Cops And Docs Forever

Peter Berg is not happy about the time slot ABC has assigned his new show, "Wonderland," and who can blame him? It's bad enough that "Wonderland" will debut next Thursday opposite "ER," the highest-rated non-Regis show in the country. Adding insult to that potentially lethal injury: "Wonderland" is another hospital show. "This is beyond David and Goliath," says Berg, who starred in "Chicago Hope" before creating "Wonderland." "We heard 'Thursday at 10' and we sort of collectively choked." But let's consider ABC's predicament for a minute. The network would find more hospital competition on Wednesday, when "City of Angels" airs on CBS. Berg's alma mater, "Chicago Hope," also runs on Thursdays. Before Berg starts blaming his network, maybe he should ask himself: does America really have room for another hospital show?

Or what about another cop show? This Tuesday UPN launches "The Beat," about two New York City patrolmen. In case you haven't kept score, "The Beat" is the fourth drama about New York cops on the air, following "NYPD Blue" and "Law & Order" and its spinoff, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Of course, cop and hospital programs have long been a TV staple. Many of the most influential shows in history--from "Dragnet" and "Marcus Welby, M.D." to "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere"--have come from those two genres, and for good reason. With life and death hanging in the balance every week, they're a natural source of drama. But are we reaching the saturation point, where audiences won't spend another evening with men and women wearing scrubs or badges regardless of how many lives they save? "These may all be perfectly well-written, -directed and -acted dramas," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "If Shakespeare had written 5,000 plays, they all might have been as good, too, but they probably would have become a lot less interesting."

It'll be a shame if jaded viewers skip "Wonderland" and "The Beat," because they both deserve to be seen. Set in a psychiatric hospital modeled on New York's infamous Bellevue, "Wonderland" is intense and harrowing--sometimes a little too harrowing. Next week's story about a psychotic patient who shoots five pedestrians before having a shockingly violent encounter with a pregnant shrink (Michelle Forbes) will either win "Wonderland" instant fans or have them lunging for the remote. It'll be interesting to see if "Wonderland" can sustain its intensity. Some episodes tilt toward a freak-of-the-week contest--a man who can't cope with his enlarged breasts, a woman who develops a disease that sends her libido off the charts. But Berg has put together a strong ensemble (Ted Levine and Martin Donovan play doctors), and any show that takes these kinds of risks is welcome.

By comparison, "The Beat" is a lot less incendiary, especially for a show created by Tom Fontana, the writer behind the gritty "Homicide" and "Oz." There's not much crime-solving on "The Beat." The show spends most of its time following patrolmen Marinelli and Dorigan (Mark Ruffalo and Derek Cecil) as they make their rounds of largely ordinary crimes--a peeping Tom, a guy dancing in traffic, a man who decides not to jump off a building because his bladder is full. Like later-vintage "Cagney & Lacey," the chief pleasure of "The Beat" is listening to the cops spar with each other and their loved ones. It's a talky show that, in the hands of Fontana and his longtime collaborator, Barry Levinson, is a joy to listen to. If only it were easier to watch. "The Beat" jumps from full-color film to grainy video with annoying frequency. When your show resides next to all those vaulting bodies on UPN's wrestling shows, maybe that jumping around is required.

Both these shows may be innovative, even good, but can they survive? Fontana and Berg are acutely aware they're toiling in the most well-trod territory on TV. Naturally, they both think their shows are different enough from the competition to make the difference. "In 'Chicago Hope' or 'ER,' the patients live or they die. We don't have that inherent sense of resolution," says Berg. "We just have to have faith that the audience will be willing to suppress their conditioned expectations and go along for the ride." For his part, Fontana is crafty enough to make a little inside joke about the proliferation of police shows. On the second episode of "The Beat," Marinelli and Dorigan show up at a murder scene where they're greeted by a Detective Munch, better known to cop-show fans as Richard Belzer. Belzer has played the plain-spoken Munch on four shows: "Homicide," both "Law & Order" programs and now "The Beat." "I thought I'd stop by and take a look for old times' sake," Munch says to Marinelli and Dorigan. "I'm kind of nostalgic for a good homicide." Fontana better hope that viewers feel that way, too.

Cops And Docs Forever | News