TELEVISION: Network Scramble

As the Big Three frantically strategize their new schedules for the fall, they've neglected one thing: good shows

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In TV, of course, the old traditions are sometimes worth preserving. The two most provocative new shows of the fall revive a venerable genre that has been under-represented of late: the medical drama. CBS's Chicago Hope, created by David E. Kelley (Picket Fences), has name stars -- Mandy Patinkin, Adam Arkin, E.G. Marshall -- and provides familiar TV pleasures. It's a self-important but frequently entertaining mix of Ben Casey melodrama (should an operation be performed to separate two Siamese twins, even though both may die?) and St. Elsewhere-style modernism (the surgeons sing Midnight Train to Georgia around the operating table). Kelley tries to bring the format into the '90s: one early plot line involves a woman whose hmo won't allow her brain-tumor operation to be performed by the more experienced surgeons at Chicago Hope. Yet these doctors are self-righteous heroes of the old TV school. Hospital executive, arguing against performing the dangerous Siamese-twin operation: "Our job is to look at the overall picture." Surgeon: "I held those babies in my arms!"

Chicago Hope loses even more credibility when compared with NBC's ER -- which, in an inexplicable scheduling ploy, will air opposite Chicago Hope on Thursdays. ER was written and co-produced by Michael Crichton, the one-time medical student and author of Jurassic Park and other best sellers, and it's . clear no one told Crichton rules of television drama. Like don't cram too many story lines into one episode, especially if you're planning to leave some of them hanging. And don't introduce more characters than viewers can comfortably get to know in one sitting. And don't show medical tragedies unless you balance them with displays of hope and spiritual courage.

ER breaks all these taboos and more. The absorbing two-hour premiere takes place in one 24-hour period in a big-city emergency room (Chicago again), and it's probably the most realistic fictional treatment of the medical profession TV has ever presented. The pace is furious, the narrative jagged and unsettling. Cases are wheeled in and out -- a severed hand, a gunshot wound, a child who has swallowed a key -- and while some are followed to a conclusion of sorts, others disappear without a trace. Yet the episode, directed by Rod Holcomb, is not just a cinema-verite jumble. The characters are fleshed out in a few deft strokes -- one doctor (Anthony Edwards) is being wooed by a cushy private practice -- without hype or sentimentality. These are doctors of stoic demeanor and blunt bedside manner, yet they're more honestly compassionate than the breast beaters of Chicago Hope. The real tragedy of the emergency room, they realize, is that they don't have the luxury of lingering over tragedy. The triumph of ER is that it gives hope that even in the age of time- slot programming, a good show can still get noticed.

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