''Chicago Hope'' readies itself for a season finale shake-up | EW.com

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''Chicago Hope'' readies itself for a season finale shake-up

Mandy Patinkin, John Tinker, and the rest of the cast face an uncertain future

On a mild early-spring morning in a very small corner of one of the three very big Hollywood soundstages that house Chicago Hope, Adam Arkin and Mandy Patinkin are, once again, getting on each other’s nerves. Patinkin is clowning around, literally: For reasons too distracting to mention in an opening paragraph, his face is masked with clown-white makeup. He’s wearing a red ball on his nose. And he’s urging Arkin to catch the wacky spirit.

Arkin, in more businesslike attire, has little patience for Patinkin’s manic enthusiasms. Although he has often served as a sounding board for his voluble partner, Arkin appears to be worn out by the guy’s unrelenting intensity. The words fly faster and tenser; the air is acrid with annoyance. ”Cut!” calls director Arvin Brown. ”Well,” snaps Patinkin to Arkin, bringing his argument to its natural conclusion, ”f— you!”

The cast and crew crack up — for many reasons. There is, for starters, the clean thrill of the vulgar. There’s the verbalization of what one could easily imagine actors Arkin and Patinkin, as longtime friends and hospital colleagues Drs. Aaron Shutt and Jeffrey Geiger, actually saying to one another in a world freed from FCC regulations. There’s the memory that Patinkin — who was first among an ensemble cast of equals throughout the premiere season of Hope — really did display a kind of f— you attitude toward his colleagues and series creator David E. Kelley when he left eight episodes into the second season, citing exhaustion and a pressing need to spend more time with his family in New York (his presence in this episode is one of his infrequent guest appearances).

But at its most profound, Patinkin’s ad-lib retort resonates with the same tough attitude everyone involved with Chicago Hope has had to adopt to survive so much, so far, so well. Hobbled by the cocky, let’s-see-who-blinks initial decision of CBS to run the program on NBC-dominated Thursday night, opposite the equally new ER, Hope had to swallow the humiliation of losing precipitously (with much press fanfare) to that other medical drama. Since Hope was moved to Mondays at 10 p.m. in the middle of last season, it has attracted a large, loyal audience that finds Arkin as hunky as George Clooney, and it ranks 23rd for this season to date, holding its own against powerhouse Monday Night Football and regularly beating ABC’s Murder One. (For struggling CBS, that constitutes a huge, healthy hit.)

The show has also survived producer turnover. Although Hope is the child of L.A. Law wizard and Picket Fences creator Kelley, ongoing creative supervision was gradually transferred from Kelley to executive producer John Tinker (St. Elsewhere), who came on board in November 1994. Envisioned as a large ensemble drama, the show and its cast have suffered morale slumps, first as Patinkin’s role expanded like yeast and later as energy was in danger of deflating after he decamped.

At the end of the second season, only three of the original pilot-episode cast members remain: Arkin, Hector Elizondo as hospital chief of staff Dr. Phillip Watters, and Roxanne Hart as charge nurse Camille Shutt. On the other hand, newer additions, especially Christine Lahti as cardiothoracic surgeon Kathryn Austin and Peter Berg as cowboy surgeon Billy Kronk, have palpably juiced up the show. Ensemble equality continues to be a tender subject — Hart, Thomas Gibson, Jayne Brook, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and, especially, late addition Jamey Sheridan are still impatient for their characters to have more to do. But as Chicago Hope concludes its second season, everyone involved enthusiastically professes new optimism — and freely picks at sores.