TV Preview: On NBC's "Trauma," Thrills Come With Meaning

NBC's action drama looks at one of the world's most dangerous professions: first responder paramedics. The show stars Cliff Curtis, Jamey Sheridan and Derek Luke. Video by NBC
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009

Cynics might scoff that on "Trauma ," NBC's explosive new action series about a San Francisco medical-rescue team, the best acting is done by the helicopters. The whirlybirds get a very large amount of screen time in the hour-long drama that premieres Monday night. Considering the relative lowliness of the genre, however, the show looks to be encouragingly human and dramatically respectable just the same.

And then, of course, there are the crashes, bangs, explosions, flips and loop-de-loops, all of them kinetically exciting and expertly choreographed. The "Trauma" team, officially Medic 78, serving the Bay Area, responds to life-threatening crises wherever they occur, and in tonight's premiere, they occur nonstop.

An emergency tracheotomy performed without surgical instruments on a little boy who gushes blood as the chopper lifts off from a rooftop? All in a day's work for this matter-of-factly courageous group, and their exploits are written, shot and edited in such a way that you can almost feel them sweat. The show ratchets up the sense of peril that the often brave, sometimes foolhardy team members face; they definitely get their hair mussed, unlike characters on some similarly themed shows of the past.

The drama in their professional lives, and some of the drama in their personal lives, is treated with an unusual amount of intelligence, considering the show's basic goal is thrill, thrill, thrill. Which it does, does, does -- to a breathtaking degree, at least in the pilot.

Perhaps "at least in the pilot" should be inserted after every compliment paid the show, because this is a pilot of exceptional power and production gloss, and there's good reason to wonder if such care, attention and money will be expended on regular weekly episodes. Some of the stunts and calamities on the premiere are easily comparable to what you see in theatrical motion pictures these days.

In particular -- and fairly early in the show -- there's a collision of helicopters near the upper floors of a high-rise office building that is a genuine eye-popper and really does pump up one's pulse the way it's always claimed that such scenes do in films. There's no apparent stinting nor cutting of corners, and the result is first-class middlebrow excitement.

The cast seems unusually proficient, too. No one will mistake them for the Old Vic players, but the performances make sturdy and distinctive impressions, especially that of Cliff Curtis as Ruben "Rabbit" Palchuk, a hot-dogging chopper jockey who likes giving the impression that he could teach graduate-level courses on cool.

When he bigfoots his way into one ongoing rescue, he takes a quick look at the victim and brashly declares him "four minutes until brain-dead." When he takes charge, he does it in a way that sometimes belittles co-workers but, as he predicts, gets the job done.

Curtis was born in New Zealand, plays a man with an Eastern European last name and made a tremendous impression as a tough Hispanic in the Denzel Washington film "Training Day" (which -- in a crudely butchered version -- got marathon repeat showings on Bravo the other night). Curtis isn't visible for a very long time in that film, but he does make every second count. In "Trauma," he often owns the screen.

Aimee Garcia, as fellow helicopter pilot Maria Benez, registers strongly as well, her character modulated with moments of self-doubt and an anxiety acquired during service in Iraq. Her character is among those rife with possibilities for future episodes.

The same goes for Derek Luke as paramedic Cameron Boone, Taylor Kinney as EMT Glenn Morrison and Jamey Sheridan as Dr. Joseph Saviano. Some of us still remember what a great job Sheridan did as the star of "Shannon's Deal," the 1990 drama series created by John Sayles that was a tragic casualty of network short-sightedness in its day.

To a layman, the exploits and tactics of the rescue crew look harrowingly real and authentic. To the experienced, they may seem otherwise. NBC's own Web site includes a grumpy comment from a real-life EMT in the Bay Area who says the job as depicted on this show is much too eventful. "Most calls are helping grandma who fell down -- again," he writes. Fine -- let him produce a TV show about that.

For the real world, "Trauma" provides what might be called meaningful thrills, because skillful work gives us victims we can care about and, obviously, a rescue team worth rooting for. One can't help wanting to see them, and the show built around their exploits, succeed.

Trauma (one hour) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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