It happens every year. Just like the film industry, ideas seem to come in packs of two or three. In 2004, Lost fever infected the networks, and three deep mystery science-fiction shows were unveiled for the 2005-2006 season. Two made it a full season before being unceremoniously canceled (Invasion and Surface) while one didn’t even make it to midseason (Threshold). The quality of these shows are unimportant, because they were created to either capitalize on a trend or a repair a hole missing from the schedule. This works in the film world, too. In 1998, we had both Armageddon and Deep Impact. In the same year, we had both A Bug’s Life and Antz. In 2005 we had both Capote and Infamous (one was pushed back to 2006, can you guess which?). And this is not a new concept in Hollywood. I can trace back to most years started with the studio system and can point out virtually identical films coming out within the same few months. But with television this year, two things happened:
1. CBS tried once again to give us their version of what they think draws people into Grey’s Anatomy, but on their own network. That show is called Three Rivers.
2. After a staggering 15-year run, ER finally came to a close last season, and NBC frantically tried to recreate its medical drama glory. But this time, they decided split the show in two to hedge their bets but take up too much room on a schedule already reeling from one man named Jay Leno.
If you don’t feel like listening to my half-assed television history lesson for the remainder of this article, let me just break it down for you. So far, NBC’s Mercy has aired three episodes, NBC’s Trauma has aired two, and CBS’s Three Rivers has aired one. And how do they rank in terms of quality? The exact order I just put them in, with Mercy almost head-and-shoulders above Trauma and Three Rivers, with only a single episode, drudging the bottom of the lake.
So about that splitting ER into two parts. It’s really not at all complicated. Mercy is the character drama, and Trauma is the action show. Put together, these elements apparently made some of the best ER episodes of all time, but on their own, it can be a struggle. So far, however, Mercy is a remarkably competent (big praise, I know) slice-of-life story about the unsung heroes of hospitals — the nurses. This year they have come back in a big way, and while I haven’t seen an episode of similarly themed Nurse Jackie and Hawthorne (two other nurse dramas, unseen because I don’t have Showtime and I avoid networks like TNT and USA like the plague), I can tell you that it’s a refreshing change of pace. Surgeons get all the glory, but nurses are the backbone of any hospital. Taylor Schilling leads the show as former army nurse Veronica Callahan, and she is in the top five best new characters on television this season. Tough and hard-edged but sympathetic, she seems like a real woman doing an unappreciated job, and her quiet energy is such a welcome respite from the outwardly emotional hysterics that populate Seattle Grace and Oceanside Wellness. She is a true find, and her personal life storylines (her troubled marriage, her drunk family, her affair with Men In Trees‘s James Tupper) help the very reality-skewing Jersey City-set show and are handled by the writers with what at least appears to be a great deal of honesty.
I haven’t been able to get a handle of many of the remaining characters, but Guillermo Diaz (he of Weeds and Half Baked) does well playing against type, and while the casting of Michelle Trachtenberg as rookie nurse Chloe Payne brings the wrong kind of tone to the character, casting a lesser known and more sullen actress would have made the character completely unimportant. My favorite element, oddly enough, seems to be the reversal of roles, as James LeGros’s doctor character, Dan Harris, is mostly seen on the outskirts of storylines, much how most nurses are treated on nearly every other hospital drama. (You know how Nurse Olivia was just let go from Seattle Grace at Grey’s Anatomy? It took me a good thirty minutes to remember that she was the one who gave George syphilis after getting it from Karev way back in the early seasons.) And, almost more than anything, I appreciate the fleeting comparisons the show finds between Jersey City and the warzone of Iraq. Both are lost places in their own way, and it’s haunting without being obvious. This is definitely staying on my Season Pass list, and I hope that its unfortunate placement Wednesday at 10 (it belongs later, but thanks to The Jay Leno Show, half of NBC’s schedule seems misplaced.)
Trauma, so far, is just a big, slick, expensive version of Emergency!, a spin-off of a spin-off (Dragnet to Adam-12 to…) which ran for several seasons back in the 1970s (six seasons plus a handful of TV movies). From the several episodes I’ve seen of that show (starring a young Kevin Tighe, a.k.a. Locke’s father on Lost), I really can’t see much of a difference between the two programs other than its location and its budget. I complained that I couldn’t get too much of a handle on Mercy‘s characters, but at least I can give you a general impression of their internal monologue. Not so on Trauma, which is as surface-level as one could get outside of a CW primetime soap. New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis is, so far, the only character with any personality (unfortunately, it’s a shitty one) and the rest get lost in the shuffle.
What Trauma has going for it, though, is a whole lot of money behind it, something that could cause it to be canceled very soon. Paired up with the fledgling Heroes, Trauma continues to represent how NBC is hemorrhaging money and viewers, and by not putting the show at a proper 10 p.m. spot, it’s getting crushed by the two CBS Chuck Lorre sitcoms. But oh man, does it ever get saved by its big action sequences. Nothing has been spared in the high-octane situations that structure the show, from the mostly unnecessary season opener that blew up part of a building to what can’t be cheap San Francisco location shooting. But with an HD DVR and a 52″ HD LCD Eco-Series Bravia television, I’ve never missed my old stomping grounds of the San Francisco Bay Area more. I’m staying to watch this show just from how much is shot there, how [mostly] accurate the set-ups are, and even its inclusion of mayor Gavin Newsome’s actress wife in the supporting cast. My wife can tell you more about the show’s focus on North Beach, where she worked for two years.
My issue, though, is seemingly contradictory. The action is what makes the show work, but it’s a chore sitting through a single episode. It’s fun to yell out “Trauma!” whenever something terrible happens, but in the second episode, we had four separate cases of trauma including the Embarcadero Street Fair getting pummeled by a car piloted by a man having a stroke. This is enough for three episodes on Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s almost a sidenote here. It’s too much action in a show that desperately needs it to survive. But goddamn, does it look expensive. And that expense kind of negates the verité style it’s going for, so I don’t know what to think anymore.
Three Rivers has only aired one episode, and this is after it was heavily recast (which happened to Alex O’Loughlin’s last show Moonlight as well) as it was decided to air the second episode first. No matter, because the show helped drop CBS to one of its lowest-rated Sunday nights ever, being paired up with Cold Case. (All the family viewers and young professionals pretty much abandon the channel after The Amazing Race is over.) It’s not long for this world, and for good reason. It thinks that we want to be preached to right off the gate, and so this drama about an organ transplant facility in Pittsburgh just doesn’t work. It’s unfair to judge it based on one episode (and one that isn’t the damned pilot), but when a show starts off talking down to us, it’s not a good feeling. ABC’s Grey’s started off as a much frothier show (I would even call it a dramedy) and only later fell into its soapy rhythms, but Three Rivers doesn’t seem to have time for that. A major problem: I understand its decision to include the story about where the organs are coming from in order to humanize the situation, but it’s mostly unnecessary and I hope they abandon it, because it makes the characters back at the facility complete ciphers, just going through the procedural motions. Even O’Loughlin, as famed surgeon Andy Yablonski, isn’t enough to draw me back for much longer, and I once again fear that Alfre Woodard is one of the most misused actresses of her generation. It’s not the worst new drama of the season, nor is it the most obnoxious (so far, that seems to be the tonally misshapen The Forgotten), but if it doesn’t pick up soon, it will be canceled before I even give up on it. (Remember CBS’s hospital drama 3 Lbs.? No? It was on less than five years ago. Still don’t remember it? Exactly. But I watched all three episodes.)
So give Mercy a chance, and I don’t think you’ll regret it. Its cases, while mostly unoriginal, are handled delicately, and the characters feel like actual people. The other two shows? If you’re not into high-definition cinematography of San Francisco or learning about the intricacies of putting new hearts into pregnant women, they probably won’t work for you, either.
I worry about Mercy‘s necessity. Fundamentally, I like the show. And I really didn’t think I would. When NBC was promoting Mercy, they almost entirely glossed over the fact that this show is a narrative about an Iraq war veteran struggling to reintegrate into civilian life, instead using its promo time to make it look like some slick, glossy glorification of nursing (which indeed deserves such glory) and the bonds of female friendship. Case in point: even if Veronica’s background as a soldier was included, what I remember from those promos is the shots of the girls at the bar together, drinking and smiling.
I do think Mercy, as a show about a female Iraq war veteran, an Army nurse not unlike my mother (who once made her non-military living as an OR nurse), is utterly necessary. It is important for us to experience narratives of soldiers returning from conflicts overseas and to understand what it’s like for them to try to carry on with all the horror they’ve experienced. And it’s especially critical that this is a narrative about a female soldier. For all the women who fight for this country, too many artistic renderings of soldiers focus on the men and their experiences. I even applaud the decision to focus this story around the life of an Army medic, a crucial military position I think many forget about. My mother never (thankfully) saw conflict. But when I hear Veronica talk about setting up field hospitals, I can’t help but think of my mother. She knows how to do that, and has done so many times in her life. I’ve seen what those hospitals look like, as we always went to the family day at the end of the Army Reserve’s two-week summer training exercises where her medical unit practiced setting up those hospitals. So this character is perhaps doubly unique to me. I know the women that she is drawn from, my mother and her friends, and that alone makes her utterly real to me.
But although I think Veronica is a starkly unique character and its important for us to have a narrative of a female Iraq war veteran, I do think that gets lost in the way NBC advertised Mercy and its inevitable pigeonhole as just another medical show. I don’t care so much about the cases Veronica deals with, but I care deeply about her inability to share her wartime experiences with her no-longer-estranged husband. Seeing her hold his head in her hands so that he cannot face her when she talks about losing her friend in the field was truly effective, and I hope those of you who watch Mercy continue to tune in for those stunning portraits of a soldier coming home to a world she no longer knows how to navigate.
As for Trauma, the best parts of the show are screaming “Trauma!” when something traumatic happens, and realizing that I probably walked through the set dozens of times when I worked in North Beach. In fact, there was a scene filmed on Green St. between Grant and Broadway in the second episode that I know I’d walked through during tear-down one day when my coworker and I were heading up to North Beach Pizza for lunch. (I was extra impressed that they got a shot of the new location of North Beach Pizza, which only opened in April or May . . . directly across the street from its former location.) This scene happened to feature a homeless drug addict trying to scam the EMTs into giving him morphine, and I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if the show stumbled upon some of North Beach’s actual colorful homeless people. I will keep watching simply to see restaurants I used to frequent and, hopefully, a glimpse of Knifey Knife (a homeless woman who once threatened my friend at the bakery across from my old office with a pumpkin carving knife) and Charlotte (a kindly homeless woman who enjoyed wigs and often sat outside my office, complimenting me on my shoes). Hell, if one of my couriers, Junior, made it into B-roll on Anthony Bourdain’s San Francisco episode of No Reservations, he might even turn up in a long shot, riding his bike down Columbus.
There is really nothing good about Three Rivers.