Part ”7th Heaven,” part ”Gilmore Girls,” part ”Northern Exposure,” and ultimately as all-American as all get-out, Everwood is a new example of a way to create so-called family programming that’s not excessively sappy or smotheringly moralistic. Treat Williams (”Prince of the City”) stars as Dr. Andrew Brown, a renowned Manhattan brain surgeon who, after his wife dies in an auto accident, uproots his 15-year-old son Ephram (”The Patriot”’s Gregory Smith) and 9-year-old daughter Delia (”A Beautiful Mind”’s Vivien Cardone), moving them to the tiny town of Everwood, Colo. In his mourning, he’s come to realize he must simplify his life and pay more attention to his kids. Oh, and also grow a beard — a prickly chin-porcupine that’s the object of much believable derision from Ephram. In sleepy, snowy Everwood, Brown sets himself up as a general practitioner who works for free. (In a touch that’s both refreshingly realistic and swoon-inducingly whimsical, Brown is so wealthy from his big-city sawboning, he can afford to dispense with fees.)
Who among us would not want a friendly, fuzzy-bear doctor who doesn’t send bills? Well, Everwood’s other general practitioner, for one — Dr. Harold Abbott (Tom Amandes, a familiar TV face from guest spots on everything from ”The Practice” to HBO’s ”From the Earth to the Moon”). Uptight and chilly by nature, Abbott is understandably pouty and put out by Brown and his newly relaxed, socialized-medicine groove thing; so the two doctors, whose offices are right across the street from each other, are instant enemies. And wouldn’t you know it? Abbott’s got a teen daughter, Amy (Emily VanCamp, a WB vet from the doomed ”Glory Days”), to whom Ephram is instantly attracted. Hey, warring clans, fated lovers: It’s like ”Romeo and Juliet” with less oxygen at higher elevations!
Series creator Greg Berlanti (”Dawson’s Creek”) lovingly crafts so many coincidences that pretty soon, you either buy into ”Everwood”’s world or get off its wavelength pretty quickly. Me, I found its intricate symmetries engaging and clever. For example, Dr. Brown hires a gray-haired motorcycle mama (Debra Mooney) as his grouchy-but-lovable nurse/receptionist. Turns out she’s Abbott’s mother and the wife of the town school-bus driver (John Beasley), who’s also the show’s narrator. (He provides voice-over episode intros and outros sprinkled with homespun bromides that are doubtlessly intended to remind you of the Stage Manager character in Thornton Wilder’s dependable chestnut about the virtues of small-town life, ”Our Town.”) And are you ready for another meticulous correspondence of events? Amy can’t commit to Ephram because she feels guilty abandoning her boyfriend — a young fella in a coma from a head injury, and who thus could really use Brown’s brain-surgeon skills.
Like ”Heaven,” ”Everwood”’s Monday-night lead-in, there’s a lot about adolescent angst (see the Ephram-versus-the-coma-boy dilemma above), prepubescent problems (Delia refuses to take off her baseball cap in school, sparking arguments with a teacher), and fatherly frustration (Dr. Brown is so addled at being a single parent, he fantasizes dialogues with his dead wife, played with smooth allure by Brenda Strong). Like ”Gilmore” and ”Exposure,” the drama is lightened by numerous town oddballs and quaint customs. (The main restaurant in town is a cutesy Chinese-Italian joint, and the second episode involves Everwood’s annual ”fall thaw” celebration, which features a melting ice sculpture.)
I like the way ”Everwood” isn’t afraid to be both sweet and tart (Abbott refers to Brown as ”that faux Marcus Welby”), or to dramatize father-son struggles we’ve seen a thousand times before. Ephram nurses resentment at his dad for a number of reasons, including the irrational but utterly understandable rage that the wrong parent — i.e., the caring, nurturing parent — is the one who died. The producers know there’s a reason audiences like seeing that sort of conflict played out again and again in art and entertainment: It’s common to so many of our lives, as children or as adults. The spats between Andy and Ephram are the most vividly written, anguished scenes in the series; Williams and Smith both prove to be strong, subtle actors who bounce off each other with emotionally resounding thumps.
Although I still can’t really figure out how grumpy Dr. Abbott is going to maintain his paying practice when affable Dr. Brown is dispensing diagnoses for free, I’m willing to play along with this for a while, especially since one episode involves a nice little revelation about the occupation of Abbott’s wife (Merrilyn Gann) that I won’t spoil here.
As Dr. Brown would probably be the first to admit, ”Everwood” ain’t brain surgery, but that’s also what helps make it an easygoing charmer.