A 'Hope' with glory in Patinkin's goodbye TV preview: A key cast member leaves "Chicago Hope" in an episode with power and intelligence.

November 13, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Usually, special episodes of regular series that air during "sweeps" ratings periods aren't worth much of anything except skepticism and contempt.

And, then, along comes one like tonight's "Leave of Absence" from CBS' "Chicago Hope," which reminds you why television -- even at its most commercial -- has become the most important storyteller in American life. It also makes you wonder if maybe we aren't living in a kind of mini-Golden Age of television drama -- especially when you think about this episode in connection with others from such series as "Homicide," "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "ER," "X-Files" and "Picket Fences."

"Leave of Absence" exists primarily as a result of the real-world considerations of making a commercial television series. In this case, it's the result of Mandy Patinkin, the Emmy Award-winning star of the ensemble drama, wanting to spend more time with his family. Since the series is filmed in Chicago and Patinkin does not want to move his family from New York, it means his leaving the show in only its second season -- just when it's finally finding a home in Nielsen's Top 20.

You might have read the celebrity-magazine stories about the brilliant and high-strung Patinkin, who plays the brilliant and high-strung Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, having a "breakdown" on the set last year as a result of getting too deeply into his character and too far away from his family. It doesn't matter whether the stories were truth or hype, it was Patinkin's way of saying he had to get out.

But series creator David E. Kelley, who wrote "Leave of Absence," and executive producer John Tinker, had a second real-world consideration. Peter MacNicol, who plays hospital lawyer and new dad Alan Birch, also wanted out of "Chicago Hope," reportedly because he felt his role was going nowhere.

What's so impressive about what Kelley and Tinker did is that they created an episode that resolved the practical cast problems, and did it by telling a number of powerful stories that will plug into the hopes, fears, hearts and psyches of millions of viewers.

I'll try not to spoil things by giving away too many plot twists, but some have already been published elsewhere.

There's a street shooting at the center of tonight's drama. One of the staffers at Chicago Hope is shot by a teen-age street punk with a semiautomatic weapon.

Dr. Diane Grad (Jayne Brock) is with the victim during the shooting. She's also at Chicago Hope when the punk is brought in by cops who shot it out with him during the arrest.

Instead of playing the noble healer, Grad walks over to the gurney where the bloody teen lay in handcuffs and starts pressing on his bullet wounds, causing him tremendous pain. Later, she enters the young man's recovery room and tells him she hopes he dies.

When Dr. Daniel Nyland (Thomas Gibson Vondie), who, like the teen-ager, is black, tells the white Grad that she's out of line, she insists it isn't a "a black thing."

Then she really opens up and speaks her heart, saying, "I don't care if he was socially disadvantaged. I don't give a damn if he grew up with no parents or if the education system failed him. All I care about is getting those murdering bastards off the street. The police should go out with machine guns and mow down the gangs -- black, yellow, white, purple -- all of them."

That's the same middle-class rage about what's happening to our society that this year's opening episode of "NYPD Blue" tapped when detectives Simone and Sipowicz roughed up a wounded black gunman in a hospital stairway after he shot one of their colleagues.

It is about class and, despite Grad's protestation, it's very much about race, at least in her case. It's profound. And prime-time television, which is watched in the privacy of the home, is one of the few places where the smiling faces are dropped and real feelings about such matters are expressed.

There are other profound moments in "Chicago Hope" tonight. Dr. Phillip Watters (Hector Elizondo) speaks to the staff after the death of a colleague, and Dr. Kathryn Austin (Christine Lahti) talks to Geiger about decisions they made in the operating room.

Both speeches could have been made on the American frontier in the 19th century under the heading, "It's time to bury the dead, round up the wagons and move on." They are that central to the experience of living and working in a country like ours.

There's a big scene for Patinkin's ego-driven Geiger, too. It's not his departure, but rather his collapse in the operating room -- art mirroring life, if you believe the accounts of Patinkin's breakdown last season.

As for Patinkin's actual departure, Tinker says Geiger will return to "Chicago Hope" from time to time, probably as early as the last two episodes of this season, which will air in May, also a sweeps month.

But, with Geiger, who knows?

Geiger's best friend, Dr. Aaron Shutt (Adam Arkin), says goodbye with these words, "You are not a stable person. And, outside of this hospital, I'm not even sure you're functional."

He's right, you know.

Patinkin farewell

What "leave of Absence"

Where WJZ, Channel 13

When 10 tonight

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