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TNT's Monday Mornings resuscitates the hospital series genre

The diverse and daring docs of Chelsea General Hospital. TNT photo

Premiering: Monday, Feb. 4th at 9 p.m. (central) on TNT
Starring: Alfred Molina, Ving Rhames, Jennifer Finnegan, Jamie Bamber, Bill Irwin, Sarayu Rao, Keong Sim, Emily Swallow
Produced by: David E. Kelley, Sanjay Gupta, Bill D'Elia

It's been a good while since a new medical drama had the right RX to stay around and make a name for itself.

House is history, Grey's Anatomy still lingers and its spinoff, Private Practice, left ABC on Jan. 22nd with hardly anyone taking any notice at all.

In recent seasons, the list of deceased, short-lived doctor hours includes CBS' Miami Medical, Three Rivers and A Gifted Man; NBC's Mercy, Trauma and Saving Hope; ABC's Off the Map and Combat Hospital; Fox's Mental and The Mob Doctor and TNT's Hawthorne, the only one to survive beyond a single season. Not that it ever left much of an impression.

NBC throws another one into the mix on Thursday, Jan. 31st with Do No Harm. But mostly unfavorable reviews and a cockamamie premise likely will lead to ratings ICU and then DOA before spring.

All of this is prelude to TNT's Monday Mornings, which looks like a long overdue shot in the arm. It also shows that veteran creator/producer David E. Kelly (Chicago Hope, Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, Boston Legal, Harry's Law, etc.) still knows how to punch up a script and make his characters resonate.

Paired with Dallas on Monday nights (starting Feb. 4th), Monday Mornings is drawn from the same-named bestselling novel by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, best known as the sawbones in residence at one of TNT's corporate sisters, CNN. The less than dynamic title refers to the weekly in-house "morbidity and mortality" conference at Portland, Oregon's fictional Chelsea General Hospital. It basically gives Kelley an ad hoc courtroom to spice his first doctor drama since Chicago Hope's 1997 to 2002 run on CBS.

Doctors unfortunate enough to make a major medical or ethical mistake are cross-examined by hard-core chief of surgery Harding Hooten (Alfred Molina), who of course has a few soft spots, too. In Episode 1 his ridiculously jet-black dyed hair and eyebrows almost serve as a co-star. But by Episode 2, he has a softer, dark brown look en route to . . . well, you'll see.

Chelsea General is taxed with the usual challenging and sometimes bizarre cases associated with most contemporary medical series. But Kelley succeeds on several levels beyond this. His doctors are vividly drawn without being outlandish. And their patients can be equally as compelling.

Episode 2 in particular is buoyed by a 13-year-old prodigy named Trisha Miller (terrific work by guest star Cozi Zuehlsdorff). She's tired of brain surgeries and emphatic about not enduring yet another one. Various docs strive to talk her down in one of the most compelling and affecting dramatic hours of the season -- no matter what the genre.

Monday Mornings' multi-ethnic cast includes Dr. Sung Park (Keong Sim), a brusque brain surgeon whose English is limited and broken. "Not do, dead." he tells Trisha. "Need surgery."

The politically correct police may want to throw a flag here. But Dr. Park is never ever a buffoon. One can be amused by his terse ways while also being impressed by his overall brilliance. And if Monday Mornings really catches on, there may someday be a market for "Not do, dead" t shirts and mugs.

Ving Rhames also is aboard as trauma chief Jorge Villaneuva, whose demeanor can be steely. Rhames gets to the point quickly, whether it's no-minced words or expressions caught in close-up.

Dr. Tyler Wilson (Jamie Bamber) is the resident hunky, highly promising surgeon while Dr. Tina Ridgeway (Jennifer Finnigan) is both his ally and potential bedmate some day. For now she's married to a briefly seen guy who's pretty much had it with her long hours.

Another well-drawn character, Dr. Sydney Napur (Sarayu Rao), is work-obsessed and relationship-challenged. Guest star Jonathan Silverman, as Dr. John Lieberman, hopes to make a few inroads into her personal life.

Chelsea General's other principle denizens are the heavily disliked Dr. Buck Tierney (Bill Irwin) and resident Michelle Robidaux (Emily Swallow), who has both talent and a backbone. During the three episodes made available for review, each of the main doctors is fleshed out in ways that make them more viewer-friendly without overly varnishing their rough spots. Wanting to learn more about a TV character is the key to any series' long-term success. And Monday Mornings accomplishes this on multiple levels.

Creator/producer Kelley's last series, NBC's Harry's Law, was axed despite being the Peacock's highest-rated scripted series. But it committed the cardinal sin -- at least in the eyes of network bean-counters -- of skewing too old and attracting way too few advertiser-coveted 18-to-49-year-olds.

Monday Mornings, a more accomplished series than Harry's Law, has a solid chance to be a long-distance runner on TNT. The network is slower on the cancellation draw and still has significantly lower audience expectations. Viewer demographics are important but not as crucial to cable networks profiting from dual revenue streams of subscriber fees and advertiser payouts.

Kelley also seems to have curbed his penchant for absurdities, at least in the early going. Monday Mornings sometimes relies too insistently on clockwork-like mood music, although the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is welcome anytime -- and closes out Monday's Episode 1. But the characters here also are better-grounded and more believable. Even bombastic Dr. Buck, the hospital's head organ harvester, reacts in a very relatable way after being called a "predator" at one of Dr. Hooten's gut-grinding weekly proving grounds.

Cops, lawyers and doctors remain the three main flag-bearers of TV drama, but MDs have been short-sheeted in recent seasons. Monday Mornings looks as though it could remedy that. It's the most promising medical series since House arrived on Fox for an eight-season run that ended last spring. The genre badly needs a transfusion. And at last, here's a strong one.

GRADE: A-minus