Medical dramas are everywhere, but predominantly black casts are not. That’s about to change. Steven Bochco’s “City of Angels” lands on CBS’ schedule as a midseason replacement and does for networks what few programs have been able to accomplish. Anchored by Blair Underwood and Vivica A. Fox, “Angels” features minority actors in strong leading roles and, in the process, offers up very good television on a broader canvas.
It’s certainly not a knock to claim “Angels” is treading familiar narrative ground. There are only so many missing cadavers, administrative errors and goofy physicians auds can take during the week.
But Bochco’s down-to-earth spin feels as fresh as “ER” did when it bowed in 1994. Missing, at least from the first episode, are the icepicks through the chest, the unbelievably daring rescues and every other strained storyline that seems to have taken over the NBC Thursday powerhouse and “Chicago Hope.” And although there are some “NYPD Blue” holdover habits — enough already, Mr. Bochco, with moving cameras and butts — this approach is the right one.
Dr. Ben Turner (Underwood), whose sweet bedside manner is as striking as his great looks, is the macho chief of surgery at L.A.’s run-down Angels of Mercy. He’s overseeing a batch of residents, including Dr. Williams (Hill Harper), who plays any race card he can find, and Dr. Weiss (Phil Buckman), the token white novice routinely roused for his religion (Jewish) and his Great White Hope attitude.
When Turner is not dealing with their battles, he’s working with Dr. Lillian Price (Fox), the recently hired medical director who has come on board to supervise a major turnaround. The poorly supplied and undermanned facility has yet to be accredited, and she’s the public relations darling who’s been asked by board president Edwin O’Malley (Robert Morse) to succeed.
Just one thing: Price and Turner were an item several years ago, and now they have to put aside their torch (at least for now) in order to head the monumental effort. Under the guidance of CEO Ron Harris (“Hill Street Blues” vet Michael Warren), the experienced pair take on a mission to improve the surroundings without ignoring the battalion of destitute patients.
There’s nothing new about any of “Angels’ ” interweaving plots, and the various afflictions are standard fare. But as surefire proof that even the stalest themes can be reused if supported by solid performances, it steadily gets the most out of its familiarity. Everyone is a little too pretty, sure, but there are important societal themes racing through many of the scenes.
After Turner reprimands Weiss for renegade tactics, he then lays into Williams for a lack of team spirit and repressed discrimination. It’s a potent double-play, spotlighting Turner’s firm hand and political savvy while establishing him as a man of both action and principle.
Bochco, who wrote the pilot’s teleplay with Nicholas Wootton, focuses as much on the needs of a terrible hospital as he does on the demands of the suffering who have nowhere else to turn. And despite the reliance on civic issues, he doesn’t lace his methods with preachiness.
And that’s a nice thing. For it would be a shame to waste Underwood’s swagger and style on PC babble. It’s about time this guy got to shine, and here he takes full advantage.
As for the rest of the players, the ensemble, highlighted by Fox and Warren, is a fresh addition to a thinning genre, and, accompanied by Paris Barclay’s confident helming, the result is a sound hour of TV.