CBS, NBC to air medical dramas

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES Television is on the verge of a health care crisis. Medical dramas are regaining their vital signs, but the newcomers are drawing from the same supply of audience lifeblood.

CBS' "Chicago Hope," starring Mandy Patinkin and Adam Arkin, and NBC's "ER," with Anthony Edwards and Sherry Stringfield, will go head-to-head at 10 p.m. EDT Thursdays, starting Sept. 22.

Both have special previews: "Chicago Hope" at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday, Sept. 18, and "ER" at 9 p.m. EDT Monday, Sept. 19.

Physicians, seize your scalpels; the hospital duel is on. Or not, say the series' producers. Equating the two dramas because both are about medicine is narrow-minded, they contend.

"It's very easy for the media to latch onto a convenient yardstick to compare," says "Chicago Hope" creator David E. Kelley. "We may not compare to 'ER' at all in terms of style or substance. It may be just as appropriate to compare us to 'Picket Fences' or 'NYPD Blue.'"

"Picket Fences," the prickly small-town drama starring Tom Skerritt and Kathy Baker, is Kelley's other series, and much-lauded. He cut his TV teeth on yet another acclaimed drama, "L.A. Law," when producer Steven Bochco recruited the then-attorney as a writer.

"ER" has similarly impressive parentage. It's the creation of "Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton and is shepherded by co-executive producer John Wells ("China Beach").

Wells sides with Kelley in dismissing a battle-of-the-network-doctors scenario.

"They're both medical shows, but beyond that they have very little in common," he said. "They're about very different types of medicine, they're about very different types of hospitals and about very different types of patients."

The contest is similar to that of any pair of well-written dramas, says Wells.

But how different can two hospital shows be? Let's take a peek:

Gritty "ER" is set in Chicago, in the well-worn emergency room of County General Memorial Hospital, where hectic describes the pace and harried describes the doctors.

"Chicago Hope" also is set in the Windy City, but within the Architectural Digest halls and operating rooms of cutting-edge Chicago Hope Hospital. The doctors are equally sleek.

NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer recently dismissed "Chicago Hope" as a passe, 1980s yuppie-minded series: " 'L.A. Law' with medicine bags," as he put it, referring to his network's once-reigning Thursday night drama.

Ohlmeyer is welcome to take his shots, responds Kelley, but adds that "NBC should be so lucky as to get another show like 'L.A. Law' in his tenure."

Neither series is a graduate of the "Marcus Welby" school of medicine. The doctors are flawed and the staff rather than patients are the focus. The doctor-patient relationship also differs from the intimate, warm and fuzzy one traditionally drawn on TV.

"Most physicians are not particularly involved in their patient care," says Wells, "especially in emergency rooms, where doctors see 25 to 60 patients a day."

"The series first and foremost has to be about your (regular) characters," says Kelley. "Your best emotional moments are those realized with your characters. We didn't try to establish a franchise which is simply for meeting guest stars on a weekly basis."

Both "ER" and "Chicago Hope" describe themselves as "workplace" shows. The characters generally will be seen at the hospital, not at home.

Both programs went for known actors but shunned glamour casting, or as Wells put it, "young doctors in love."

"We tried very hard to cast the best actors in those roles," he said. "It was clear we needed extremely talented actors to carry off a combination of compassion and science."

"ER," set in a teaching hospital, has a younger cast. "Chicago Hope," has more veterans, says Kelley.

"We are suggesting these guys are the top in their field. If you made these guys young, you would indict the credibility of the whole arena," Kelley said. More youthful faces will be introduced, he said, but not to curry demographic favor.

The gore factor: "ER" plans to be more circumspect, "Chicago Hope" will go for the gusto, within reason. Audiences will be reminded "they're in a real hospital ... as opposed to the way Hollywood depicts it," Kelley said.

Neither network is allowing, publicly, that it might break up the fight by moving its series. "ER" sits atop a strong NBC lineup that includes "Seinfeld;" there is no indication from CBS that "Chicago Hope" will be anywhere but Thursday night, Kelley said, although he'd prefer Monday or Wednesday.

Maybe both will survive, filling the void created by the 1988 demise of TV's last medical drama success, "St. Elsewhere." It's possible, Wells suggests.

"We did that on 'China Beach' every year. We were up against 'Wise Guys.' And I think it kept our numbers down and their numbers down. But we stayed on for three years."

Read Next Article