Every Steven Bochco series boasts an innovation of some sort. "Hill Street Blues" introduced the prime-time ensemble drama with continuing stories, the type of show that's come to exemplify the quality TV genre. "NYPD Blue" lived up to the blue part of its title in coarse dialogue and bare butt shots. Plus, there was that herky-jerky camera motion and police lingo ("I like him for that," "Don't squeeze my shoes," etc.). "Brooklyn South" opened with a scene of shockingly graphic violence.
For his latest, "City of Angels," Bochco's sole innovation is a predominantly minority cast. Sadly, in 2000 that's still a revolutionary prime-time concept.
Other than that, tonight's "City of Angels" premiere offers toothless, almost bland TV drama. It's not hyper-revved like "ER," and is probably most similar to "Chicago Hope" in its depiction of behind-the-scenes hospital politics. With both of TV's existing medical dramas growing tired, the time is right for "City of Angels," but it needs work.
Tonight's pilot episode (the show moves to its regular time slot on Wednesday) doesn't put the show's best foot forward. It's pretty uninspired melodrama with a dash of attention-grabbing weirdness.
The hospital's medical director (guest star Garrett Morris) takes his picture with the corpse of a dead R&B singer in the hospital morgue. He's quickly dismissed, and the arrival of new medical director Dr. Lillian Price (Vivica A. Fox) offers a chance for her and the audience to meet the rest of the cast.
Blair Underwood stars as Dr. Ben Turner, who has a past romantic history with Lillian that may or may not be re-ignited. Michael Warren ("Hill Street Blues") plays the hospital's CEO, a wily bureaucrat, and Robert Morse stars as Ed O'Malley, chairman of the board of supervisors. It's unclear exactly what his motivations are at this point, beyond self-preservation.
The premiere puts the issue of race front and center as a black patient refers to Dr. Geoffrey Weiss (Phil Buckman), one of the hospital's few white doctors, as "Jew boy." When Turner offers Weiss an opportunity to assist in surgery, rival resident Dr. Wesley Williams (Hill Harper) gets jealous and accuses Turner of favoring Weiss because he's white. It's all a bit too obvious and TV dramatic.
Happily, Wednesday's episode has more bite. The characters become more complicated and Turner in particular seems less saintly. There's more conflict and political in-fighting, which makes for less saccharine scenes than the ailing grandmother in the premiere.
Underwood comfortably inhabits the leading man role, but Warren gets to play a more charismatic, multidimensional character. Fox, who was pretty wooden in the Fox comedy "Getting Personal," seems more at ease here, although her character's semi-hysterical reactions could grow old quickly.
Bochco embraces his love of scatological humor in Wednesday's episode when a man seeks treatment for a Golden Globe statue lodged where the sun doesn't shine. Given the show's 8 p.m. time slot, this seems pretty inappropriate, but CBS gets the blame for poor scheduling, not Bochco.
With its second episode, "City of Angels" shows more promise than Bochco's "Brooklyn South." But for that promise to be fulfilled, "Angels" needs more character development and fewer melodramatic medical moments.