'Combat Hospital' Series Premiere

Renée Scolaro Mora

What is all too clear is that Combat Hospital, despite the tension inherent in the title, is intent on playing it safe.

Combat Hospital

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Elias Koteas, Michelle Borth, Luke Mably, Terry Chen, Deborah Kara Unger
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Director: Iain MacDonald
Air date: 2011-06-21

Combat Hospital sounds promising. Set in 2006 at a NATO medical unit in Kandahar, it holds out the possibility of moral dilemmas as well as the usual hospital show melodrama. There are no slick facilities and no mundane injuries here. The hospital is made of plywood and duct tape, doctors face life-or-death risks at every turn, operating in flak jackets and helmets with sidearms at the ready.

As Colonel Marks (Elias Koteas) gives newly arrived Canadian Major Rebecca Gordon (Michlle Borth) and American Captain Bobby Trang (Terry Chen) their first view of the hospital, he warns, "You'll find this place very unlike anything you've ever seen before." But Combat Hospital is exactly like everything that you've seen before.

Gordon is the rebellious, beautiful, and brilliant girl surgeon à la Meredith Grey, while Trang is a nervous, bright diagnostician (no doubt he’ll get his House-like medical mystery soon enough). But the most egregious lift is British neurosurgeon Simon Hill (Luke Mably), the only non-military -- and highly compensated -- doctor on staff. He's a mash-up of Hawkeye Pierce and Dr. McDreamy, whose unfortunate first line of dialogue is “We need more women.” This is soon followed by a tour of his pimped-out barracks, replete with a king-sized bed, Persian rugs, and an ample supply of vodka. Just when we think we can’t mutter “Seriously?” one more time, in strolls Major Pederson (Deborah Kara Unger), apparently the Hot Lips Houlihan of Afghanistan.

In fairness, the pilot episode, like all others, bears all the burden of introductions and set-ups, but these familiar types make the show impossible to take seriously. The one bright spot is Marks. The only character with anything like depth, he is alternately stern and compassionate, instructive and humble. Calling out Rebecca for overstepping, then following it up with, “Other than that, good job,” Marks is like the good dad who never forgets to hug his kid after disciplining him.

Apart from Marks, though, Combat Hospital is consistently weak. Personal storylines are thin, with Rebecca breaking up with her fiancé right before leaving for Kandahar. This means, of course, that as the show opens, she is taking a home pregnancy test in the bathroom of a C-130 as it's performing evasive maneuvers during a landing. Amazingly, her personal cell phone still works here and she spends the whole episode dodging her ex’s calls.

Captain Trang is fresh out of med school with a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face that screams failure-and-redemption subplot. Neither of them has any idea how all this is going to work, from the schedules to the rules, and they're immediately put through the rigors of who knows how many hours of duty without any rest. But first, they have to learn their place: when asked to mop up some blood off the floor, Rebecca responds with all the condescension she can muster: “You don’t understand. We’re doctors.” The RN (Arnold Pinnock) comes back with, “Does that mean we have to teach you how to mop?” Add “snarky nurses” to the stereotype checklist.

Unsurprisingly, the show’s handling of the war is something of a mixed bag, at least in this first episode. There is a lot of shorthand. Thuggish Halliburton-esque security forces with sinister one-liners are the most villainous, while the Western pop culture-loving Afghan interpreter Vans (Hamza Jeetooa), reduced to such trite commentary as “Dude!” and “Zat was so bad ass,” is the most offensive.

Still, the show makes a few worthwhile points. Major Pederson runs a women’s clinic for the Afghan women who, she explains, usually would not see a doctor since it would be shameful to be examined by a man. She is apparently encouraged in this effort by Colonel Marks, who turns a blind eye as Pederson is forced to steal supplies from the hospital since there is no official budget for the clinic. A cursory nod to a real plight (and where it falls on the official priority list) is something. Likewise, the dangers faced by the soldiers are also presented with a bit of detail. Yes, the immediate and visceral trauma of roadside bombs is center stage, but the show underscores as well the less obvious, yet equally dreadful collateral damage.

What is all too clear is that Combat Hospital, despite the tension inherent in the title, is intent on playing it safe. Why even try to situate such facile soap opera in the context of an ongoing war? It begs the question whether the show is exploitation or a reflection of how far removed and numbed U.S. audiences have become to a decade-long war effort that has long since landed on the media back burner. Regardless, the “medical drama” is far too paltry to sustain the series without ramping up the relevance of the war context.


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