TV Episode of the Week

Chicago Hope does little week after week but prove that TV is a writer’s medium. How else to explain how a show that boasts Adam Arkin, Christine Lahti, Ron Silver and (well, through ’95) E.G. Marshall and Mandy Patinkin plays a distant second fiddle to ER, home to George Clooney and Noah Wyle? Since its cynical debut as a rival network’s bid for the ER audience, Chicago Hope has yet to truly distinguish itself. ER had its season premiere a few weeks back, a lackluster gimmick of an episode in which the actors performed the show live during its broadcast. (Since then it has returned to form.) Chicago Hope responded earlier this week (Wednesday, 10/15) with the contrary: a fully choreographed song-and-dance episode. Just after leaving the hospital for good, 15-year Hope employee Dr. Aaron Shutt (Arkin) collapses in a Quick-E-Mart, and his (former) colleagues commence the race to save his brain. Meanwhile, in morphine-induced bliss, Shutt observes the whole goings-on, from both the hospital bed and the out-of-body-cam perspectives, as a series of song-and-dance numbers. Shades of Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and Dennis Potter’s entire oeuvre (especially The Singing Detective), the episode presents musical nuggets by Frank Sinatra, the Four Seasons, Jimi Hendrix and others as comic, if obvious, glosses on Shutt’s situation. The cast either squeaks out the words, or pulls a sly karaoke. When a hot-shot neurosurgeon is flown in from Canada (her name: Denise Potter), the entire hospital breaks into “Luck Be a Lady.” There are touching flashbacks to Shutt’s bar mitzvah, a kind of Freudian performance-anxiety touchstone, and a great cameo by Mandy Patinkin — who, needless to say, sings his own material. (“Hey,” asks jealous, tone-deaf Shutt, “why’s that your real voice?”) The episode doesn’t necessarily cohere, and its claim to pop-culture cleverness was certainly undermined when a commercial break brought an ecstatic, big-budget car ad featuring the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” Then again, any bow to Potter, poet laureate of the BBC, is a taste of what TV can be.

Originally published in the October 17, 1997, edition of epulse (3.41).

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