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Three Rivers: Series Premiere

Lesley Smith

In Three Rivers, a transplant surgical genius and his team save bodies and soothe souls, amidst glistening transparent walls (so much for patient privacy) and high-tech 3D projections of ailing organs.

Three Rivers

Airtime: Sundays, 9pm ET
Cast: Alex O’Loughlin, Daniel Henney, Christopher J, Hanke, Alfre Woodward, Justina Machado, Katherine Moennig
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: CBS
Air date: 2009-10-04

Three Rivers is yet another drama with a cast of superdocs slicing flesh and quipping smart. This time, under the direction of surgeon turned administrator Sophia Jordan (Alfre Woodward), transplant surgical genius Andy Yablonski (Alex O'Loughlin) and his team save bodies and soothe souls, amidst glistening transparent walls (so much for patient privacy) and high-tech 3D projections of ailing organs. The show, however, labors to achieve originality and entertain, even in this premiere episode.

Though transplant surgery is groundbreaking and lifesaving, it is also inherently unexciting. Though the inspiration for the show is the internationally renowned work of the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Gonzo Gonzalez-Stawinski, its transplant plotting is predictable: the organ leaves one body, crosses the country in an ice-packed cooler, and is reinserted in a second body, a matter more of plumbing, as one transplant surgeon told me, than of surgical drama.

Every show attempting to exploit the drama of a niche profession (say, forensic science or FBI profiling) faces the conundrum of familiarizing the audience with rituals and arcane knowledge while at the same time initiating enough dramatic action to sweep the audience past the pilot. Like ER and Grey's Anatomy, Three Rivers introduces a newbie to the team as audience surrogate. Here he's not a student, but the transplant coordinator, Ryan Abbott (Christopher J. Hanke). Whatever his title, he's so inexperienced that nearly five minutes of the opening sequences are devoted to his education in the basic workings of the U.S. transplant system. Not only is this dull, but it punctures the viability of the series' set-up. If this hospital is the stellar American transplant unit, with a back-up team to match, would it really hire a coordinator who needed Transplant 101 on his first day?

Neither does the series' triple focus -- on the organ donors and their families, the surgical team members, and the recipients and their families -- help matters, as it leaves too little time in a TV hour to build identification between characters and audience. The doctors take the downbeat Gus Grissom school of character-building to extremes. There's no hysteria here, or prima donna selfishness: Yablonski is forgetful and steals his colleague's cinnamon pastries. His surgical resident, Miranda (Katherine Koenig), was neglected by her father while he built the hospital where she now works. Her worst fault, pointed out by Dr. Jordan for the hard-of-thinking, is projecting her own childhood experiences onto her patients.

The potential sleeper is Dr. David Lee (Daniel Henney), whose expressionless cool erupts into chilling anger when Abbott tries to pressure a family into granting a donation. But one moment of surprise in nearly 50 minutes doesn't bode well. The characters may well represent good, self-controlled people, whom one would prefer, as one's real life surgeons. But the show, given its other challenges, however, needs protagonists who are more energetic than nice.

Every other scene in Three Rivers rolls along at a leisurely pace, whether it's a meeting of the transplant team or the cathartic surgery. Ironically, the premiere's script neatly captures the contradictions in its approach. When Lee hands the heart to Abbott and dispatches him to the operating theater, he calls after him to slow down, just in case he drops it. Abbott's face reflects the same cognitive dissonance the audience feels: it's a matter of life and death, but don't hurry. Unlike Hill Street Blues, ER or even the Law & Order franchises, Three Rivers delivers a simple story in what sometimes feels, in the premiere, like real time.

The show's apparent premise -- a transplant every week -- demands a rigid inevitability for each episode: a death to liberate an organ, a sympathetic recipient, and thematic byplay within the team to join the dots between the two. The prospect of variations on grieving families crying their farewells to loved ones or turning off life support systems is a bit of a downer. In the first episode, even a successful transplant can't quite mitigate this dilemma. Unlike crime dramas, when the body is usually cleanly dead, by its very nature Three Rivers lingers on the processes of death and near-death at both ends of the story. Just how many poignant farewells can an audience take?


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