TELEVISION: Chicago Hope (BBC 1)

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The Independent Culture
In the surgical unit of Chicago Hope they take the word theatre a little too literally. Last week the brother of a man denied a heart transplant took a doctor hostage at gunpoint. He stole the gun from the colleague of a policeman riddled with perilously unexploded bullets. Next week the team will operate on a man with a steel rod sticking painlessly through his head, while another patient, refusing consent for surgery, will become convinced that Dr Shutt is the reincarnation of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She has to dress up and sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to win his confidence. I am not making this up. But someone is.

This week brought a comparatively restful week in the fevered imagination of the script team. A boy is wheeled in white with hypothermia after a skating accident. A man with Aids is injected with malaria. Dr Infante, the ball-breaker with the crash-helmet hairdo, makes a pass at Dr Geiger, who is performing an autopsy at the time ("You need to get out more," she says. "You're playing with corpses. Male corpses"). And the show made a guest appearance in Cybill.

If the social strata of American television were less rigidly observed, it would be just as appropriate for Cybill Shepherd to make a guest appearance in Chicago Hope.

You keep on waiting for the laughter of a live audience to confirm your suspicion that this is actually a comedy, and Cybill would surely do the trick. But the sheer narrative velocity keeps it from spilling over into permanent levity. When two doctors are bantering in a corridor for more than five seconds, you just know an orderly is going to bulldoze straight through them to race to some preposterously afflicted patient just coming through the door. And so the show oscillates: scripted by schizophrenics, and choreographed like a ballet to leave not the merest hint of empty time.

One tweak of the knob and it would all mutate into parody. But that would involve ditching all the meaningful plotlines about faint hearts. Dodgy ticker of the week belonged to Dr Geiger. Like the boy with hypothermia, his is in deep freeze. When Dr Infante makes her proposition, he needs time to thaw, and maybe a little more allegorical coaxing. Fortunately, the boy's ear has fallen off, and when Dr Infante gets to sew it back on, Dr Geiger watches the op and can suddenly hear where she's coming from. In the ensuing clinch scene, he swallows her diamond ear-ring. She immediately proposes an endoscopy, though scriptwise it's perhaps a little early for her to be shafting him. The human body is such a useful storytelling tool.

Meanwhile, over in Cybill, the star is in a hospital bed, playing Chicago Hope's vegetable du jour, who's in a coma after being hit by a recycling truck. This week Cybill learnt of the wedding between her closest professional rival and her best friend Maryann's ex-husband. They attend the nuptials bent on causing mayhem, but achieve only the mildest comic effects with food fights, stink bombs and water dunking. It was one of those scripts where you felt the whole show has been hit by a recycling truck.