By Bruce Fretts
Updated November 26, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Overcrowding is a serious problem in our nation’s hospitals—at least if you believe what you see on ER. Between high-profile guest stars and full-time additions to the staff, the drama’s County General has become so jam-packed with new characters that some long-standing stars are being elbowed aside (no wonder Gloria Reuben just quit to become a backup singer on Tina Turner’s tour—she’ll have a better shot at nabbing the spotlight there).

Alan Alda’s return to TV as Gabe Lawrence, ER‘s recently hired attending doc, has loomed large over this season. A warmly welcome repeat of M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye Pierce, Dr. Lawrence is a charmingly smarmy Army veteran with an eye for the ladies (can’t you just hear a certain skirt-chasing Korean War surgeon reciting these lines: ”I can diagnose a million diseases, but I still can’t figure out women. I guess that’s what makes them irresistible”). It took ER‘s medical geniuses weeks to figure out that Lawrence was suffering from early Alzheimer’s, but even with such a protracted plotline, there’s no denying it’s good to see Alda back in scrubs again.

Rebecca De Mornay has been almost as prominent—she plays Elain Nichols, a ridiculously glamorous socialite who came into the ER after an auto accident and engaged in an affair with her ex-husband’s cousin, Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle). Subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer, Elain had a mastectomy and tried to break off contact with her younger lover. This story’s straight out of a black-and-white melodrama, with De Mornay breathily uttering such clichés as ”I don’t need your pity” and ”I don’t want your sympathy.” Besides, didn’t Carter do the older-woman thing a few years ago with guest Glenne Headley?

With these short-timers hogging the focus, there’s been little opportunity to meet ER‘s permanent newcomers. Dr. Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic, a kind of Croatian George Clooney) is a brooding, darkly handsome moonlighter who’ll go to any lengths to protect innocent victims—kinda like good ol’ Doug Ross, no? As Dr. Cleo Finch, Ross’ pediatric replacement, Michael Michele emanates an infectious empathy and seems even more convincing as a doctor than as the detective she played on Homicide: Life on the Street last season. Yet almost all we really know about her so far is that she jogs to work.

The only benefit of ER‘s cramped conditions is that Kellie Martin’s eager beaver, Lucy Knight, has also received minimal screen time. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with a more bothersome med student, the self-proclaimed ”Dr. Dave” (Erik Palladino), an obnoxious jerk who referred to one comatose patient as a ”veggie burger.” This gonzo hotshot proudly rides his bike without a helmet—is it too much to ask for a career-ending crack-up?

The mismanagement of ER‘s overstuffed staff stands in marked contrast to the well-handled crowd on another John Wells-produced lifesaving series, Third Watch. The frosh drama about New York City paramedics, cops, and firefighters who work the 3-11 p.m. shift features nine regulars plus several recurring characters, but each has emerged as a vivid individual in only a handful of episodes.

The superb ensemble includes the beefily endearing Skipp Sudduth as a seen-it-all uniform cop who’s teamed with his slain ex-partner’s greenhorn son (Coby Bell); Kim Raver as a paramedic torn between her roguish firefighter ex-husband (Sunset Beach‘s Eddie Cibrian) and her torch-carrying coworker (Bobby Cannavale); and ER vet Michael Beach, for once not playing a heel, as a voice-of-wisdom ambulance jockey paired with a cocky neophyte (Anthony Ruivivar). Equally impressive are Molly Price—the rare actress playing a police officer who looks like she could actually manhandle a suspect—and her gung-ho partner Jason Wiles, who makes arrogance appealing in ways ER‘s ”Dr. Dave” can only dream of.

Since it takes place in the streets instead of in a sterile operating room, Third Watch feels even more adrenaline-charged than ER (the Crystal Method’s pulse-pounding theme, ”Keep Hope Alive,” propels the action). Still, after a hot ratings start, Third Watch has cooled off in its too-early Sunday slot opposite CBS’ Touched by an Angel. It’d be a shame if some of the promotional muscle that turned ER into a smash wasn’t used to resuscitate this worthy rookie. ER: B- Third Watch: B+