It's been more than 50 years since the premieres of ABC's "Dr. Kildare" and "Ben Casey," two of the earliest successful hospital dramas on television. That is a very long time for any one genre, even with the advances in both medical science and TV storytelling over those 50 years, and the longer it's been around, the more that modern doctor shows have had to find new twists on the same old stories. "ER" was the hospital drama as action movie. "Grey's Anatomy" mixed "ER" with "Friends" and "Sex and the City," while "House" mashed up Sherlock Holmes, "CSI" and lupus.
So I can't exactly blame the creative team behind "Saving Hope" — a new Canadian-produced hospital drama that will begin airing on NBC tomorrow night at 9 — for deciding that their new way into this familiar territory was to add some metaphysics to their medicine.
In the opening scenes of the series, we see Charlie Harris (Michael Shanks), chief of surgery at Hope-Zion Hospital, racing to his wedding with surgical resident Alex Reid (Erica Durance), before a car accident puts him into a coma — and, at the same time, knocks his spirit out of his body, leading him to roam the hospital, musing on life, death and the in-between place he finds himself.
"There's no test for this," Charlie says in a typical voiceover. "I am having an out-of-body experience — in a tuxedo."
Trying to add "Ghost" to "Grey's Anatomy" could be an interesting solution to the problem of telling stories we've seen a million times before. But doing it this way ultimately does more harm than good, because it takes the most interesting actor in the cast and strands him in limbo, wandering aimlessly and telling us platitudes like, "I walked these walls a thousand times. I thought I knew them. We all end up here. We come in sick, or broken, and sometimes, we get better."
"Shanks" did more than 200 episodes of "Stargate: SG-1" and its various spin-offs, and has done notable guest stints on both "Burn Notice" and "Smallville" (where Durance previously worked as Lois Lane). He's shown he has both the charisma and sense of self-deprecation to work as a TV leading man, but in the two episodes of "Saving Hope" I've seen, he's not playing a character, but a gimmick. Life at Hope-Zion goes on without Charlie, even as Alex visits his bedside every chance he gets, and if you were to excise every single scene involving Charlie musing about what's happening around him, very little of the series would change.
And very little of the series, with or without him, is memorable. It's not bad so much as tired: sexual tension between doctors, mysterious ailments that are diagnosed at the last possible second, even the hoary old cliché about the patient who needs life-saving surgery that their religious beliefs forbid.
With Shanks off on the margins, Durance is the de facto series lead. She's pleasant, and no more or less believable as a doctor than half the docs on "Grey's," "House" or even "Scrubs," but Alex as a character isn't compelling. When I watched her on "Smallville," Durance made a good foil for Tom Welling, and in the handful of scenes she gets with Shanks (most of them in flashback), they have nice chemistry. But when it's Alex in a vacuum, dealing with patients or other doctors (including an ex played by Daniel Gillies from "The Vampire Diaries"), she leaves little impression.
I don't know if a version of the show without the stuff on the astral plane — or even one where the roles were reversed and it was Alex's spirit walking around in her wedding dress while Charlie handled all the patients — would be any more exciting than what's in the two episodes I've seen. But I expect I'd be more forgiving if "Saving Hope" were content to be the medical equivalent of ABC's "Rookie Blue": familiar ground trod in familiar ways, but with likable actors put in positions to best utilize their talents. A show where Charlie and Alex were working side-by-side wouldn't revolutionize the genre, but it might work better as a summer diversion.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org