Drama predicated on the U.S.’ post-Sept. 11 wars in the Middle East — including FX’s laudable (if perhaps too soon) “Over There” and HBO’s “Generation Kill” — have hardly been commercial blockbusters. So it’s scarcely a surprise to read the fine print and see “Combat Hospital,” set in Afghanistan five years ago, is a Canadian-British co-production ABC doubtless acquired on the cheap as summer filler. The promos notwithstanding, it’s a low-key, well-acted pilot, where characters tend to speak wearily in hushed, sleepy whispers. While the result is hardly a failure, the prognosis doesn’t look particularly good.
Part of the problem, practically speaking, is the series suffers from a been-there, done-that feel, even if something like “MASH” was several misguided wars ago. War (or “police actions”) remains hell, and doctors still nobly rally — no matter how exhausted they are — when the sound of choppers grows louder.
Two new arrivals to Kandahar Airfield provide the wide-eyed window into “Combat Hospital,” where the medical staff is overseen by the unflappable commander, Col. Xavier Marks (Elias Koteas). Rebecca Gordon (Michelle Borth of HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me”) is a trauma surgeon, while the inexperienced Bobby Trang (Terry Chen) is thrust into the ER.
The wounds are gruesome, the pace frenetic, the rest of the senior personnel either lascivious (Luke Mably) or blase (Deborah Kara Unger), in a site conveniently staffed by NATO forces — the better to secure international tax credits, presumably. Meanwhile, Rebecca wrestles with personal issues, which threaten to complicate, or perhaps even truncate, her stay.
Overseen by producer Daniel Petrie Jr., the show wastes little time in throwing the newbies into the fire — being told to mop the bloody floors and dealing with local soldiers and CIA regarding an “EHVI” (Enemy High Value Individual, of course, or Taliban).
Shot in Toronto, the series credibly recreates the dusky sense of its locale, and there’s some gallows humor woven into the serious doings, including one particularly jarring uninvited guest to the operating room.
Still, for a show chronicling this modern conflict, “Combat Hospital” seems painfully old-fashioned, as the script by Petrie, who shares story credit with creators Jinder Oujla-Chalmers and Douglas Steinberg, recycles any number of hospital-show cliches in the pilot alone.
Borth is the most appealing character, and while she’s a relatable conduit into the proceedings — which have been heavily promoted during the NBA Playoffs — that’s not much incentive to return.
“Nothing prepared me for this place,” she concedes to the commander.
Perhaps not, but viewing a fair amount of television certainly would.