By David Grove

What happened to Providence?

When Providence made its debut in early 1999, it was dismissed by television critics as the most phony, shamelessly manipulative show to appear in years. I mean, how can you defend a show about an idealistic doctor in a small town who talks to her dead mother? Nevertheless, and despite critics, Providence, now in its third season, has become one of the surprise hits of recent years, and on Friday nights, no less.

The appeal of Providence is fantasy. Every show opens with a tongue-in-cheek fairy tale skit, usually involving Dr. Syd Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes) and her recently deceased mother Lynda (Concetta Tomei). Syd talks to her mother in her dreams, and Lynda offers Syd motherly advice, usually about Syd’s troubled love life.

Beyond this relationship, the show offers a fantasmatic version of the city of Providence itself. With exteriors shot on location, the city looks like paradise: it’s charming and warm, without a hint of menace. As Chantal Kreviazuk sings a cover of The Beatles’ “In My Life” over the opening credits, the camera glides over the buildings and streets, and we feel an almost overpowering pull to want to visit this place. These images, like the show itself, are surely not reality, but they mirror the unbelievable life of the Hansen family. That’s what viewers seem to like about the show: it offers a total break from reality.

That’s not to say that the members of the Hansen clan don’t have their share of problems, but they’re always solved. On every episode of Providence, Syd is either presented with a sickness to cure or a potential new love interest, and often the two complications in her life coincide. In the second season, Syd romanced a high school basketball coach, who just happened to suffer from a degenerative heart condition. They fell in love and he died, all in one episode.

It’s odd how all of Syd’s relationships are terminated suddenly. Why can’t Syd hold onto a steady boyfriend? Her boyfriends are usually too complicated, too burdened by “real life” details, for her dreamy personality. Then again, if Syd were to get married, she’d have to leave her childhood home and dead mother and the show would be over. Poor Syd.

The rest of the Hansen family complement Syd nicely. There’s sister Joanie (Paula Cale), a single unwed mother whose boyfriend jilted her on their wedding day, coincidentally, the same day Lynda Hansen died; younger brother Robbie (Seth Peterson), a twenty-something drifter, always getting into lighthearted trouble; and father Jim (Mike Farrell), a veterinarian who provides the show’s moral center. They all live in the house where the kids grew up, and form a seemingly perfect unit, just flawed enough, in cute ways. The Hansens are the way we wish our own families could be. Nothing bad ever happens to the Hansens that can’t be solved by the end of the hour. Whatever happens, there’s an implicit promise that everything will return to the way it was before, and it (almost) always does.

This “almost” has become more prevalent in the third season, and threatens the series’ trademark escapism. It all started when Jim was shot in the head by a bunch of thugs (in the second season cliffhanger), who were angry because one of Jim’s dogs smelled out their drug stash. As a result, Jim has become cognitively disabled, which has forced viewers to watch Mike Farrell give an embarrassing interpretation of what it’s like to be in such a condition. The effect on the show has been jarring. First Jim gets angry, then his mind seems clear, and then he starts talking like a four-year-old. There’s nothing wrong with depicting a mentally handicapped character in a thoughtful, intelligent way, but Farrell’s performance is so laughable and poorly mannered as to make viewers feel embarrassed, and people with disabilities outraged. Bottom line: we want the old Jim back, now.

It’s as if the new writing staff brought on for this third season have tried to spice up a show that, by its very nature, doesn’t need spicing. At its best, Providence drifted along on a wing and a prayer, wistfully blurring the lines between fantasy and ordinary life, which viewers have found enormously diverting and entertaining. This season, every episode has a “concept,” or more often, some scandal. All the characters are “on edge,” and the plots are mechanical and tired. People used to watch Providence to experience “Providence” and forget who they are. Providence isn’t a concept, it’s an experience, right from the opening overhead shots of the city, its bridges and streets. It’s certainly not, or shouldn’t be, dick jokes and mindless slapstick.

There’s a solution to this mess. Forget the third season happened and start over. Make it so Jim was never shot in the head, and Robbie never got married. (Joanie and Syd have been much less problematic this season, since they drift in and out of story arcs weekly.) The writers could interject some lame dream sequence as justification, like Dallas. No, it wouldn’t really be plausible, but how plausible was it when Syd cured a guy suffering from the Ebola virus, or when she performed miraculous plastic surgery on a hermit? It’s okay. The people who love Providence will forgive and forget anything—that much is obvious. But until the show gets back on track, all that Providence fans have to look forward to is syndication.

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