By creating a show built around a symbiotic relationship between the forensic psychiatric department and the emergency room of a New York hospital, Peter Berg is able to draw upon a virtual gold mine of material. “Wonderland” synthesizes Hollywood’s holy triumvirate: It’s a medical show, a police story and an emotional drama rolled into one. Full of the same type of energy and promise that “ER” enjoyed in the early seasons, “Wonderland” is the first series in long while that has the actual goods to give the stalwart NBC drama a run for its money at 10 p.m. Thursday nights. To up the odds, ABC is making its strike midseason against reruns and amid grumbles that “ER” has lost its edge.
Berg, a former “Chicago Hope” regular, reportedly spent months researching “Wonderland” in a New York psychiatric hospital. His dedication pays off with a realistic, utterly engrossing and intricately drawn show set in the chaotic confines of the mythical Riverview Hospital.
From the opening moments of the pilot, we quickly learn that the doctors here, while dedicated and top notch, are quite fallible; they walk a fine line between normalcy and the aberrance of the socially challenged patients who fill up the ward.
Dr. Robert Banger (Ted Levine) is the ringleader, a man who functions on high simmer but maintains amazing composure when it seems like everyone around him is losing control. Adding to the building pressure is Banger’s divorce case and ensuing custody battle.
His staff includes Dr. Neil Harrison (Martin Donovan), whose worries include not only his patients but his pregnant wife and co-worker, Dr. Garrity (Michelle Forbes). Garrity handles psychiatric emergencies, sometimes at her own peril. Dr. Abe Matthews (Billy Burke) is a commitment-phobic psychiatrist who often butts heads with resident Heather Miles (Joelle Carter), while the no-nonsense Dr. Derrick Hatcher (Michael Jai White) struggles to balance career and single parenthood.
“Wonderland’s” diverse ensemble cast is colorfully drawn, and the pilot sets ups some disturbing and intriguing plotlines that touch just about every character. Filmed like a documentary, the show maintains its frenetic momentum start to finish, and serves up a crackling balance between work and home life.
Levine is a standout, adding subtle layers to a deceptively complex character. Forbes carries the lion’s share of drama in the first two episodes and handles it well, if not completely realistically. Her character, several months pregnant, is put through traumas that would send even the most stoic individual home to rest. Other cast members prove equally promising, with White making a particularly powerful impression in his limited intro as the single dad.
Technical credits are solid, with Ron Fortunato working overtime to create a realistic documentary style, which is enhanced by the deft editing of Dan Lebental. Sets by Michael Boonstra are grim and realistic. Madonna provides the show’s theme song.