We watch... so you don't have to.

Fall '99: "Third Watch"

Car chase! Hotheaded cop pursuing suspect on foot as levelheaded partner follows in car! Case thwarted by second cop! Drunk driver decimates denizens! Paramedics stanch a lot of blood! Kids in jeopardy! First-day paramedic seizes up on the job! Police apprehend oblivious drunk driver! Cut to grizzled cop with dead partner meeting new rookie replacement! See them eat donuts! See show cram one more cliché into the story arc before commercial break!

Ladies and gentlemen, the preceding paragraph is the textual equivalent of the first fifteen minutes of Third Watch. It owes much of its pace and feel to producer John Wells, one of the minds behind ER. Third Watch is a fast-moving, loud, nonstop barrage of our unsung public heroes stanching blood and chasing bad guys and acting out clichés every minute of the show.

Supercop races after a suspect another team missed! See him sling more attitude in ten minutes than Dennis Franz has managed in his entire career!

The show even goes so far as to trot out that medical drama classic -- the woman who eschews the comfort of the Cedars-Sinai birthing suite in favor of delivering her child, with as much fanfare and inconvenience as possible, in a cramped public space. Back in the old days before cable was invented and the admittedly shallow idea pool was still a few inches deep, a show resorted to that tired device in the third or fourth year, after it had played out all the other interesting plot perturbations. Third Watch resorts to it in the first half-hour. Such is the cliché burn rate on this show.

Get me a new eye-popping medical predicament, stat! Teenaged junkie being neglected by park police for liability reasons! You can't look away!

Although Third Watch is predictable mind candy, it's fun to watch. How can it not be? The jerky transitions between millisecond-long scenes and fragmentary dialogue loud enough to wake the newly dead (of whom there are many on this show) all contribute to the show's overall aura of mayhem. There's something strangely satisfying about watching other people wallow in hectic messes.

All main characters collide in a dramatic burning-building conceit! Babies are being flung out of windows! Supercop is risking smoke inhalation just because he can! The no-show fireman lead finally shows! His ex-wife is underwhelmed!

There's also something satisfying about watching two of the characters on the show. Carlos the first-day paramedic is a tightly wrapped puzzle who, though clearly unnerved by his first day, refuses to admit it's more than he can handle. How he comes to cope with his job should be interesting. The other rookie on the show -- Ty the cop -- is saddled with a nightmare job scenario: his mother, in a stroke of sadism aimed at all parties involved, has requested that her boy be assigned to work with the grizzled cop who once partnered with Ty's killed-in-the-line-of-duty father. How Ty will handle his father's partner -- a living legacy if there ever was -- and the process of becoming a seasoned cop in his own right should make for intriguing viewing.

Get down, he's got a gun! Oh no -- a principal character has been shot and we can't decide if we're paralyzed with grief or simply in shock!

The real risk to Third Watch -- aside from being on Sundays at 8 p.m. and therefore getting killed by The Simpsons or Touched by an Angel -- is that the individual bits, while compelling, hardly add up to an overarching theme or narrative. What's the point in showing nonstop chaos and capricious twists of fate if there's nothing to help the viewer put it all in some greater context?

Pull cheap cliffhanger to wean viewers off special ER slot! Reviewer mutters disgustedly that if she wanted gratuitous tragedy coverage without any larger message, she'd watch Dateline!

That's what will ultimately kill Third Watch. As television viewers, we can see slices of crisis on CNN at any given moment and guess about the context for days. We don't need to see more human pain; we need to see it interpreted so we can deal with it. ER used to be able to do this, which is why the first season was so powerful. Unless Third Watch can harness its random quality and find a larger narrative voice in its assorted parts, its senseless first season will be its last.


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