It is amazing how you can turn a truly terrible show into a very promising one if you add Alfre Woodard to the cast. Oh, it helps if you rewrite and reshoot the pilot too, but the addition of Woodard is key; somehow, she manages to lift the bar by just showing up.
Since the general television audience will never see it, you will just have to trust me when I tell you that the original pilot for "Three Rivers," which premieres Sunday on CBS, was ghastly. Centered on the life-saving exploits of Three Rivers Hospital, the preeminent organ transplant facility in the country, it was overwrought, overearnest and over-the-top. Not only were there about 3,000 soulful-eye close-ups of star Alex O'Loughlin, but there was also a fight-club-tough-and-secretly-rich female doctor who pep-talked a group of surgeons into harvesting organs in the middle of a blizzard. A blizzard!
But in an act that can be described only as heroic, creator Carol Barbee ditched the original and replaced it with a pilot of such style and restraint that it may herald a new type of medical show -- one in which intensity is not confused with insanity.
The essentials of the show remain: Pittsburgh's Three Rivers is the organ transplant capital of the world; O'Loughlin's character, Andy Yablonski, the best transplant surgeon ever (and so young!). Katherine Moennig's Miranda Foster is still the lean and rebellious rich daughter of a hospital founder, and everyone regularly engages in life and death A-plots.
But a welcome sense of non-hysteria prevails. Three Rivers is a hospital from which one might actually expect to emerge alive, a statement that cannot be made about other television hospitals.
Embodying Barbee's decision to go with dedicated rather than neurotic is head of surgery Sophia Jordan, played by Woodard, who joined the cast after the original pilot had been shot. Like similar characters on other medical shows, Jordan spends an inordinate amount of time reigning in her overzealous staff, but, in the pilot at least, the encounters are endearingly nonhistrionic and believable.
When, for example, the headstrong Miranda confronts the father of a behavior-challenged boy about the damage an absent parent can do, Jordan doesn't sputter in outrage or engage in a lesson-teaching practical joke. She just points out that it is not a good idea for a doctor to project personal experience onto her patients because it makes her less objective about the case.
Which, when you think about it, is the medical-drama equivalent of the Boston Tea Party.
This isn't to say that "Three Rivers" doesn't rely on its share of familiar forms. As sleek and multi-pronged as any "CSI" episode, the show opens with a drumbeat of medical crises. Meanwhile, O'Loughlin is clearly out for Patrick Dempsey's McDreamy title; his Yablonski takes on both a pregnant woman with heart trouble and a charming but insurance-free African who has survived war and famine only to require a tricky transplant.
Daniel Henney plays David Lee, the wisecracking and, if the press notes are to be believed, womanizing resident who spends most of the pilot playfully harassing the brand-new transplant coordinator, Ryan (Christopher J. Hanke), who seems to have less understanding of his job than anyone who has ever watched "ER."
When Ryan learns that members of a donor family are hesitating, he barges right up to them, shouting, "You don't understand, a pregnant woman might die." It is not a high point of the pilot -- surely, this is the first thing one learns not to do in transplant coordinator school -- but it does set up, albeit with a sledgehammer, the central tension of the show.
Although "Three Rivers" is not totally focused on organ transplants (another good call), they do play a large role, which requires a series of double-edged medical dramas. While organ donation is a necessary and noble act, the decisions are often being made by family members in shock and grief. Walking the line between dramatizing what is an already overly dramatic situation and hyperbolizing it is an ambitious quest; more than one show has fallen to its death in the attempt.
But Barbee and her cast and crew might just pull it off. The pilot will not blow your mind, but strangely, that is its biggest strength.
"Three Rivers" seems to trust the drama of its subject matter, the appeal of its characters and the talent of its cast enough to go gently into this Sunday night. And amid those storms and tempests and tantrums that plague so much of television, a center of calm stands out.
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)