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Abandon All "Hope"

At one point in his life, Joe Charboneau was the next big thing.

This was back in 1980, when the world was a much simpler place and the Cleveland Indians were a much worse baseball team. In fact, save for a San Francisco Giant here or a Toronto Blue Jay there, the Indians were perhaps the worst team in baseball, playing in a cavernous stadium in front of lethargic fans with a bunch of guys named Manny and Len and Bert.

And of course, "Super" Joe Charboneau...

"Super" Joe was a hotshot rookie back in 1980 who set all of Cleveland on fire. He took a woeful Indians team and somehow made it seem a little less woeful. For a moment -- one brief, heady moment -- Indian fans dared to hope. After years of wandering in the desert, the promised land was in sight. And surely, "Super" Joe Charboneau -- the rookie of the year for 1980 -- would be there to lead the way.

Until the cold, unflinching bitch slap of reality set in.

"Super" Joe's second season was an atrocity. The man whose swing had once made the hearts of Clevelanders leap with joy now couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. Charboneau was sent down to the minor leagues, wondering how things had gone so horribly wrong -- the living personification of the dreaded sophomore slump. He would never return to the big leagues. The Cleveland Indians would remain baseball's doormats, as well as the subject of two piss-poor Charlie Sheen movies, for the next 13 years.

The Cleveland Indians are a baseball power now. But Joe Charboneau has dropped off the face of the earth, a fading memory on the back of a crumpled up baseball card like all the other used-to-be's, could-have-been's and never-were's.

Which brings me to "Chicago Hope."

The parallels between David Kelley's taut medical drama and baseball's greatest one-season wonder cannot be denied. Like "Super" Joe Charboneau, "Chicago Hope" burst on to the scene with a fantastic rookie season. Just as "Super" Joe plied his wares for a woeful baseball team, "Chicago Hope" served its time on a decrepit network. And of course, the words "Charboneau" and "Chicago" both start with the letter "C."

But most importantly, just as "Super" Joe followed up his smash rookie year with a horrific sophomore season and soon found himself with a one-way ticket to Triple-A Charlotte, "Chicago Hope" has been creatively adrift since midway through last season. A show that once belonged in the pantheon of great TV medical programs like "St. Elsewhere" has become so bad, so pedestrian, so painfully unwatchable that it's now just another "Island Son."1

There was a time where I would have argued that "Chicago Hope" was a much better program than "E.R." -- that other Chicago-based medical drama that America has clutched to its collective bosom. During its first season, "Chicago Hope's" cadre of fine actors lead by Emmy-winner Mandy Patinkin was top-to-bottom more accomplished than the "E.R." ensemble lead by preening pretty boy/future Batman George Clooney.

That time has long since passed. If I were to argue today, without the help of any stimulants produced by modern science, that "Chicago Hope" was a better show than "E.R," I would be chased through the streets by howling, pick-axe-wielding mobs calling for my quick and bloody death. And rightly so.

A better show than "E.R."? Based on the first few episodes of this season, "Chicago Hope" at this point is not even a better show than "Xena: Warrior Princess." Which is television at its finest, but that's neither here nor there.

It wasn't always thus, where I would rather watch some first run-syndication show featuring a buff chick in body armor than a taut medical drama. Back in "Chicago Hope's" first season, when peace and love flourished in the land, there were arguably few better things on television. The ensemble cast was first rate. The stories were involving, centering around melancholy ruminations about life and death instead of the overwrought visual gymnastics that pass for plot development on "E.R."

How far have things fallen? In this past week's episode, the cast was reduced to making veiled allusions to other putrid CBS television programs.

"I was up before the Early Edition hit my porch," the morose Adam Arkin mutters to an uncaring world.

"He must have been Touched by an Angel," exclaims one of the nameless, faceless doctors who pass through "Chicago Hope" like bran flakes through my colon.

How did it come to this -- a once-proud, Emmy-winning program reduced to plugging shows starring the likes of Fisher Stevens and Roma Downey like some gap-touthed carney huckster? And what can be done to stop "Chicago Hope's" descent into the depths of banality previously explored by "Sonny Spoon," "seaQuest" and the "Cosby Mysteries"?

First the causes:

Inexplicable cast departures. It's become a bit of a cliche to say that "Chicago Hope" began going downhill faster than Picabo Street when Mandy Patinkin scurried back to familiar waters of belting out show tunes. But then again, I love cliches.

"Chicago Hope" has sucked ever since Mandy Patinkin went off the air.

Patinkin was the show's emotional center, its finest actor in a cast of fine actors and by far the most interesting man in any scene he appeared in. Perhaps the show centered around him far too much, but that was only because Patinkin consistently delivered the emotionally-charged goods. And now that he's singing show tunes instead of sewing sutures, it's become painfully apparent just how uninvolving the rest of the cast of "Chicago Hope" can be.

But it wasn't just Patinkin's untimely departure that sucked the life out of the good ship "Chicago Hope." Peter MacNicol played hospital counsel Alan Birch and left at the same time Patinkin did in a particularly grisly fashion. Besides being a quirky and engaging character, Birch also allowed to step outside the operating room and into the thorny issues of medical ethics, of black and white with a touch of grey thrown in for good measure.

Take that away and what have you got? A bunch of crap, that's what. The very thing that made "Chicago Hope" unique was gone, and it became just another "E.R." -- not the current NBC megahit, either, but the lame-ass 1980s sitcom of the same name starring a post-"M*A*S*H*" Eliott Gould and a pre-"E.R." George Clooney.

And to add insult to injury, Peter Berg -- who plays the very amusing Billy Kronk -- has disappeared from the scene for the first few episodes this year, appearing sporadically so that he can devote more time to a film career that has already given "The Great White Hype" to a thankful populace. If Peter Berg is getting any sort of reasonable career advice, he will flee "Chicago Hope" before any lasting damage is done to his career and he winds up as a permanent celebrity guest on "Celebrity Super Password 2000" with the likes of Jamie Farr, J.J. Walker and Shelley Long.

There's not too much you can say about a TV show that loses its two best characters in one fell swoop and has a third one absent without leave. Except for maybe "What time did you say 'Xena: Warrior Princess' was on again?"

Cast members being fruitful and multiplying. Sometime last season, when yet another truckload of new actors was bused into "Chicago Hope," one of the characters tossed off this witty aside:

"Man," Billy Kronk remarked, in a line that was more sad than funny. "We're always getting new doctors around here."

Yes. Yes, you are.

Whenever "Chicago Hope" hits a creative pothole, the producers harken back to the same tried-and-untrue solution -- add more characters. This would not be half as disastrous, were the characters in any way, shape or form interesting instead of the bland carbon copies of one another that they inevitably wind up being.

Take, for example, the sad situation of Jamey Sheridan, who was on "Chicago Hope" for a full season playing a character whose name I couldn't recall on a bet. Sheridan wandered about the set for the better part of a year until he was unceremoniously written out of the show, to the outcry of no one. He is but one of half-a-dozen characters who should meet with a similar fate.

The problem with having so many uninteresting actors is that it eats into everyone's screen time. Adam Arkin has spent the last six months or so sleepwalking through his scenes. Thomas Gibson has been in maybe three scenes this year -- no one has noticed. And Vondie Curtis-Hall has seemingly inherited the human blank role perfected by Jamey Sheridan.

This year, the producers apparently realized the error of their ways and vowed to thin out their overgrown cast. They eighty-sixed the aforementioned blob Sheridan and the shrill Roxanne Hart. Of course, they then proceeded to add two new doctors (including Mark Harmon, who now comes full circle in his lackluster career after starring in "St. Elsewhere") and three new interns (a trio of interchangeably loveable screw-ups).

Let's break out the calculator, shall we? Two dozen characters minus two plus five equals... still too fucking many.

Nothin' But Lahti. When Mandy Patinkin got wise and lit out of "Chicago Hope," the show's producers decided they would no longer rely on one actor to carry the show. Instead, they vowed, "Chicago Hope" would go back to its ensemble roots, focusing on several actors instead of just one.

This new approach lasted all of a few episodes until Christine Lahti became lady of the manor.

There are some people, like the folks at "Entertainment Weekly" who proclaim that Christine Lahti is The Best Dramatic Actress on Television (At least, that's what I'm told they said. I no longer subscribe to "Entertainment Weekly" because they're prone to making insane proclamations like Christine Lahti is the Best Dramatic Actress on Television.)

Not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the lovely Ms. Lahti. In the span of two episodes, the producers of the show had Ms. Lahti's character arrested for child abduction, suspended from the hospital, stripped of visitation rights with her daughter, forced to do nothing as her terminally ill Christian Scientist father died and carjacked with her father's ashes in the trunk. Presumably, a plague of locusts will befall Ms. Lahti later this year.

Presented with this tall order, Ms. Lahti responded the way put-upon actors often do -- by overplaying her part with histrionics heretofore unseen outside of high school drama productions.

In the scene where her terminally ill Christian Scientist father played by the old guy from "Punky Brewster" bought the farm, Ms. Lahti lept up on his chest and began wailing like a monkey hopped-up on goofballs. The scene could not have been more ridiculous had Ms. Lahti begun pounding on the chest of the old guy from "Punky Brewster" and screaming, "I've known you to be many things, but I've never known you to be a quitter! Live, damn you, live!"

So what can be done about all this?

Not a damned thing, actually. "Chicago Hope's" producers have become lazy and self-satisfied, allowing the show to become as preachy and self-righteous as that other David Kelley production, the late, not-at-all lamented "Picket Fences." "Chicago Hope" has deteriorated to the point where a few cosmetic changes won't save the patient. Only major reconstructive surgery will do -- wholesale purges of the cast and crew and a complete rethinking of the show's focus, for starters -- and it's unlikely "Chicago Hope" would survive the procedure.

I have never tolerated shows lingering past their creative apogee. "Twin Peaks," "Moonlighting," and "Seinfeld" are all examples of shows that achieved terrific heights but stayed around for too long, like a boorish house guest refusing to leaving and eating all of your pretzels as part of the bargain. And of course, "Happy Days" was never the same after Pat Morita forsook his role of Arnold to star in the ill-fated "Mr. T and Tina."

The solution for "Chicago Hope" is the same as what it should have been for all of those shows and others that passed their prime -- take Ol' Yeller out behind the barn and put him down.

Perhaps this is a bit harsh, but then again, I'm not the numbskull who handed Christine Lahti the keys to the store. "Chicago Hope" burned brightly but burned out nevertheless, and there are few things more troubling than squandered potential and unfulfilled promise.

Just ask "Super" Joe Charboneau.

1 -- "Island Son" was a CBS program that premiered in 1989 and was canceled soon thereafter. The show stared Richard Chamberlain as a hotshot doctor who returns to his native Honolulu to dispense medicine and wisdom to a bunch of lovable Hawaiians. If you had even the slightest idea what I was referring to when I mentioned "Island Son" in the preceding article, please grab the nearest blunt object and whack yourself about the skull repeatedly until you manage to chase the Evil Spirits out of your head. (back to top)


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