Take Me to the River
NBC hopes for a miracle in Providence
By Robert David Sullivan
JANUARY 4, 1999: The capital of Rhode Island looks a lot like Venice on NBC's new drama Providence (Fridays at 8 p.m., premiering January 8). Almost every outdoor scene takes place on or near a bridge, and I half-expect to see a gondolier (perhaps Mayor Buddy Cianci, in a cameo) pushing his way toward Pawtucket. I say "half-expect" because the first few episodes of Providence cautiously flirt with surrealism and Ally McBeal-type whimsy. One regular character, for example, is the ghost of the lead character's mother, who drops dead at a wedding ceremony in the first episode and must spend eternity in a hideous pastel dress and an indestructible hairdo, with a lit cigarette always in her hand.
Providence was created by John Masius, who was a co-producer and Emmy-winning writer on the sublime St. Elsewhere and who more recently created the insufferable Touched by an Angel. This latest effort leans more toward Angel, but there are glimpses of something much better. Part medical drama and part domestic comedy, Providence is certainly an improvement over the show it's replacing, the overcrowded and muddy Trinity, and it's probably NBC's best new drama in a couple of years. That's not saying much -- the last moderately successful new drama on the network was The Pretender in 1996.
We meet lead character Sydney Hanson (Melina Kanakaredes) as a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, and the first few scenes in the pilot -- featuring a parade of patients with wildly different reasons for wanting to rearrange their faces -- are tightly written and intriguing. At first, it seems a shame for Sydney to abandon her sleek beach house in Malibu and move back to the costume-jewelry capital of America, but Providence turns out to be as sunny and as clean as a Disneyland commercial. Adding to the wholesome atmosphere is Sydney's dad (Mike Farrell), a kind-hearted veterinarian with an office in the basement of the spacious family home. Farrell, who was painfully miscast as an Army surgeon on M*A*S*H, is more believable as a white-haired Dr. Doolittle here. There's a hint of self-righteousness in this character, and if Providence evolves into a complex series, he could become as interesting as the self-consciously noble Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) of St. Elsewhere -- that is, if Farrell is willing to put some grit into his performance.
As Sydney, the appealing Kanakaredes is sort of an older version of the title character on Felicity, complete with frizzy hairdo. She doesn't know how to run her own life, but she doesn't hesitate to meddle in everyone else's. After dumping her boyfriend and job in LA, she goes to work at a free clinic in Providence, where the patients have more important problems than bags under their eyes. (As on most shows set outside of Los Angeles, the only people with accents are guest stars playing salt-of-the-earth proles.) In the second episode, a beaten-down single mother decides to send her autistic daughter to a state institution, but Sydney persuades her to keep the kid and take in a stray dog. This kind of pat solution is typical of the Touched by an Angel in the Promised Land of the Highway to Heaven genre, and it smacks of right-wing morality -- what St. Elsewhere's Mark Craig once called "reheated Reaganism." St. Elsewhere was full of stoic characters shouldering family burdens (such as Westphall's autistic son), but we got a better sense of the costs involved, partly because the stories stretched out over several episodes.
"It's like a dysfunctional-family version of Our Town," Sydney remarks in assessing her new life. When not oozing concern for her patients, Sydney offers unsolicited advice to her kid sister, an unmarried mother with a knack for plain speaking; and to her little brother, a goof-off bartender with various get-rich schemes. She also moons over a hunky limo driver whom she secretly admired in high school (more shades of Felicity). And every morning she wakes up from a dream featuring her deceased mother -- who, in her endearing dominating manner, assures Sydney that she'll get by with a little divine . . . providence. You didn't think the show was set here solely because the downtown got a face-lift, did you? (In her first appearance as a spirit, the snooty mother explains, "For the afterlife, they sent me to hell . . . Providence.")
There are occasional witty images -- the sister puts her baby in a dog cage for safekeeping, Sydney opens the front door to see a gang of firemen looking for their Dalmatian -- but Providence needs a stronger visual style to meet the standards set by ER and Homicide. The veterinary setting is a potentially rich source of storylines and throwaway gags, as long as the writers balance the cute kids and dogs with the more-grotesque pairings of master and pet that we can see on any city street. (Memo to John Masius: all writers should be required to view Errol Morris's affectionate and scary Gates of Heaven, the 1978 documentary about the clients of a pet cemetery.)
Similarly, there's a funny send-up of TV soap operas in the third episode, but otherwise Providence is still too preoccupied with clearly drawing its main characters to engage in wordplay. The closest we get to sophisticated dialogue is Sydney defending her dream lover to Mom: "He may not wear a power tie, but he's something you never find in LA: a real man, a Grade-A guy, a T-bone among the mixed vegetable plate."
Providence ain't Grade-A. But it is a different animal from the standard cop/lawyer/doctor drama, which is a good start. I just hope Della Reese and those other damned angels never make their way to Rhode Island.
Speaking of St. Elsewhere, the 1982-'88 NBC series is available in limited form on video. Eight of its 137 episodes are included in The Very Best of St. Elsewhere ($59.95), a boxed set put out last year by MTM studios (along with "best of" collections from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and WKRP in Cincinnati). The collection would be better titled A Bare Minimum of St. Elsewhere, since it doesn't begin to recapture the experience of following the series over its original six-year run, when each new episode contained dozens of subtle references to previous shows. The idea of condensing the series into four videotapes is as silly as Monty Python's "All-England Summarize Proust Competition" ("Each contestant this evening has 15 seconds to sum up A La Recherche du Temps Perdu").
The comparison to Proust is apt, for St. Elsewhere may be the series most cited by critics trying to prove that television can be as rich as literature or cinema. It takes place at a rundown Boston hospital appropriately named after St. Eligius (St. Elsewhere is the snide nickname used by more-prestigious institutions such as "Boston General"), who is described as the patron saint of artisans and craftsmen. Though the series premiered as a medical version of Hill Street Blues, the writers gradually moved away from the cinéma-vérité tone of that program and experimented with dream sequences, flashbacks, and fanciful puns sprinkled throughout the dialogue. At the same time, the writers became more brazen at putting the regular characters through the most punishing set of personal crises since God tormented Job. More impressive, the series never deteriorated into a sick joke but instead became a heartfelt testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. Scripts frequently turned both mundane and dramatic activities into metaphors for getting through the shocks of mortal life -- as when the fatally flawed Peter White tries to teach another doctor the proper stance for water-skiing, advising him, "You've got to be a little bent to absorb the force."
The boxed set begins with two episodes from the relatively conventional first season, of interest mostly to see the beginnings of characters. St. Elsewhere doesn't completely hit its stride until the fifth and sixth episodes in the collection, a two-parter called "Time Heals" that spans the entire 50-year history of the hospital and fills in the backgrounds of all the principal characters. The final cassette includes "Afterlife," in which Dr. Fiscus is shot and briefly checks in to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory; and the brilliant series finale, which gently reminds us that television is no substitute for real life -- but only after treating us to a dizzying parade of television in-jokes. (Speaking of a seemingly ageless hospital barber named Floyd, one doctor remarks, "He may bury us all.")
My biggest disappointment with the boxed set is that it doesn't give us enough of Mark Craig (William Daniels), the arrogant heart surgeon who is ultimately humbled by a string of tragedies, from his son's death to an absurd case of plagiarism. But the first episode of the set does give us a great introduction to the character. Trying to comfort the devoted young son of a blue-collar patient recovering from a risky bypass operation, Craig notes that he also has a son, who is now studying to become a surgeon. With total sincerity, he tells the boy, "Someday, if you're lucky, maybe he'll operate on you."
Hopefully, The Very Best is only an introduction to future video releases from St. Elsewhere. In the meantime, TV Land runs episodes on Saturdays at 7 a.m. (VCR time). And you can catch the latest work from St. Elsewhere writers and producers on Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue, and Oz.
(Robert David Sullivan can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.)
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