By Ken Tucker
Updated January 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

As annoying as some of the bratty whelps on Dawson’s Creek, Felicity, and Party of Five can be — to say nothing of the obnoxiousness of everything except the pizza on Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place — at least those young people have energy and a basic will to live. Not so the wistful just-post-baby boomers who excrete oily snail’s trails of sentimentality and despair on sloooow shows such as CBS’ To Have &amp to Hold, Maggie Winters, and NBC’s now shelved Trinity, and a new wrist slitter disguised as an upbeat series, Providence. This is the sort of show that, when its star, a doctor named Sydney Hansen (Melina Kanakaredes), says in the premiere’s opening voice-over, ”Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again,” you just know that girl is headed straight home again. In this case, Syd is leaving Southern California, where she had a highly successful plastic surgery practice to the stars (Syd ”bobbed Tori Spelling’s beak,” says one admiring patient), and is hightailing it back to her family’s nest in Providence. Why? Because she caught her boyfriend in the shower with a man — a pruney wrinkle on the other-woman cliché.

I must say, it doesn’t take much to knock the wind out of Syd’s sails. Instead of merely ejecting the creep and getting on with her booming career, the verging-on-homophobically horrified Syd slinks back to her veterinarian dad (played by M*A*S*H‘s Mike Farrell), her single-mom sister, Joanie (Paula Cale), and her sleazeball brother, Robbie (Profiler‘ s Seth Peterson). Before you can blink, Syd is the new doc in residence at a makeshift hospital in an old church, the St. Clare’s Family Clinic, where she gets her pride back delivering babies and mending broken limbs. (The notion that plastic surgery is the devil’s work comes up in all three of the series’ first episodes; what do the L.A.-based producers of Providence have against the carving knives of the rich and famous?)

By the start of the second episode, Syd’s opening voice-over has found a new cliché — ”F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life.” Syd’s new life as a selfless healer is supposed to contradict Fitzgerald, but if so, this is one mighty long, overwritten second act. Like Faith Ford in the go-home-again Maggie Winters, when Syd embarked on her fast-lane L.A. life she left behind a handsome suitor who settled for smaller-town life, in this case, Central Park West‘s Tom Verica as a humble, grinning chauffeur. If ever there was a guy who had loser written across his driver’s cap, it’s Verica’s Kyle, yet Syd and the cameras take him in as if he were a Roman god. Just as Maggie Winters flirts with and moons over Tom, her hometown easygoing dolt, so does Syd giggle and squirm when Kyle asks her to split a sandwich with him, straight from his gen-u-ine brown lunch sack.

Honestly, you’d think these people lived in Podunk. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Providence a fairly worldly metropolis? Populating it with aw-shucks guys like Kyle and a puppy-tickling vet who makes house calls — Farrell’s unfortunate fate in this show’s life — bespeaks a certain amount of TV-industry condescension. Creator-producer John Masius has worked on both St. Elsewhere and Touched by an Angel, but rather than bringing St. Elsewhere‘s imagination and tension to Providence‘s hospital scenes, he opts for Angel‘s goopy spiritualism.

For I haven’t told you the most unbearable part of the show: In the pilot, Syd’s mother, played by Concetta Tomei, dies, and ever thereafter, she reappears as a solid looking, chain-smoking ghost, visible only to Syd, in reveries that are supposed to be heartbreaking and black-comic but instead come off merely drippy.

You can understand why Masius built the show around Kanakaredes: She’s a composite of current hit-show characteristics. She’s got undulating mountains of dark curly hair that give Keri Russell’s Felicity a run for her follicles. And with her large eyes and knowing smile, she also radiates a beatific calm similar to that of Roma Downey on Masius’ Touched. But the writers have failed to surround saintly Syd with much support; both her brother and sister are odiously self-absorbed, and Dad’s just the opposite, all touchy-feely (Farrell strokes a bulldog in the third episode as if it were his long-lost lover — hey, that would send Syd pingponging back to L.A. and her bi boyfriend, wouldn’t it?).

The message I’m receiving from shows like Providence is that, as they move into their 40s, the once-rebellious late boomers are weary of the sociocultural changes they set in motion; they want things to slow down. (On Providence, this is dramatized literally — every time there’s an emergency or an emotional moment, it’s shot in slow motion. The idea is to soak the scene in poignance; instead it drowns it in bathos.) At the same time, we’re supposed to admire a character like Syd for her hardheaded realism, the way she takes command of the clinic’s wayward staff and makes the tough decisions. The drama, like too many members of its target generation, wants it both ways. It ends up just being chicken soup for the soulless. C-