Josh Wolk
March 30, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Psychiatrists have used their healing hands to give the new ABC drama ”Wonderland” (which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on ABC) a slap. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill released a statement attacking the show — which is set in a psychiatric hospital based on New York’s Bellevue — saying it perpetuates the stereotype of mental patients as ”killers, crazies, and freaks.” But the show’s creator/writer/producer Peter Berg (best known as a member of the ”Chicago Hope” cast for four seasons) disagrees.

Berg says he’s been obsessive about making sure his fictional ward is realistic, having observed Bellevue over an eight-month period and having hired two of the hospital’s top psychiatrists as script consultants. ”My observations of the mentally ill,” says Berg, ”are that they’re much more complex, harder to define, more intelligent, and less violent individuals than they’re given credit for being.” He even makes any guest stars who are cast to play a patient spend time at Bellevue to avoid any ”Patch Adams”-y cartoonish portrayals.

But angry shrinks aren’t the only battle Berg faces with his new show: ABC has scheduled ”Wonderland” against the ratings giant ”ER.” (Pretty ironic, considering Berg left ”Hope” — perennially in ”ER”’s shadow as ”the OTHER hospital show” — to only end up in more direct competition with it.) But Berg is trying to stay sane about his difficult time slot: ”It doesn’t feel great,” he admits. ”But at the same time I have to believe if the show is as good as we think it is, somehow it will find a way to survive.”

Novelty might help. Except for the shared hospital setting, ”Wonderland” and ”ER” are as different as lithium and aspirin. ”Wonderland” is much darker, with jerky camera work that’s a cross between ”NYPD Blue” and news war footage. Each scene’s background is crowded with wailing and mumbling patients, making viewers feel unbalanced themselves. But as unique as this show may be, Berg did make one concession to the usual hour-drama formula by showing his characters’ private lives. The head psychiatrist (”The Silence of the Lambs”’ Ted Levine) is in the midst of a custody battle, and two married coworkers (”Homicide: Life on the Street”’s Michelle Forbes and ”The Opposite of Sex”’s Martin Donovan) are expecting their first baby, which has possibly been damaged by Forbes’ struggle with a patient.

Berg says he had to soap things up a bit to compensate for the fact that the work stories don’t lend themselves to one-hour conclusions: Psychiatric patients aren’t as easily healed as ”ER”’s stab victims. ”People don’t come in with a case of schizophrenia in the morning and go out healed in the afternoon,” he says. ”[Giving our doctors personal lives] would be something that felt more familiar to the audience, and maybe we’d be able to give them some resolution [there]. It might be off-putting or scary for the audience to only have psychiatric patients to try to relate to.”

Alas, Berg’s fans won’t have the chance to relate to him, at least not on screen. He’s decided not to appear in any of this season’s eight episodes. The actor-turned-auteur (Berg made his directorial debut with ”Very Bad Things” last year) was going to play a multiple-personality patient in one, but then Giancarlo Esposito (another ”Homicide” veteran) said he was interested. ”I realized he’s a better actor than I am, so I asked him to play it and I fired myself,” explains Berg. ”But I let myself down easy.”

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