Hopeful signs for a long life in Chicago hospital show

September 17, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

A funny thing happened to "Chicago Hope" on the way to its premiere tomorrow: It got a lot better.

I saw the rough cut of the pilot in August and wasn't much impressed. This week, I saw the finished product as well as the second episode, and I think this is a medical series definitely worth going out of your way to see when it premieres tomorrow night at 8 on WBAL (Channel 11).

The drama about a prestigious hospital and its conflicting personalities is made by David E. Kelley, who won three Emmys while executive producer of "L.A. Law" and is now piling them up as creator and executive producer of "Picket Fences."

The show is called an "ensemble drama," but first among the equals is Mandy Patinkin, who is probably better known to theatergoers than channel surfers.

As Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, Patinkin is everything you want the center of a drama to be -- complex, talented, egotistical, yet (look out, guys, here comes the "V" word) vulnerable.

He is the standout surgeon of a famous medical center. Tomorrow night, he leads a team of specialists in separating Siamese-twin baby girls.

Outside the operating room, he fights the hospital's board of trustees about performing the operation in the first place. The parents of the twins are uninsured, and the hospital will have to foot a $2 million tab. He tells the board that the effort and talent being assembled for the operation are what make a hospital great.

The kind of talent assembled for "Chicago Hope" also is what makes for a great series. Besides Patinkin, there's Adam Arkin as a surgeon going through a painful divorce, E. G. Marshall as one of the founding doctors who is told he's too old to be a surgeon, and Hector Elizondo as the hospital administrator.

"Chicago Hope" is more graphic than "ER," the other new medical drama, which premieres Monday on NBC. Kelley uses a kind of big screen in the operating room to allow viewers to see up close what the actor-surgeons are doing. Be prepared for organs, blood and squishy things moving around a lot.

"Chicago Hope" also has more of an edge than "ER," and its language is closer to "NYPD Blue" than "Marcus Welby, M.D." Be prepared for lots of comparisons between "Chicago Hope" and "ER," as CBS and NBC in their infinite wisdom have scheduled the two shows opposite each other this fall at 10 on Thursday nights.

In the end, I think "Chicago Hope" will live or die on how the audience reacts to Patinkin and his character. The pilot opens with Dr. Geiger zipping through freeway traffic in his spiffy BMW, making bets on football games over his car phone as he changes lanes with utter disregard for other drivers. Geiger also likes to sing Motown songs while holding patients' lives in his hands during surgery.

This is a guy and a show you are either going to love or hate.

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