In a TV season that has been scandalously colorless, producer Steven Bochco of "NYPD Blue" fame trains his particular brand of biting realism on an inner-city hospital in City of Angels (Sunday, Jan. 16, 8-9 p.m.).
In this intense world of the working poor, the homeless, and the desperate, a multiracial, though largely African-American, staff of doctors, nurses, and administrators tries to keep the ailing Angels of Mercy Hospital on its feet. It's good to finally see a black drama on network TV. Race is unabashedly at issue in this series, but so are the evils of class, politics, and bureaucracy.
Medical dramas have huge followings: "ER" is the most popular show on TV. And that is because the driving, fast-paced, interlocking stories, snappy dialogue, and life-and-death crises are dramatically stirring. They drag you in. There are always big-time ethical issues at stake, monumentally worthy heroes, and innocents in need of rescue.
Unlike police thrillers where the viewer identifies with the cops only, the viewer of medical shows identifies with both the doctors and the patients - a double involvement with the characters.
It's a tough challenge to follow such long-time medical hits as "ER" and "Chicago Hope" with a new hospital drama. The elements are there, of course: The sensitive, ambitious young interns vying with each other for position and prestige, the caustic nurses, and the impatient patients are standard to the genre. So, too, are the crusading doctors, the manipulative administrator, and the self-absorbed bad apple - the doc whose ego is bigger than his talent. All of these are present in "City of Angels."
In the first episode, Dr. Lillian Price (Vivica A. Fox) arrives to take over as medical director of Angels of Mercy, just as the institution is rocked by scandal. The beautiful young doctor has every intention of overhauling the hospital's service and reputation and raising its standards. Her hands-on, no-nonsense approach to leadership is bound to win her enemies among the pompous, as well as friends among the exasperated on the staff.
This is all familiar territory. So, too, is Lillian's instant rapport with Dr. Ben Turner (Blair Underwood projects intelligence and strength), a former fianc who bailed before the wedding and who is now chief of surgery at Angels of Mercy.
The wicked chairman of the Board of Supervisors (played with devilish finesse by Robert Morse) may have some evil methods, but he does advance the hospital's interests.
"City of Angels" has all the problems of the genre from predictable bad guys to overblown acting to a dark unrelenting tone of anxiety. The drama, though, is not simply a multiracial version of every other medical show.
Its beginning two episodes are a trifle strained, perhaps, since it appears to be searching for its own voice. But already that voice has one powerful message: Prejudice of every kind undermines the Hippocratic oath, which says, "First, do no harm."
Then, too, the whole impetus of the show is to lay a new emphasis on the dignity and value of every human being. The poor who come to this institution deserve the best it has to offer, and the fight for that best is seen clearly as a noble struggle.
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