You know you’re missed on the job when your former co-workers tell you, a month after you leave the employee parking lot for the last time, that it took two people to replace you.
That’s the sort-of-dilemma facing NBC, whose fall lineup boasts not one but two high-profile medical dramas. One or both of them are meant, in some way, to fill the huge vacuum that occurred when “ER,” the elder statesman of ‘em all, was cancelled this year after a 15-year run.
Created by the late, great, insanely prolific Michael Crichton, and debuting on NBC in September 1994, “ER” became the template by which all meaningful prime-time medical dramas would be judged. Its ability to give viewers the full range of our awful random mortality — to whipsaw viewers from joy to heartbreak, laughter to the deepest dread in literally seconds — remains unmatched.
It didn’t hurt that the show greatly benefited from fine writing and a deep bench of actors that, combined, pretty much created the formula for the multiethnic medical ensemble drama. It was a formidable combination; at its peak “ER” attracted 25 million viewers a week watching what would become the longest-running American prime-time medical drama in history.
“When “ER” said farewell on April 2, 2009 — not long after the death of Crichton — it left NBC deprived of something bigger than just a tentpole in its programming. For a rock-solid core of millions of loyal viewers, “ER” (has there ever been a better name for a TV show, ever?) was the definition of “destination viewing.” What could follow it?
Perhaps hedging its bets on a one-for-one replacement, the Peacock has answered the call with two shows, one already up, the other debuting next week. “Mercy” and “Trauma” bring the medical drama up to date in newly topical ways.
◊ ◊ ◊
In “Mercy," which airs on Wednesdays, we're party to the dramas of nurse Veronica Callahan, an Iraq war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse issues (“I’m on delicious Paxil”), living with her alcoholic parents in Jersey City, N J. Taylor Schilling is pitch-perfect as Veronica, who manages (barely) the tricky balancing act of nurse, daughter and wife in a marriage on life support.
Like TNT’s recent arrival “Hawthorne RN,” “Mercy” takes a refreshing nurse’s-eye view of events in a modern hospital. Veronica’s partners in medicine are Sonia, a fellow Jersey girl with much attitude (Jaime Lee Kirchner) and Chloe, the obligatory fresh-faced neophyte (played by Michelle Trachtenberg) Yes, we get here and elsewhere some elements of shows we’ve seen before: the by-the-book hospital administrators; the nurse as prickly, passionate advocate of the patient.
But in just the debut episode, “Mercy” gives us that rare thing: people we care about, with lives of dimension and back story — exactly the thing that made “ER” work so well for 15 seasons. It’s early to make any firm diagnosis, of course, but for its brisk pacing, a smartly developed sense of mood and characters we both believe and believe in, “Mercy” is off to a good start.
◊ ◊ ◊
“Trauma,” which debuts on Monday, sets a much higher bar, dramatically speaking. It’s a multiethnic ensemble study, too, but where “Mercy” explores what happens at the hospital, “Trauma” documents the lives of the medical shock troops who get people to the hospital. Set in San Francisco, “Trauma” follows the exploits of a crack team of paramedics in rescue mode around the city, and above it.
The interplay of the characters will take place against a backdrop of urban catastrophe; the four-minute clip of the pilot that's now available suggests this could be a medical show according to Michael Bay, who never met a flashpot he didn’t like.
With just the first four minutes to see right now, it’s hard to get a full sense of the show’s dramatic arc. Some commenters at the NBC fall preview site have already been less than charitable. One wrote: "Hilarious! Being an EMT in the Bay Area for 7 years, I can tell you it is nothing like this show. What a joke. Yea the procedures might be somewhat valid, but the action-packed daily drama is all fake. Most calls are helping grandma who fell down ... again."
But the cast suggests a quality undertaking: Jamey Sheridan (late of NBC’s “Law & Order” franchise), Derek Luke (“Antwone Fisher,” “Friday Night Lights”) and Cliff Curtis (a transplant from New Zealand who’s worked with directors from Scorsese to Aronofsky) are some of the “adrenaline cowboys” in this project.
If “Trauma” balances its pyrotechnic tendencies with some real character development, NBC may have not just one but two medical dramas set to compete with CBS’ “Three Rivers” and two sturdy regulars, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and Fox’s “House.” Clearly this fall season, the doctors and nurses are very much in the house.
Image credits: Derek Luke in "Trauma," ER intertitle, Cast of "Mercy," cast of "Trauma": NBC.