Ken Tucker
November 24, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

”Gideon’s Crossing” and ”ER”

One day while I was busy trying to avoid reviewing two hospital dramas, Gideon’s Crossing and the new season of ER, I came across a rerun of St. Elsewhere (I put off work at every opportunity, even if it means watching TV shows to keep from writing about other TV shows). St. Elsewhere, you may recall, was the 1982-88 series about an eternally underfunded Boston hospital, St. Eligius, that had a young, cute Denzel Washington on its staff. Arriving in the wake of Hill Street Blues, with a similar approach to layered, continuing plotlines, Elsewhere was a class act, even if it gave Howie Mandel a mass audience. But watching the show now (which you can, twice daily on Bravo), I was struck by how soothingly slow and earnest it was.

Compared with ER, which turned the arrival of patients into an Indy 500 race of spurting-blood gurneys, St. Elsewhere seems like a Chekhovian Marcus Welby, M.D., full of thoughtful debates about ethics versus efficiency. ER, which premiered in ’94, was initially a real viewer grabber that ramped up the pace of the hour-long drama, shoving five or six subplots into a format that usually accommodated three and conveying relationships between doctors, and the docs and their patients, in quick conversational slang and tongue-twisting medical jargon.

It was inevitable that a show would come along and say, in effect, ”Hold on a second; slow down” — that’s what Gideon’s Crossing does. Created by Paul Attanasio, who cocreated Homicide: Life on the Street as well as writing intricately satisfying screenplays for films like Quiz Show and Donnie Brasco, Gideon’s Crossing also bucks the ensemble-show trend by building the series around Attanasio’s former Homicide star, Andre Braugher. The actor now portrays Dr. Benjamin Gideon, the chief of experimental medicine in a — well, whattaya know — Boston hospital, albeit a more prosperous one than St. Eligius.

By making Ben Gideon the head of a teaching hospital, Attanasio created the opportunity for Braugher to use his grave, grandly expressive voice to deliver long speeches to a classroom of awestruck medical students. Unfortunately, what Attanasio intends as a showcase — a gift to both his star and his audience — ends up making Gideon seem like a boring gasbag. When Gideon issues a pronunciamento such as ”What separates us from the animals is mystery” or ”What really exists between two people is something we can never really quite know,” I invariably expect the camera to cut to a room full of snoring interns. Instead, they are rapt, and Gideon is bathed in glowing light, like a god, which only makes him harder to like.

Gideon’s Crossing is getting whomped in the ratings by the venerable Law & Order. So far this season, L&O‘s scripts have been subpar, and I’d like to recommend that its deservedly loyal fans take a break and check out Gideon, but I’ll do that only when Attanasio and his staff bring the saintly Gideon back to earth and give the strong supporting cast (whose real treasures are Kevin J. O’Connor as a wiggy, eccentric oncologist and Sophie Keller as a lab-rat-loving intern) more screen time.

Meanwhile, the main reason to tune in to ER this season is to see the full-blooded character Maura Tierney is creating with scant help from the writers, who increasingly think the best way to hook viewers is to either endanger a baby’s life or have someone shoot a gun in an operating room. Amid such shamelessness (including Noah Wyle’s drug-addiction subplot, which plays to the actor’s worst slapped-puppy instincts, and the gooey romance between Alex Kingston and Anthony Edwards), Tierney’s Abby Lockhart has quietly been revealed as a recovering alcoholic who’s now also suffering from an extended visit by her bipolar mother — guest star Sally Field, tapping into her old Sybil craziness to good effect.

In Tierney’s performance, you can see exhaustion, hope, and bitter humor flash across her face in a single scene — she’s raising the bar for performances in a well-acted series. If only the other characters were less one-dimensional. The worst example: Paul McCrane’s once fun Dr. Robert Romano, who’s been turned into a hapless tyrant (he’s starting to look like an evil Ron Howard). In the old days of St. Elsewhere, William Daniels served a similar purpose — an imperious surgeon belittling his charges — but his Dr. Mark Craig character had a core of decency that Romano has been denied. So, too often, has ER these days.

Gideon’s Crossing: B-
ER: B-

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