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Fall 2000: "Gideon's Crossing"

I've said it before and I'll say it again: I would pay cash money to see Andre Braugher read the telephone book. White pages, yellow pages, those blue pages up in the front with the details on how to reach government offices -- any of it. Even the part about how to disable call waiting.

Braugher, who made his name as Frank Pembleton on Homicide: Life on the Street, is back on series television this fall with Gideon's Crossing. Like Homicide, Gideon's Crossing is based on a non-fiction book. Like Homicide, it was created by screenwriter Paul Attanasio. And just as Homicide was a different sort of take on a very traditional TV series topic (the cop show), so is Gideon's Crossing a take on the age-old series concept, the hospital drama.

Yet despite those similarities, Gideon's Crossing ain't no Homicide. First, Homicide was a ensemble show, even though there were times when Braugher was clearly on the verge of becoming the show's lead by the sheer force of his screen presence. Gideon's Crossing is completely Braugher's vehicle. Sure, there's a large supporting ensemble of young doctors (plus Ruben Blades in the Hector Elizondo role as one of Dr. Gideon's colleagues), but they seem to be relegated to B stories as a change of pace from the main plot threads commanded by Braugher himself.

This is good news in that Gideon's Crossing is almost an Hour of Braugher -- keep in mind the phone book premise above. Can't get enough of him. Unfortunately, I'd almost rather Gideon's Crossing be a half hour of Andre Braugher than a full hour of Braugher interlaced with a B story with his supporting cast.

As Dr. Gideon, Braugher is as great as I had expected. Gideon's a complicated guy -- a bit of a prickly pear, but a man with a lot of heart. A man who is hard to get to know, but once you get though his barriers, he'll fight for you until his last breath. The concept of the series is that Gideon, who teaches medical students and runs an experimental medicine program at a hospital in Boston, is a man who has submerged himself in his work following the recent death of his wife. And while that sentence makes it sound very much like a paint-by-the-numbers TV series, it doesn't play quite that way. Gideon is not just the grieving doctor burying himself in his work that you've seen on ER, Chicago Hope... you name it. There's more there.

The show covers the weightiest of topics, from how we deal with terminal illness to the screwed up condition of the medical system in America today. And yet it manages to cover them without degenerating into movie-of-the-week-itis, which is no mean feat.

Now the bad news. The Gideon's Crossing supporting cast is, at least after three episodes, a mostly faceless, uninteresting collection of self-absorbed, self-centered, and unrealistic characters. We spend so little time with them that when it comes time to reveal a character trait, it's done in broad strokes. There's a grumpy, arrogant chief resident straight off the Eriq LaSalle production line (Russell Hornsby). The rest of the bunch, whom I honestly can't keep straight after three episodes, are mostly played as slackers and screw-ups. One would assume that over time, if given the chance, they'll all gain some depth. But first impressions are important, and Gideon's Crossing flunks that test: these supporting characters are uninteresting except when they're repellant.

Add to those qualities the fact that, in the pilot episode at least, I couldn't understand them half the time. In later episodes, the dialogue appears to have slowed down a touch -- but several of these actors are still hard to comprehend, even now.

Oh, the dialogue. The first two episodes had reams of it. It's so rare that we get a TV series as literate, as intelligent, as Gideon's Crossing. But I have to admit, after a while I felt like I needed a breather -- there was just so much talking, so much dialogue, that it began to make my head swim. (And yet, for the show's premiere, I didn't even get a commercial break: it was shown commercial free. By the end of that hour, I was full up on dialogue.) The series' third episode (written by another Homicide veteran) was much less talky, which lets me hold out some hope that Gideon's Crossing isn't going to be a weekly anaesthetic.

In the end, I'm pretty ambivalent about Gideon's Crossing, when I had hoped to be blown away. Saddled by an uninteresting supporting cast, I get the feeling that I'm watching an expensive show and a chintzy show that have been welded together. Braugher makes me want to keep watching, and yet each time I begin to watch, I am reminded why I feel underwhelmed. It just doesn't feel right. Something's not there.

Maybe if those young medical residents were replaced by copies of the Yellow Pages...


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