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September 23, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

One of the few useful functions a television critic can perform is to help you make up your mind about what to watch, and in the case of the two new dueling hospital shows Chicago Hope (CBS, Sept. 22, 10-11 p.m.) and ER (NBC, Sept. 22, 10-11 p.m.), this would seem the least I can do. After all, they’re both doctor sagas with classy pedigrees — Chicago Hope is the latest project from executive producer David E. Kelley, of Picket Fences and L.A. Law fame; ER was created by best-selling author Michael Crichton. Both shows are set in Chicago, and at some point in each series, someone reads the same line — ”This is a teaching hospital!” — in the same way. In a bullheaded fluke of network scheduling, Hope and ER are going head-to-head in the same time slot. So which to choose?

Duh, I’m not sure. I’d love to slag one and champion the other, and right now, I’m giving Hope the edge. But in a fall season with little quality, these are both solid dramas. Boasting a nerve-jangling pilot written by Crichton (which aired last week), ER has already captured the tension and horseplay among a group of young emergency-room doctors. The big ensemble cast includes Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, and Sherry Stringfield, and in its portrayal of novice docs under pressure, ER may remind you of St. Elsewhere, but with less of the quirkiness that made Elsewhere both brilliant and annoying.

By this week’s second episode, ER is already indulging in cute comic-relief subplots — a nervous medical student (Noah Wyle) gets super-flustered when he has to examine a beautiful girl with poison ivy on her pert posterior. Ha-ha. But ER has a terrific anchor in Edwards, who strikes just the right balance between earnestness and cynicism. Those of you fond of Stringfield from her time spent as David Caruso’s ex-wife on NYPD Blue last season will be disappointed with her ER character so far; she has to deliver fatuous lines like ”I just want to make a difference” and ”If there’s one thing you learn in my job, it’s that nothing is certain-nothing” as if they were nuggets of wisdom. The writers should let her lighten up a little.

In its pilot episode, Chicago Hope looked smart but trite — Trapper John, M.D. with book-learnin’. Hope has a couple of hotshot heroes in Mandy Patinkin and Adam Arkin — surgeons who break the rules, you know — overseen by a grim head of surgery played by Hector Elizondo as if he had a permanent case of heartburn. There’s an old doctor, the voice of experience, played by TV veteran E.G. Marshall. And in the show’s debut, the main plotline was the sort of ripped-from-the-headlines story — the separation of infant Siamese twins — that was far too tearjerkingly manipulative to be truly moving.

But this week’s second episode offers a wonderful surprise. Written by Kelley, it turns the pilot inside out. Patinkin’s Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, who at first seemed standard-issue stalwart and wisecracking, proves to be an arrogant SOB. No, I mean really obnoxious; in this week’s edition, while in a dithering snit, he takes a bite of someone’s finger.

Geiger is so anxious to try out a new artificial-heart device he has invented that he bullies the distraught, grieving husband of a woman who has just died into letting him test his contraption on her corpse. On the other hand, Geiger proves very funny in my favorite way — misanthropically sarcastic — and his friendship with Arkin’s Dr. Aaron Shutt goes deeper than television’s usual guys-actin’-macho view of male bonding. This makes Geiger, played with beautiful restraint by Patinkin, one of the most interestingly ambivalent lead characters on television, and, as far as I’m concerned, Kelley’s writing in this episode is worth any number of Picket Fences.

Hope also features the season’s most enjoyable supporting player — Peter MacNicol as the hospital’s legal counsel, Alan Birch. A pit bull in a pinstripe suit, Birch, too, is funny in my favorite way, and he doesn’t even mind when one of the regulars snaps at him, ”Leave me alone, you little bug!” What more could you ask for in a lawyer? Chicago Hope: A- ER: B+

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