Television

Standard operating procedure for doc drama

Glenn Garvin
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

You know it's late in the fall TV season when a network can't keep its genre cliches straight. CBS' "Three Rivers," fall's final new show, has an irascible surgeon snapping at a hospital bureaucrat: "Never get between a doctor and his donut!" I haven't checked, but I'll bet over on "CSI: Miami," Horatio Caine is brooding about the cost of malpractice insurance and the promiscuity of ER nurses.

I suppose a certain amount of formula leakage is inevitable at CBS, where shows aren't written so much as manufactured from an inventory of stock plots and characters, and the debut of anything without the initials "CSI" at the start of the title qualifies as startling originality.

And as assembly-line products go, "Three Rivers" isn't half bad. Set in a Pittsburgh hospital that specializes in organ transplants, it manages to blend some new elements into the standard medical-drama mix. The complex ethics of transplants — how far can a doctor push a suggestion to donate organs before he becomes a bully? Should you risk a new heart on a patient who may have suffered brain damage when the old one started to break down? — offer some fertile dramatic ground.

Not that "Three Rivers" lacks the standard medical-show ingredients: Sarcastic but dedicated surgeon (Alex O'Loughlin, the cuddly vampire of the cult favorite "Moonlight"). Love'em-and-anesthetize'em pinup boy (South Korean TV hearthrob Daniel Henney). Haunted-by-the-past empathy addict (Aussie actress Amber Clayton). Stern yet maternal boss (Alfre Woodard). And, of course, the brilliant but temperamental young second-generation surgeon trying to live up to pop's impossible standards (Katherine Moennig, looking shockingly normal and even sweet after six years as an over-pierced, over-tattooed and over-sexed lesbian punk on "The L Word").

As usual, the heart-rending personal dramas of the doctors get hopelessly intermingled with those of their even more heart-rending patients, who die or are miraculously saved from the creepiest and most obscure possible medical conditions in the most audience-manipulative possible way. The surest sign of the competence with which this is all done is that by midway through the first episode of "Three Rivers" I began to feel symptoms of zinc deficiency and deteriorating tricuspid valves. When it comes to medical dramas, hypochondria is the highest form of flattery.

Footnote: Patient rooms in "Three Rivers" hospital come equipped with TVs that get a thousand channels. Man! Who's their cable company, anyway?



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