Metaphysical Therapy

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There's something of the troubled priest about Andre Braugher. Maybe it's because his most familiar character — "Homicide"'s Detective Frank Pembleton, who won him an Emmy in 1998 — was a fallen Catholic who interrogated his soul as fiercely as he grilled suspects. Maybe it's because he has also played a priest (in TNT's 1999 "Passing Glory"), and went to a Jesuit high school in Chicago.

Whatever the reason, his latest character, Dr. Ben Gideon of ABC's "Gideon's Crossing," fits the priestly mold: a researcher in experimental medicine at a prestigious teaching hospital, whose vocation is as spiritual as it is scientific. He does not believe in playing God, nor does he, like Alec Baldwin in "Malice," believe he is God. But Gideon believes he is the instrument of something greater than the sum of his MRIs and charts. "He is willing to put himself on the line personally," Braugher says. "He's not afraid to sit at the bedside, not embarrassed by death and illness. He knows that inside the ill person is the same person who was once healthy. He considers it a privilege to accompany his patients on their dangerous journeys."

In other hands, this guy could have been an insufferable saint. Thankfully, writer-creator Paul Attanasio (also writer-creator of "Homicide") not only made him wonderfully complicated — a roiling package of arrogance, humility, bristliness and tenderness — but also cast Braugher, a specialist in depthful, surprising characters. Fresh out of Juilliard, Braugher was introduced in the 1989 Civil War film "Glory" as a Harvard student turned soldier. The neophyte didn't even know what the phrase "hit your mark" meant; star Morgan Freeman gave him a "five-minute crash course in how to act." He has since done film, TV and stage turns in roles from "Henry V" to an ex-con/karaoke singer in the current "Duets."

"Usually tough guys have no humanity and warmth, and the guys with humanity and warmth are soft," says Attanasio. "Andre is unique in that he encompasses both." Braugher was so taken with Attanasio's script that he signed up even though it meant a weekly red-eye commute from Los Angeles to his wife and two sons in the New York City area, 14-hour days on the set and nights alone in a rented house. "To me, location is not vacation," he says.

"Gideon's Crossing" is based on the experience of Dr. Jerome Groopman, a professor of immunology at the Harvard Medical School and author of "The Measure of Our Days: A Spiritual Exploration of Illness," a chapter from which inspired the pilot. The African-American Gideon may seem far removed from the white, Jewish Groopman, but Attanasio says the scripts needed no changes once cast. Notes Braugher: "Gideon is a three-dimensional man, not because he is African American but because he is a man."

In the first episode Gideon takes on the "hopeless" case of a repulsive but fascinating cancer patient: a cynical, loveless venture capitalist (Bruce McGill) who fights his illness as if it were a tough business rival. The character probe is a welcome change from the breakneck, gunfire-in-the-waiting-room crisis mode of other hospital dramas, and its approach resonates in this HMO era of assembly-line medicine-by-the-numbers. The pilot (Oct. 10, 10 p.m. ET; regular time, starting Oct. 18, is Wednesdays, 10 p.m. ET) is unusual in another way: it clocks in at 58 minutes and will air without commercial breaks (sponsored by a health-care company banking on free mentions in articles like this).

The high-powered dramatic team, the sponsorship — "Gideon" has all the hallmarks of an Important Dramatic Television Event. It's a fine line between important and self-important, and the show sometimes crosses it. As on "The West Wing," folks on "Gideon" speak in a mannered tongue no human being not reading from a script has ever used: "Kidney cancer's like something out of the Iliad," a doc observes. "At first light it hauls yard, sails the bloodstream and conquers everywhere, all at once."

But as on "The West Wing," that doesn't quite matter, because of the ingenuity of the writing and intensity of the performances. The first scene — Braugher and McGill sparring across a desk for three minutes — is less a consultation than a mesmerizing interrogation, reminiscent of the psychoanalysis scene that began "The Sopranos." From there through the subtle, symphonic ending, "Gideon" is striking TV, anything but your typical soap opera in scrubs. "A doctor is always in control," Gideon tells his students. "Except when he's not." But Braugher, coolly mining the details from another conflicted soul, emphatically is.

—With reporting by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles