NBC's New York-set cop-and-firefighter series does a better job than ''West Wing,'' says Bruce Fretts
Jason Wiles, Molly Price, ...
Credit: Third Watch: David Rose

”Third Watch” makes strong drama from Sept. 11

As undeniably affecting as it was, the Oct. 15 season opener of NBC’s ”Third Watch” wasn’t really an episode of ”Third Watch” at all. It was more like a Very Special Episode of ”Dateline NBC” with Eddie Cibrian and Kim Raver standing in for Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley. With one exception, the ”TW” cast introduced interview segments with actual New York City police officers, firefighters, and paramedics about their experiences on Sept. 11. That one exception was actress Molly Price (who plays NYPD officer Faith Yokas), who recounted her real-life firefighter husband’s escape from the World Trade Center.

Despite NBC’s incessant promos, which made it seem like our national duty to watch, the episode made little impact in the ratings (for the many who missed it, it’ll reair on A&E Oct. 26 at 9 p.m.). But that was only the first of three ”TW” installments dealing with the terrorist attacks. The second, ”September 10,” aired on Oct. 22 and — in its own low-key way — packed an emotional wallop.

As its title indicates, the episode was set on the eve of the tragedy, and a sense of impending doom hung over every scene. In one sense, the storylines were routine: Faith and her boorish hubby, Fred (Chris Bauer), awaited the results of her breast cancer biopsy; her partner Bosco (Jason Wiles) hooked up with a SoHo barfly; Davis (Coby Bell) accompanied NYPD partner Sully (Skipp Sudduth) to his Atlantic City wedding to a Ukranian immigrant; and everybody bemoaned the Giants’ loss to Denver on ”Monday Night Football” (”I just wish my remote could shut Dennis Miller up,” Bosco cracked, in the process taking a shot at one of the NBC drama’s time-slot rivals).

Yet it was the storylines’ very routineness that made them so poignant. The next day, we knew that all of the characters — like all Americans — would be savagely ripped from their routines. Innocuous exchanges, like a firehouse argument over who left dirty dishes in the sink, inspired an ironic nostalgia for the bygone days when New Yorkers could care about such petty issues. ”Man, I’m bored. I like it busy,” EMT Carlos (Anthony Ruivivar) griped to ambulance-mate Doc (Michael Beach), who sardonically responded, ”I’ll see if I can order up a tragedy so the shift can go by faster for you.”

I haven’t seen the next ”TW,” which takes place in the attacks’ aftermath on Sept. 21 and Oct. 1, but I have read the script. Despite a few moments of mawkishness, it looks to be another subtly potent hour from cocreator John Wells (whose ”West Wing” also tackled the topic of terrorism). Particularly striking is Yokas’ speech about the Twin Towers: ”I’m more of a Chrysler Building kind of girl. But now that they’re gone, I miss them. Weird, huh? Missing a couple of buildings I never liked.” If only Wells would send ”Wing” man Aaron Sorkin a copy of the script. Sorkin could learn from its understatement.

What do you think of ”Third Watch”?

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