The people who bring us the most popular television drama in the medically insured world, ER, certainly haven’t grown complacent during the series’ fourth season. The live-broadcast fall opener was, to be sure, a bummer, but a bummer with its ticker in the right place: The producers were at least trying to be exciting. It is, however, the steady disintegration of the once saintly, often bland Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) — enticingly sullen and depressed after being stomped in the men’s room — that has provided the real emotional excitement in ER. And now to have him fall in love with Mariska Hargitay’s cheerful, cute, yet droolingly stupid new desk clerk, Cynthia — well, this is, as Jimmy Durante used to say, a revoltin’ development, one whose obvious potential for disaster I am enjoying immensely.

Similarly, over on Chicago Hope, its producers have also taken a high-minded but dreary character — in this case, Christine Lahti’s strident sourpuss chief of surgery Kathryn Austin — and shaken her up. In a subplot out of D.H. Lawrence, the uptight Austin is learning about the invigorating animal pleasures of making whoopee with the lower classes — in this case, a hunky Chicago Hope Hospital electrician (Jason Beghe).

Hearts on ER and Chicago Hope are as likely to be broken as transplanted; both of these medical dramas are soap operatic in their appeal and have cranked up the pressure level on familiar characters this season while shoehorning new ones into the already-crowded hospital corridors. So far, ER has not done particularly well by its new cast members, Alex Kingston and Maria Bello. What’s the point of hiring Kingston — so lusty a British actress she made the title role of the PBS Moll Flanders seem like a screen test for a female Full Monty — if all you’re going to do is have her trade dour insults with Eriq La Salle’s grumpy Dr. Benton? And no sooner had Bello brought her firm line readings and swishing blond ponytail to the emergency room than she was immediately paired off as Noah Wyle’s love interest (the writers seem to be trying for preppy Tracy-and-Hepburn badinage). Both of these women deserve subplots independent of their male costars.

By contrast, Hope really rolled out the bloody red carpet for Stacy Edwards, who plays its newest doc, the pixie-cutted Lisa Catera. Compared with the vicious misogyny Edwards endured in the explosive indie film In the Company of Men, the we’re-too-busy-to-say-hello reception she received as Dr. Catera was like a warm hug. Crisp and smart, Catera quickly inserted herself into a number of Hope subplots and can trash-talk with the best of these stethoscoped egomaniacs. (Here, by the way, is the essential difference between ER and Chicago Hope: In ER, every main character believes he or she is doing his or her best and that everyone in life deserves a chance; in Hope, every main character believes he or she is the greatest doctor on God’s green earth and that everyone’d better get outta his or her way.)

I stopped watching Chicago Hope early on last season; it had gotten too soapy, and I missed crazy boys Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol. Compelled by critical duty to catch up this season, I’ve gotten hooked again: While the musical stunt episode was a bummer of live-ER proportions, the brain aneurysm that inspired it (the one located in the head of Alan Arkin’s Dr. Shutt) has given Arkin a reinvigorated role in the series. Then, too, Vondie Curtis Hall’s Dr. Hancock recently pulled off a beguilingly subtle homosexual coming out that promises rich repercussions, even as Hector Elizondo’s Emmy-winning but excruciatingly dull Dr. Watters has been pushed to the fringes of the show. In short: Yea.

And ER? Hip hip hooray. The show is fortunate to have stars willing to portray modest characters, as George Clooney and Julianna Margulies do; the low-key yet passionate romance between his Ross and her Hathaway has been the series’ vital heartbeat. Meanwhile, all around them, so many others are going gratifyingly nuts, from the aforementioned Dr. Greene to Laura Innes’ Kerry Weaver (what’s she doing getting involved with Clancy Brown’s clearly venal HMO weasel?) to the fired-and-fed-up Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben, even more magnetic when she’s mad).

Two hours of medical hugger-mugger every week is really too much for any healthy TV dabbler, but I’m sure I’m not alone in self-diagnosing. As long as I maintain a level of health that will not require consulting with the real-life equivalents of any of these emotional train wrecks in lab coats, I should be able to watch all the doctor TV I want, don’t you think? ER: A- Chicago Hope: B+

Chicago Hope
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