October 11, 2009

TV: Three Rivers (CBS, Sun 9)

Transplant surgeons are the focus of this medical drama, which presents a formidable dramatic obstacle: Every episode must begin with a death in order for there to be any organs to transplant. Given our preference for seeing lives saved in medical shows, this makes the final outcome of the show's transplant stories fairly predictable. How depressing would it be, after all, if someone's attempt to save lives by being an organ donor is a failure? Not only have we seen the donor's death, but the show's now going to end with the recipient's death as well; this is not exactly the uplifting stuff of which the American medical drama is made.

So if the medical stories are going to be relatively predictable, the show's going to have to rely on interesting characters and office soap opera for its drama; based on the pilot, it doesn't really have that going for it, either. Our hero is Dr. Andy Yablonski (Alex O'Loughlin), who is (according to one of his patients) "the best transplant surgeon at the best transplant hospital in the country." CBS seems determined, for whatever reason, to make O'Loughlin a star, bringing him back in Three Rivers after the flop two years of Moonlight. He's attractive and noble and charming, everything that you want your medical-drama star doctor to be, but there's a blandness to him, a lack of charisma and star quality.

He has a sidekick surgeon, David Lee (Daniel Henney, who if you ask me, is the real hottie on the show); there's a grouchy hospital administrator (Alfre Woodard, whose presence saves the show from complete mediocrity), a wise nurse (Justina Machado, whose longing to be back on Six Feet Under with a real character to play is almost palpable), and a non-transplant surgeon (Katharine Moennig) who is meant to give the show its female sex appeal and will almost surely wind up in bed with Dr. Andy just in time for November sweeps.

The show's most inexplicable character is the young transplant coordinator, Ryan (Christopher J. Hanke), who is so spectacularly ignorant of transplant basics ("You mean you can transplant half a liver?") and ethics that it's impossible to understand how he'd ever have gotten such a job. His ignorance is dramatically useful -- he gives the doctors someone to whom they can explain all of the things that we in the audience might not know about transplants -- but so far-fetched that I winced every time he came on screen to say something idiotic.

It's not a ghastly show -- it's certainly better than Mercy or Trauma, the season's other new medical dramas -- but ER raised the bar for the medical half of the equation, and Grey's Anatomy did the same for the soap-opera half, and Three Rivers falls short on both counts. It's got a nice cushy time slot between The Amazing Race and Cold Case, which will be enough to keep it around for a season or two.

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