Someone's been putting something in the Rice A Roni, and it seems to be turning Bay area residents into wigged-out head-cases. This much is clear after watching the pilot of "Crisis Center," a new ensemble drama about the caring men and women who save people from themselves that plays like "The Stress of San Francisco." There is some solid acting and dynamic plotting to be found here. Unfortunately, it tends to be undercut by a self-important, overly noble tone that has the disconcerting effect of a neon sign flashing, "Hey! You in the audience! We're doing television that makes a difference here! We're bold! Do you hear me? Bold!"
The terminally virtuous Kellie Martin, fresh from terrific work in the underappreciated CBS drama “Christy,” stars as Kathy Goodman, a psychology student and intern at the San Francisco Assistance Center.So anyway, the center is a hotbed of crisis intervention, its services ranging from suicide prevention to housing and clothing underage Asian prostitutes (don’t ask). Kathy suffers the trauma of having a suicidal young man pull the trigger despite her pleas into the telephone. She will from then on cry a lot, even if someone asks her if she wants coffee. Handling things slightly better are the center’s loosey-goosey director Dr. Rick Buckley (Matt Roth) and humorless co-director Lily Gannon (Nia Peeples) — ex-lovers who now struggle to keep their skin from touching — as well as center attorney (Tina Lifford of “South Central”) and youth counselor (the colorfully named Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez. The crises begin piling up like loaves of sourdough at Fisherman’s Wharf. The father of the suicide victim (Dan Lauria of “The Wonder Years”) rightly questions why a novice was trying to counsel his son, while the father-to-be of a birth-defective fetus (Scott Michael Campbell) needs help. Both, of course, consider litigation after things sour for them. Yes, when the going gets tough, the tough get a lawyer. It’s the American way. Maybe it’s not too late to coax Arnie Becker out of retirement. Events unravel for our stress cadets at a hyperkinetic pace as the drama approaches its denouement. It leads to one preposterous scene involving a gun-toting man, a desktop birth and the little Asian girls cavorting madly — all in the same room. This place doesn’t need more tenderness and compassion. It needs Dirty Harry. The show’s obvious goal is an adrenaline rush a la “ER,” but it often winds up instead with a contrived surreality. That is not to say “Crisis Center” (getting a spring tryout in the “Homicide” timeslot) has nothing going for it. Executive producer-writer Thania St. John (“VR.5″) knows how to push the emotional envelope, and Martin (immensely likable in spite of herself) and Roth are gifted performers with a knack for making the camera their ally. Too, director Richard Colla keeps the action moving along at a brisk and compelling pace. His misfortune is that St. John’s teleplay works fervently early on to make heroes of people we don’t yet know. Over time, we may grow to care deeply about them. Right now, we usually want to slap them. Tech credits are all swell.
NBC, Fri. Feb. 28, 10 p.m.
Filmed in San Francisco and Burbank by Viacom Prods. Inc. in association with NBC Studios. Creator/executive producer/writer, Thania St. John; executive producer, Joseph Stern; producer, Kevin Donnelly; co-producer, Debbie Martin; associate producer, Steve Robin; director, Richard Colla; director of photography, Gordon C. Lonsdale.
Editor, Michael Kewley; production design, Joe Aubel; music, Danny Lux; casting, Judith Weiner. 1 HOUR
Cast: Kellie Martin, Dana Ashbrook, Nia Peeples, Matt Roth, Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez, Tina Lifford.
Guest stars Dan Lauria, Scott Michael Campbell and Kim Murphy.