Two new series appeal to contrasting TV cravings. The Human Factor is a doctor show that wants to soothe and reassure, to make us feel that the medical profession consists of the most dedicated bunch of guys and gals imaginable.
Mann & Machine is a futuristic cops-and-robbers show designed to thrill and unsettle, to make us marvel at technology and wonder whether mechanical creations might actually make better law enforcers than people.
”The Human Factor” is the title of a touchy-feely course taught to medical students both bright- and bleary-eyed by Dr. Alec McMurtry (John Mahoney) at an inner-city teaching hospital. The course is designed, McMurtry says in the debut episode, to teach these fledgling physicians ”about the emotional part of the doctor-patient relationship. Human doctors; human patients…it’s the most important part of your medical profession.”
Few actors could spout such lulling piffle without inviting jeers: Aw, doesn’t the Mercedes Factor play at least as big a role in a doctor’s motivation? This series is lucky, therefore, to have its doctor-teacher played by Mahoney, whose low, cottony growl and middle-aged stolidness have transformed him into a character actor of the first order in movies like Moonstruck, Suspect, The Russia House, Say Anything, and the current Article 99. Mahoney speaks with quiet authority and makes you want to believe everything he says. He is therefore an ideal TV hero: a firm, fatherly, almost priestly teacher whose lectures enthrall The Human Factor‘s young med students.
Whether those lectures will enthrall us is another matter. Each episode has more or less the same structure: The show begins in the hospital classroom, where McMurtry delivers a homily about good doctor-patient relations; then McMurtry’s young charges scurry off to get involved in the week’s subplots — the life of a young boy with heart-valve problems is endangered because his parents’ religious beliefs prohibit medical intervention; a rude, abrasive doctor played by guest star Wendie Malick (Dream On) is fired and sues the hospital for sex discrimination. At the end of the show, the class reconvenes for McMurtry’s final analysis and closing benediction, usually something on the order of ”Understanding and compassion are as important as drugs and scalpels.”
On the basis of the four episodes I have seen, The Human Factor is earnest and well acted not only by Mahoney but by a number of the unknown young performers playing the medical students, notably Loryn Locklin, who manages to make callowness seem like a winning character trait, and Matt Ryan, who makes youthful arrogance seem like the best way to tough it out in med school. But the stories frequently seem cribbed from old hospital shows ranging from Marcus Welby, M.D. to St. Elsewhere, and Mahoney’s character has an all- knowing assurance that often makes him seem too good to be true — or, at least, believable.
By contrast, the hero of Mann & Machine is a callous lout, a break-all-the- rules cop named Bobby Mann. He’s played by David Andrews, who, since wearing discreet pinstripes in last season’s short-lived lawyer show The Antagonists, has chopped his hair down to a brutal buzz-cut and donned black T-shirts, jeans, and boots. Andrews’ Mann lives in a future America where a program is being developed that pairs cops and robots to fight crime. It’s a new system, and our old-fashioned, hotshot cop doesn’t like it. When he discovers that his extremely human-looking partner is a cyborg, Andrews gets to utter the inevitable line ”Oh, man, you’re a machine!”
Mann’s new machine is Eve Edison (Yancy Butler), who can shoot a gun more accurately than any human and whose artificial skin lets her do things like jump through plate-glass windows without a scratch. She is also, predictably, one babe of a robot, more than a match for her hunky Mann. Butler conveys her mechanical status in the venerable tradition of all bad sci-fi movies: She keeps her eyes open very wide at all times and never uses contractions when she talks (”I am very hungry”).
Mann & Machine is basically nothing more than Hunter with an android, and it carries a creepy, sexist subtext. We are told that Eve has ”the emotional development” of ”a 7-year-old child.” In practice, this means that Eve comes off as a dumb beauty led around by a man. When Bobby says, ”I have to take a shower,” Eve, who was programmed to observe human behavior, says innocently, ”Oh, can I watch?” Viewers are supposed to chuckle and be turned on at the same time, but sneers and turn-offs might be the real result.
Both shows are overseen by co-executive producer Dick Wolf, who also heads up the best drama on television, NBC’s Law & Order. Wolf, whose previous credits include Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, has established a recognizable style: He likes to take action formats that lend themselves to hardboiled archetypes and fill them with soft-boiled, thoughtful characters.
Where a producer like Stephen J. Cannell (The A-Team, The Rockford Files) humanizes his heroes by turning them into breezy wisecrackers, Wolf attempts something riskier by making his protagonists vulnerable, realistically sensitive.
The fundamental trouble with Mann & Machine is that its robot is, by default, the sensitive one; the show’s flesh-and-blood hero is just your basic macho jerk. The Human Factor is more promising; its primary, easily remedied flaw is that its humane hero is a tad too saintly. Wolf has said that Factor is ”Marcus Welby with an edge.” So far, it lacks the edge. The Human Factor: B- Mann & Machine: C-