Last summer, ABC tried out a fairly aggressive programming strategy, one that featured a sizable number of scripted series. Unfortunately for the network, most of them failed to generate any heat whatsoever. Their one moderate success was the Canadian-produced cop drama "Rookie Blue," which pulled in enough of an audience in the U.S. to earn a second season on American television. (To be fair, it also became a top-ranked series for Canada's GlobalTV network; while not necessarily assuring the show's renewal, that probably didn't hurt its chances.)
This time around, ABC is taking far fewer risks in terms of new programming, sticking to what American broadcast television viewers are used to seeing during the warmer months: a fairly strict diet of newsmagazines and reality competitions. However, there is one new scripted drama that ABC did put on its summer schedule that might bear more than a little interest.
"Combat Hospital," which premieres June 21 at 9 p.m., is a better show than I had expected it to be. Sure, I'll admit that's faint praise, but at least there's something here worth lauding. The new series -- another import from Canada -- tells the story of the international team of doctors and nurses at the Zone 3 MMU located at the air base at Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2006.
The show splits the majority of its focus between a hot-shot Canadian-born trauma surgeon (played by Michelle Borth) and a still-wet-behind-the-ears American doctor (Terry Chen) in their first days on the ground in a war zone. They are immediately put to the task by the unit's soft-spoken commander (Elias Koteas), a surgeon who advises his just-arrived officers to wear their sidearms so that they "remember that they're in a war."
The show has a brisk pace that I appreciated; ABC's ads would have you think that this was a "Grey's Anatomy" clone, but to me, it played out like a solid-if-not-spectacular attempt to capture the essence of a show like "ER," which was as much an action series as it was a drama. "Combat Hospital" isn't nearly as successful at it, however; while the story doesn't necessarily dawdle, the storytelling itself isn't nearly as kinetic, either. Some scenes even feel oddly laid-back -- for example, there's an attack on the base by the Taliban, who are retaliating for the capture of one of their higher-ups, but as it plays out, there seems to be little actual jeopardy in it.
But I also think there's potential here for an interesting look at modern battlefield medicine. I did like several of the performances; Koteas, in particular, does some really fine work in his role as a doctor who must balance his duty to his people with the demands of the chain of military command. Overall, I think that while the opening episode of "Combat Hospital" wasn't a masterpiece, I'm sufficiently intrigued by the show to give it another couple of weeks at least to see if it can find its footing. Two and a half stars (out of four).
In the 8 p.m. hour on the night of the "Combat Hospital" premiere, ABC is also rolling out another stunt-filled competition series in the vein of their popular "Wipeout" program. This one is dramatically titled "101 Ways to Leave a Gameshow," and while there is some fun to be had here, I wonder if many of the contestants felt the same way.
The premise of "101 Ways" is rather simple: contestants are given multiple choice questions to answer, with the knowledge that one of the the answers is wrong. If the player picks that incorrect answer, he or she will be ejected from the game -- and most of the time, the ejection is quite literally that.
The episode I viewed featured a contestant being strapped to the top of a biplane and flown away, another dropped off the top of a moving semi-truck, still another flipping a speeding car off a ramp, and yet another being rocketed out of view. I suppose that part of the fun of the show is supposed to be watching the poor contestants being eliminated, but I was surprised at how much it wore me out.
I admit that I laughed at the cleverness of a couple of the eliminations, and host Jeff Sutphen was quick with the quips, but by the time the show reached the final round, I was pretty much worn out by the whole event. It's not the worst outsized game show ABC has offered in recent years ("Downfall," anyone?), but it could have been a lot better, too. Two stars.