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Trauma debuts at 9 p.m. EDT tonight on NBC.

Trauma is easily the most boring show you’ll ever see about things blowing up.  It’s competently done, fairly well-directed and fast-paced, but something about it feels almost perfunctory, as though everything here was drawn up on a giant outline and then filled in by committee. Because Peter Berg and Jeffrey Reiner, two of the people behind the exemplary Friday Night Lights, are involved, maybe my expectations were too high. But this almost feels like one of those incredibly by-the-numbers summer blockbusters, where all of the stunts and special effects extravaganza shots are solid and exciting on some base level, but they never quite add up to as much as they should. In short, Trauma is good, but never as good as it’s trying to be.

There haven’t been many shows about paramedics over the years, even in the wake of ER’s success and the many, many copycat medical dramas that followed. The simple reason for this is that paramedics work out in the field, which requires a lot of location work (even if a production is building new sets for locations for the paramedics to visit every week), which is more expensive than doing stuff on a standing set like that of ER’s hospital. So while there have been paramedic shows in TV’s long history – Emergency and Third Watch come to mind – they’ve always been shunted to the side in favor of hospital-set shows. All of this means that Trauma is likely going to be fairly expensive and that it has a unique enough niche to fill that if it even pulled off half of what it was attempting, it would be pretty good.

For starters, Trauma certainly looks expensive. There are massive fireballs and huge stunts involving crashing helicopters and the kind of action setpieces that it’s rare to see on TV, where keeping things small and contained is the order of the day. Director Reiner keeps these setpieces chugging along handily, sending the paramedics and their patients into harm’s way and then getting them out efficiently. There’s even a nice sense (particularly during a large highway pile-up) of one damn thing happening after another, of these people continually getting caught in situations that are escalating further and further out of control. The action stuff isn’t great – again, it always feels like it’s just there because the promo clips needed something to promote – but it’s better done than a lot of shows of this ilk, and Reiner has a nice eye for catastrophe, something that wouldn’t be expected from his more human-level work on Friday Night Lights.

Where the pilot doesn’t work as well is in its attempts to make the characters in the show interesting to follow. I’ve been saying this whole pilot season that it’s fine for a pilot to have stereotypical characters within reason, but Trauma greatly stretches that “within reason.” Everyone here feels like exactly the sort of stereotypical characters you’d see in a medical drama about paramedics. You have your adrenaline junkie. You have your family man who’s torn between his life at home and his job. You have your inexperienced rookie, who also happens to be a fiery Latina. And you have your wise doctor who works back at the hospital. All of these characters are so obviously the sorts you’d expect to see in a medical drama about paramedics that it becomes almost comedic at some point. I understand that there’s not space to fill in all of the characters as living, breathing humans within the confines of one hour of television, but Trauma doesn’t even seem to try until it suddenly is trying and not succeeding. The last few acts are all about character stuff, but they never manage to make this feel organic.

The best thing here (as every critic before me seems to have acknowledged) is Cliff Curtis as the aforementioned adrenaline junkie, Rabbit. Curtis, who’s bounced around a number of solid indie films and generally been wasted by Hollywood blockbusters, takes a character who mostly defines himself through references to movies and saying that he can’t die and somehow gives him a swagger that makes the helicopter pilot seem as though he genuinely believes he can’t die. There’s a cool scene late in the episode when he enlists the girl he’s taking out to help him with an impromptu emergency, but it quickly devolves into the typical, tortured scene where the Guy Who Doesn’t Care if He Lives or Dies realizes the Other People in his life care. You’ve seen it before, and outside of the spark Curtis brings to his performance, you’ve seen it done in a roughly similar fashion.

The rest of the cast is fairly well chosen, even if none of them manage to imbue their stock characters with the life that Curtis brings to Rabbit. I like Derek Luke on principle, and he’s fairly good as Cameron Boone, the guy who’s trying to make his home life work with his high-octane job. Aimee Garcia is also pretty good as Marisa Benez, especially when she and Curtis are sharing screen time, though she occasionally collapses under the constant pile of clichés the script hurls at her character. This is, by and large, a pretty talented ensemble, and it’s easy to see that if the scripts get better, they’ll quickly turn into one of the better dramatic ensembles out there.

But the script – at least in the pilot – just isn’t up to their talents. It’s from Dario Scardapane, who’s written a number of made-for-TV movies and smaller features over the years and somehow lucked into getting the backing of producer Berg (who’s also brought series like Friday Night Lights and Wonderland to the small screen) for this by-the-numbers show. It’d be one thing if the concept of the show were so wildly original that it made up for the lackadaisical characters, but the concept is as lazy as the characters are most of the time.

I’ve only seen the pilot episode of Trauma, but it’s hard not to worry about what the show is going to be in the weeks to come, when it doesn’t have the money to stage giant action sequences every ten minutes. Every time the action takes center stage, the show works well enough, but every time the action moves offstage, the show drags to a halt. I enjoy the grand tradition of the medical drama that’s as much about its characters as it is about its high-octane action sequences, and with ER now off its schedule, NBC clearly does too, but there’s just not enough in Trauma to make the series stand out as essential or even as good as it could be.

Grade: B-

Stray observations:

  • The story development here is a little strange, to be honest. It’s all action, action, action, action until it suddenly (and rather abruptly) turns into a character drama. Maybe they’ll smooth that out when they aren’t breaking the bank on blowing up oil tankers.
  • So, I was never a huge Third Watch fan, but it’s easy to see how this show could be compared to that one and actually found wanting. Any Third Watch fans want to make the case for that show in comments?

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