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TV Review: 'Wonderland' pits its fine acting and gritty reality against 'ER'

Thursday, March 30, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Wonderful "Wonderland"?

Yes and no.


When: 10 tonight on ABC.

Starring: Ted Levine, Michelle Forbes, Martin Donovan.


The new ABC medical series is a smart, thought-provoking drama. But for some it will be tough to sit through the show's unrelenting gloom.

TV viewers who like to be challenged -- I'm thinking of the "Homicide: Life on the Street" fans out there -- will cotton to the murkiness of "Wonderland" (10 tonight on WTAE).

And why not? The series stars a former "Homicide" cast member, Michelle Forbes, who is one of the smartest actresses working today. She's not business smart (opposite "ER," it's a given the paychecks she takes home from "Wonderland" won't last for long), but artistically smart. Forbes has an uncanny knack for picking quality shows and staying with them just long enough to make an impact on viewers so they'll miss her character when she leaves. It happened when she played Ensign Ro on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." It happened when she spent just a year and a half as medical examiner Julianna Cox on "Homicide: Life on the Street."

In "Wonderland" Forbes stars as Dr. Lyla Garrity, head of Rivervue Hospital's critical response facility for people suffering psychiatric emergencies. She's pregnant, which plays a pivotal role in tonight's pilot.

Lyla's husband, Dr. Neil Harrison (Martin Donovan), works in the forensic psychiatry department with its chief, Dr. Robert Banger (Ted Levine). They lead group sessions with patients, most of whom have committed crimes during psychotic episodes.

Based on New York City's real-life Bellevue Hospital, Rivervue is an ugly, claustrophobic institution. It gets uglier tonight when a patient is brought in after shooting several people in Times Square.

"Wonderland" was created by Peter Berg, the former "Chicago Hope" star (bad boy doc Billy Kronk), who also wrote and directed tonight's pilot. His old friend, Madonna, performs the theme song.

Berg is a pretty angry and tortured guy, as evidenced by his film directorial debut "Very Bad Things," about a bachelor party that leads to murder. "Wonderland" isn't as gruesome as that movie, but there's little sunshine.

Banger is fighting with his ex-wife (guest star Patricia Clarkson) for the custody of their children (Erik Per Sullivan from "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Cider House Rules" plays one of the kids tonight). Dr. Abe Matthews (Billy Burke) can't imagine a 50-year marriage filled with passion, making him loathe to commit to any one woman. Then there's the crisis Lyla and Neil face, which carries over to next week's episode.

If you watch tonight and feel overwhelmed by "Wonderland," give it another chance. Next week's episode does a better job of shining a non-exploitative light on the hospital's patients and their problems. It's also stronger, in no small part, because it gives actress Forbes a showcase. She's a master of subtlety, conveying a handful of emotions with the slightest of facial movements and expressions.

Levine, best known as serial killer Jame Gumb in "The Silence of the Lambs," is an unconventional choice for a TV show's leading man. But his gruff demeanor evaporates the moment Levine interacts with his on-screen children.

It's too bad this thought-provoking show doesn't stand a chance. By throwing it up against "ER," ABC is essentially saying it has no faith in "Wonderland." Maybe if "ER" was in the doldrums, as it was a year ago, but the veteran medical drama rebounded this year.

At least tonight's "ER" is a rerun, so "Wonderland" might get a decent sampling. But with the premiere episode as harsh as it is, viewers are likely to flee and never look back.

There is an audience out there for this drama. It's probably just not a mainstream audience. "Wonderland" isn't wonderful in the conventional, chipper, upbeat sense, but it is a wonder.

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