Note: Three Rivers airs tonight at 9 p.m. eastern. This review discusses plot details in tonight's episode, including the outcome of one of the cases. Those would prefer to remain unspoiled should skip the fifth and sixth paragraphs.
So why all the medical series all of a sudden? It’s not unusual for the success of one show to spawn a wave of shows in a similar style or genre—witness the boom in serialized mysteries in the wake of Lost—but given the relatively quick turnaround time of television, the copycats usually start popping up within about a year. The last big hit medical series was Grey’s Anatomy, which debuted over four years ago. So what’s up with all the Mercy and Trauma and HawthoRNe action? Is it because ER is off the air? Is everyone just slapping a medical show together in hopes of filling whatever emptiness old ER fans might be feeling?
If that’s the case, then CBS’ Three Rivers may stand the best chance of picking up what’s left of the ER audience. It has a larger cast than the other shows, and judging by the first episode the writers plan to wedge in more stories per week. Three Rivers even follows ER's lead by using a single part of a Pittsburgh hospital—the transplant department—as a gateway to the hospital as a whole, and to the varied kinds of patients and staff that pass through. The major difference between Three Rivers and ER is that the new show is on CBS, and thus has that slick, thick approach to genre storytelling that dominates all the network’s crime-and-punishment procedurals. Which is also why Three Rivers is probably bound to be a hit. (That and the fact that it’s on a well-watched network on a well-watched night.)
“Place Of Life” establishes the premise of Three Rivers fairly quickly, by showing the audience both sides of the transplant process. On the “need it” side, we meet a comatose, pregnant woman with a faulty heart, and we meet her husband, who’s told by Three Rivers’ heroic surgeon Dr. Andy Yablonski (played by Alex O’Loughlin) that he needs to sign off on a combination transplant-and-C-section right away or he risks losing his wife and his baby. This is a pretty standard TV medical crisis, but I found it involving, perhaps because both my kids were born with some amount of drama: the first had an elevated heart rate that led to a caesarean and an extended stay in the ICU (followed by a return visit to the hospital a week later because he wasn’t gaining weight); the second was born a week ahead of schedule, before our families arrived to help take care of the firstborn. So I could identify with the dad-to-be in this episode when he reflected on how the scariest day of his life had begun, muttering, “We were going to paint the nursery and watch the Steelers.”
On the “got it” side, we meet an immigrant of Middle Eastern descent, working as a foreman on the construction of a skyscraper in Cleveland. After helping a clumsy new guy on the job, the foreman steps on a cracked board and falls about four stories. He lapses into a coma, brain-dead, and becomes a prime candidate to donate a heart to our sickly Pittsburgh mom. Only his daughter doesn’t trust the doctors, because she thinks westerners don’t place as high a value on her dad’s life as they should. Which means it doesn’t help when the fresh-faced rookie on Three Rivers’ organ-transport team tries to confront the daughter and tell her about what her father’s heart will mean to the recipient. As the rookie’s cohorts remind him, this whole process is only satisfying to both sides if they all make up their own minds. “It has to be a gift,” his superior says.
While all this is going on, Dr. Andy is also trying to convince his superior—Dr. Sophia Jordan, played by Alfre Woodard—to hit up the hospital’s donors and find money to help a young man who traveled halfway around the world to get a transplant at Three Rivers. And in yet another subplot, Andy’s colleague Dr. Miranda Foster (played by Katherine Moennig) is dealing with the case of a teenage spelling bee contestant who’s been vomiting blood. Dr. Miranda determines that the youngster has been swallowing metal, and drawing on her own father-daughter experiences, she determines that the boy must be swallowing this metal to get the attention of his perpetually on-the-go, bigwig papa. But she’s way off-base; the boy confesses to her that he just has a craving (“like an itch”) and can’t help but satisfy it. Diagnosis? Pica.
Dr. Sophia praises Dr. Miranda for her “good catch,” but anyone who’s ever watched a doctor show—let alone anyone who's attended medical school—would’ve diagnosed Pica well before “daddy issues” popped up on the radar screen. And it’s not like the patient makes it tough for Dr. Miranda. He recites his symptoms like he’s part of some med school exercise, and has been given an index card to read off of.
And that’s really the main problem with Three Rivers; it’s like everyone is reading off an index card, pulled from the big box of medical drama characters and plots. And it doesn’t help that such generica has been run through the CBS “quality” mill, so that it looks and feels as polished and kinkless as any given episode of Cold Case or NCIS. The characters are blandly chummy, with a single streak of “dark” (ready to be explored when a future episode requires it). The hospital set is stylishly minimal and dressed with fancy-looking technology. There’s little sense that we’re entering a real place, populated by real people, with real problems.
Granted, ER at times could be so grimly “real” that it was oppressive, and as I’ve written in the past, it was initially refreshing to flee the chilly ER suffer-fest and enter the warmer, goofier confines of Seattle Grace or Sacred Heart. And it’s hardly a chore to walk through the doors of Three Rivers either. The show is handsome, fast-paced and uncomplicated, and unless it deepens or becomes more finely shaded than the first episode promises, it should be an easy show for CBS-watchers to stick with. But it doesn't appear at first glance to be the kind of show that's going to stick right back, or leave people with worry the way ER did in its heyday. Three Rivers is a chicken soup kind of show; ER was chemotherapy.
-There was one brief moment in “Place Of Life” that irritated me to no end. Dr. Andy asks where one of his colleagues is, and he’s told that she’s dealing with electronic medical records, “the bane of our existence.” When he finds her, she’s banging away at the keyboard, grunting “Andy friend, computer enemy,” Frankenstein-style. And yet throughout the recent health care debate, one point that nearly everyone has agreed on—Democrats, Republicans, insurance companies, doctors, patients—is that we need better electronic medical records, and a better way to access to those records from office to office. Patients hate filling out the same form every three months. Clerks hate filing them over and over. Doctors hate that if someone comes into their ER unconscious, they can’t always pull up crucial data before they start treatment. Also, it’s 2009, and the characters in Three Rivers are nearly all young people, who’ve likely been sending e-mails, surfing the web, and doing data entry on computers for a large chunk of their lives. I’m not sure if those little throwaway lines in “Place Of Lfe” were meant to be a simple “paperwork sucks” moment, or a “computers suck” moment leftover from an old St. Elsewhere script. Either way it struck me as boneheaded.