majority of whose characters are black. I think that because of that environment, racism as an overt theme isn’t something that presents itself day in and day out.” True enough. But the characters — and more urgently, the series — exist in a racist world that would prefer not to have to acknowledge that racism. Last season, City of Angels was expected to “prove” that a drama with a predominantly black cast could hold a crossover audience. It appears to have done that much. In this new season, given the continuing dearth of black characters and storylines on network television (the much-publicized coming of Gideon’s Crossing notwithstanding), the burden of representation remains great. While “racism” may not be an “overt theme,” it persists as a significant, real-life factor.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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