ABC's drama `MDs' ails, fails

Relies on archetype but fails to adapt it for modern era

Fall TV

September 25, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As if one really bad medical series set in San Francisco wasn't enough for us to endure this new fall season, along comes another one tonight that's even worse.

Last night, it was the premiere of Presidio Med, with CBS offering a show so awful that even the talents of Blythe Danner, Anna Deavere Smith and Dana Delany couldn't redeem it. Tonight, ABC counters with William Fichtner and John Hannah as a pair of anti-establishment doctors in MDs, a drama that proves no one can make quite as brain-dead a series as Disney-ABC these days.

It's one thing to take an archetype and adapt it for a new era and audience. When it is done intelligently, the results are usually engaging and illuminating. I'm thinking of Dragnet re-imagined by Dick Wolf as Law & Order with Detectives Lennie Briscoe and Ed Green as the modern-day incarnation of Sgts. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) and Ben Romero (Barton Yarborough).

But MDs is based on the worst sort of lazy borrowing, in which you take a character of archetypal stature from one era and more or less just rename him and build a series around him with no re-imagining. In the case of MDs, the creators took the character Dr. Benjamin Franklin Pierce from M*A*S*H,and just split him into two Hawkeye wannabes.

These are the stars of MDs: Dr. Robert Dalgety (Hannah), who is variously described as a "dedicated and brilliant trauma physician," "charming rogue" and "rebel" in ABC promotional materials, and Dr. Bruce Kellerman (Fichtner), a cardiothoracic surgeon every bit as brilliant and rebellious, based on my viewing of the first two episodes.

The problem is that we are not a culture today looking for television shows and films that speak to the kind of profound alienation and cynicism felt by so many in the early 1970s - when M*A*S*H made its debut - near the end of our disastrous and deadly experience in Vietnam. Those feelings only intensified as the decade wore on, with Watergate, and the audience for M*A*S*H the television series grew.

There is an establishment for Kellerman and Dalgety to rebel against: the bureaucracy of HMOs and corporate medicine. But, although I'm sure some of its victims consider it just as horrible a bureaucracy as the government that sent thousands of young men to die in Vietnam, there is a difference in scale. Through government, we can fix health care if we really want to, and that knowledge makes for a situation today that's far less dark.

But even if there were the same appetite among viewers today to see someone take on the system as there was 30 years ago, it's not enough to just have rebels. To make the story work dramatically, you also need interesting villains.

That's the great failing of MDs. It gives us silly, cartoon-like villains: a weasel of a hospital administrator (Robert Joy), an anal-retentive, over-the-top nurse and case-review specialist (Jane Lynch), and an HMO executive named Chester E. Donge (Tom Lennon) - the level of humor here is suggested by the smirks all around each time his name is uttered.

The threesome stands shoulder-to-shoulder at one point in the pilot, looking down at a lobby full of patients, calling them "the enemy" and agreeing what a "pile of money" they could make if only they could do away with them altogether.

In the pilot, Kellerman and Dalgety team up to do a biopsy on a woman the hospital does not want to treat because her insurance runs out at midnight. They violate every rule in the book to do it and are ultimately called on the carpet. What should be the hour's big moment, though, loses every drop of its dramatic steam when the owner of the hospital opens the meeting by saying, "Now, what in Sam Hill is going on here anyway?"

Since we don't see the owner but only hear him over a telephone speakerphone, I think it is safe to guess that the hospital must be owned by Foghorn Leghorn. What real person would possibly talk that way?

I'll tell you what, Foghorn Leghorn would be an improvement.

MDs premieres at 10 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2).

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