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Television Review

'Houston Medical' Raises the Bar on 'Reality'


Houston, we have a problem.

In fact, Houston--like any big city--has myriad problems, but the most riveting ones seem to end up at Memorial Hermann Hospital. And it's all captured magnificently in the premiere of "Houston Medical" on ABC tonight. Given access to the hospital's critical care and trauma centers during one year, the makers of "Houston Medical" have produced a taut, stunning hour of television that fictional shows like "ER"--no matter how well done--could never approach.

"Houston Medical" is technically a documentary, and the fact that these are real people balancing on the edge of life and death contributes greatly to the show's allure. This is true reality-TV, not the pseudo-realism of all those shows that plunk would-be actors on islands with snakes. But what sets this apart from your standard PBS documentary--which is usually "interesting" but unlikely to bump your pulse rate above REM sleep level--are two factors: Emmy-caliber editing and characters that no Hollywood writer could have dreamed up.

Take Dr. Marnie Rose, a 27-year-old pediatrician, who handles the news that she herself has a rare brain cancer with such grace and aplomb that one can only marvel that she is not an actor. After her second brain surgery and still in the recovery room with a tube down her throat, she manages to quip to her father: "That's a load off my mind."

Or hand surgeon Dr. Mark Henry, an Adonis who displays his chiseled physique often during the show but cries like a Barbara Walters interviewee when discussing his beloved patients. Henry's precision microsurgery to replace a woman's severed finger with one of her toes is depicted with both the earnestness and humor of the doctor's personality (the scene in which the woman's fiance shops for a wedding ring should not be missed).

But "Houston Medical's" most gut-wrenching moments by far come during neonatologist Dr. Terri Major-Kincade's watch. Kincade, a soft-spoken mother of two, draws on all her resources to try to save Nathan, a preemie twin who has potentially lethal bleeding on the brain. Upon learning the child's life is in danger, Nathan's mother reacts with such raw emotion, yet quiet dignity, that she winds up as perhaps the most emotionally compelling character on the show.

That such vignettes are woven together so beautifully and without a shred of false dramatics or self-pity is a tribute to both the editors of the yearlong footage and, most important, to the subjects of the show.

After Sept. 11, fictional movies and television shows about mayhem and disaster don't seem to register as high on the shock scale anymore. After all, we've witnessed the real thing. "Houston Medical," perhaps better than any reality-based venture ever, takes the raw drama of real life and gives it to us with the pace and veneer of a polished script.


"Houston Medical" premieres at 10 tonight on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be inappropriate for young children).

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