Ten o'clock and all's not precisely well at St. Elsewhere:
A woman, the victim of a terrorist bombing in a bank, arrives in the emergency room gushing blood. A hulking and demented patient has managed to disappear, and when he's searched for in the mental ward a doctor says, "He'd have to be crazy to come up here." A top liver cancer specialist on the staff has contracted liver cancer. Blue scrub uniforms can't be ordered in adequate number from local suppliers because they've become a "hot" fashion item. The predatory Dr. Fiscus has corralled the pretty and vacant young pathologist on a slab in the basement morgue.
And a handsome young surgeon is doling out tetracycline to girlfriends because he's just learned he has gonorrhea. One young lady says, "Thanks for the memories." Another tells him to relax; he'd only taken her to the movies, and he fell asleep halfway through the feature anyway.
In point of fact, virtually all is well with "St. Elsewhere," the frenetic, inspired, revolutionary new medical drama series from MTM Enterprises and NBC, premiering at 10 tonight on Channel 4. It is brilliant, startling, intense and moving (yes, to make the obvious comparison, like MTM's "Hill Street Blues"), and the only misgiving one might have is, will it take everything but fistfights in the streets to get people to watch it? "Hill Street" succeeded only after TV critics frothed hysterically for months on end and the show swept the Emmy Awards. Some of us may not be certain we have it in us for another world war on behalf of a great television show.
But "St. Elsewhere" is worth it if any show is. It's a "M*A*S*H" for the '80s, only better, more serious, and less anxious to advertise its sensitivity.
"Elsewhere" offers an hour of involving human drama and entrancing human comedy, all of it emphatically of its time, yet keyed to themes that are universal and primal: striving, surviving, and intensive caring. The premiere's script, by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, and direction, by Thomas Carter, are superior pieces of work. However, television is a personality medium and the most memorable excellence in this program is that provided by David Morse, a spellbinding young actor who plays Dr. Morrison, an eager and vulnerable first-year resident at St. Eligius, the Boston hospital dubbed "St. Elsewhere" by the community because it is old and funky and not up-to-date like Boston General across town.
In tonight's program -- really the first of a four-part sequence (a la "Hill Street") -- Morse hits one inside-the-park home run after another. The actor, previously seen in the Richard Donner film "Inside Moves," appears to have tremendous inner resources and astonishing control of them. At times he brings to mind the early Michael Moriarty -- though without the twitches and mannerisms -- and his face is refreshingly unpretty and real, the forehead much too high, the features squished together at the bottom of his head. Whatever this guy's got, he deploys it to sensational effect.
One problem with "Elsewhere" is that so much attention has been paid to background, it begins to appear there is no foreground--that the show is all atmosphere and detail. But the plot line involving Morse is what saves the show from that. A 15-year-old girl has checked into the hospital with a malady that turns out to be amoebic dysentery. Morse, as Dr. Morrison, immediately takes a shine to her, visits her even when exhausted from other duties (there is the hint of sexual attraction here, but nothing that ought to shock anybody), even rescues her from what would have been unnecessary and possibly dangerous surgery planned by a medical dilettante.
And then he is rewarded for his trouble. The girl's mother shows up from Maryland, thanks Dr. Morrison, and has the girl removed to Boston General, on advice from the family doctor back home.
Morse is easily the standout, but the acting ensemble is indisputably impressive, including Ed Flanders, out of Harry Truman drag at last, as Dr. Westphall, the head of the hospital (he must pass along to doctors such information as "don't write on the bedsheets," because the laundry has been complaining); William Daniels in the overdrawn, over-arch role of Dr. Mark Craig, a publicity hound and borderline racist who seems too clearly modeled after goofy Howard Hunter on "Hill Street"; Cynthia Sikes as Dr. Annie Cavanero, whose patient the missing hulk is and who makes her anxiety and exasperation terribly affecting; and David Birney, using his innocuousness to an advantage for a change in the role of the doctor with VD.
The first episode covers roughly 24 hours in the hospital's stormy life, with digital time checks flashed on the screen every now and then to indicate the passage of hours (this deft touch may slightly confuse viewers whose own TV sets flash digital time checks on the screen at the touch of a button), and the occurrences range, as they no doubt would, from the absurd to the catastrophic.
Like the "M*A*S*H" troupe and the "Hill Street" regulars, the men and women of "Elsewhere" are virtually under siege from an outside world of infinite threats and horrors (in the premiere, every single scene takes place inside the hospital; there are no exteriors, except in the opening and closing credits). People try to hang on to their dignity and their sanity, and so "Elsewhere" can serve as microcosmic and symbolic a function as a viewer wants. Undoubtedly, shows like "Elsewhere" and "Hill Street" get some of their credibility from the fact that the people who make them, people who want to make popular television and still have pride in their work, themselves feel allied together against a hostile and capricious system. If it derives from show-biz metaphor, however, the drama on "Elsewhere" still comes across as eminently applicable and heartfelt.
"St. Elsewhere" reunites members of a team that previously produced the outstanding CBS series "The White Shadow": executive producer Bruce Paltrow, co-creators and producers Brand and Falsey, and producers John Masius and Mark Tinker (son of Grant). The Emmys may come, the raves may come, and by some great fluke or miracle, the Nielsens may even come, but good is good, great is great, and "St. Elsewhere" is heroically good television.