'ER' vs. 'Hope': Which Medicine Is Easier to Swallow?

Nearly buckling under its own tonnage, one series has a thick midsection of solemnity, its grave, self-important characters recalling the pretentious "man, woman, birth, death, infinity" line that opened the old ABC medical drama "Ben Casey."

The other series is younger, sleeker, brisker and more vigorous, a slashing roller blade.

So . . . .

The fancy surgeons of the CBS series "Chicago Hope" had hardly scrubbed up when they were scrubbed from their 10 p.m. Thursday time slot opposite the overworked emergency room crew of NBC's new hit, "ER."

Swapping time slots with "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung," the redeployed "Chicago Hope" now airs at 9 p.m., facing NBC's epic "Seinfeld" and the new "Madman of the People." As they say before a risky transplant, lots of luck.

Given its coveted position capping a powerful NBC Thursday night lineup, "ER" figured to whip "Chicago Hope" in this Nielsen battle of new medical dramas set in Windy City hospitals, but perhaps not blow it away so incisively.

After all, despite their contrasts, the two series have some things in common besides Chicago and white lab coats.

Both have strong casts and characters with big hearts. (What medical series doesn't?)

As last week's episodes affirmed, both also express a reverence for life in ways uncommon for television by dwelling thoughtfully on the moment before zooming on. Aaron Shutt, the sensitive surgeon played by Adam Arkin, spent a chunk of "Chicago Hope" truly suffering over his loss of a patient. And on "ER," an intern lingered tenderly over the body of a young hit-and-run victim he thought he knew, so shaken that he initially notified the wrong parents.

Another common denominator is male-female stuff. On "Chicago Hope," sexual tension between white Mandy Patinkin's neurotic surgeon, Jeffrey Geiger, and a colleague played by black Victoria Dillard has intriguing racial overtones ("The girl of my dreams has always been white and Jewish," he bluntly admitted to her last week). And Shutt's estranged wife, played by Roxanne Hart, is ever-present because of her job as a surgical nurse who frequently assists him in the operating room, even though their marital wounds still fester.

On "ER," George Clooney's high-libido pediatrician, Douglass Ross, is still attracted to an emergency room nurse with whom he had an affair. But when he dropped by late one night with flowers, another doctor answered the door, leading to a spat that found Ross getting rejected by his angry former lover.

Both series also value light moments, although not equally. With "Chicago Hope," the humor is an occasional eyedropper's worth, as when Geiger last week was arrested for solicitation after a frivolous come-on to a woman in a bar who turned out to be an undercover cop.

On "ER," the humor comes in streams. Take last week: While being examined, a patient rewarded the staff with a whoosh of flatulence. When a drug addict began humming a droning mantra, two doctors mocked him by humming harmony. The staff was mystified by an electronic wheelchair that periodically began spinning in circles, until learning it was activated by a patient's powerful cellular phone. And, finally, a middle-aged man was brought in still handcuffed to the woman (his wife's secretary) with whom he was having sex when stricken with an apparent heart attack. Then the wife arrived.

Whatever their similarities, however, the differences separating "Chicago Hope" and "ER" run much deeper--which surely accounts in part for why "ER" is so much more popular.

"Chicago Hope" has a smaller core cast than "ER," which has so many characters that you may spend the season sorting them out. But the blur of faces creates its own energy and excitement. Someone on "ER"--it doesn't matter who--is always being awakened from a dead sleep to try to save someone's life. In contrast, "Chicago Hope" at times is itself the dead sleep.

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On the more visceral "ER," they're always stepping on it. Accurate or not, this is medicine on the run, with patients being processed like Big Macs. On "Chicago Hope," Geiger does all the running (like a laboratory rat on a wheel) in a series that seems at times to crawl.

"ER" does take occasional pit stops to allow its characters to contemplate themselves and their environment. But "ER" doesn't think a lot.

"Chicago Hope" thinks too much, fancying itself as some kind of cerebral TV laboratory. Everything on this series is a big deal, utterly cataclysmic. On "ER," a defibrillator misfires. On "Chicago Hope," patients misfire, to the extent that even routine surgical procedures are diverted around hairpin curves. It turned out, for example, that a lovable old guy who needed to be relieved of his gall bladder (the same man who previously had a brain tumor removed) was a racist, insisting on a Jewish surgeon rather than the "colored" one assigned to do his operation. "Get me a Jew!" the non-Jewish patient demanded. Shutt chewed him out, then was chewed out for chewing him out by the hospital's compassionate but stern surgical chief, played by Hector Elizondo. Shutt thought about it, then made up with the racist, who got his Jew.

Wallowing in misery, it's the melancholy Geiger who epitomizes the heaviness of "Chicago Hope." Now you take Eriq La Salle's interesting young doctor, Peter Benton, the character with the most edge on "ER." He has a chip on his shoulder, no doubt about it, last week clashing with a colleague competing with him to become chief surgical resident. But it's only a chip.

In contrast, if Geiger had any more weight on his sagging shoulders, they'd collide with his elbows. One week he separates Siamese twins, the next he rushes a dead patient's lifesaving heart to a dying patient, the next he performs a radical baboon heart transplant. On top of that, his wife is in a mental institution, having murdered their young son. Because he's played by gifted musical star Patinkin, Geiger always manages to find time at the end of each episode to sing just a little. Sadly, of course.

So, it comes down to this. For actual medical care, you'd prefer the doctors of "Chicago Hope." You'd prefer to watch the doctors of "ER."

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