When in the course of human events, you see that ABC has a new show about a military surgical center in Afghanistan called “Combat Hospital,” the comparisons with “MASH” are inevitable and unfortunate. Unfortunate at least for co-creators Jinder Chalmers, Steve Lightfoot, and Douglas Steinberg because virtually any show that is compared with “MASH” will come up short, which “Combat Hospital” most certainly does. But here are a few things to remember about “MASH” that may help level the playing field: It was an American political comedy (based on a satirical film of the same name) that used the Korean War to make some fairly bold statements about the nature of war and the American military.
“Combat Hospital,” on the other hand, is a Canadian hour-long drama about a war that the United States is currently waging. The soldiers in Afghanistan (and by extension, Iraq) are still dying, the enemies they fight are still enemies. Yet “Combat Hospital” appears content to use these things as a backdrop for a show that has all the soap-operatic hallmarks of a stateside medical drama. The opening scene has Maj. Rebecca Gordon (Michelle Borth) taking a pregnancy test while in the bathroom of an aircraft about to make a “military landing.” Once on the ground in Kandahar, she meets fellow newbie Bobby Trang (Terry Chen), the strict but saintly Col. Xavier Marks (Elias Koteas) and, as Hawkeye stand-in, a British civilian doctor and possible lothario named Simon Hill (Luke Mably). Rounding out the team are the formidable but gentle nurse Cmdr. Will Royal (Arnold Pinnock) and Australian psychiatrist Maj. Grace Pederson (Deborah Kara Unger). So much more “Grey’s Anatomy” than “Generation Kill.”
There is nothing wrong with taking the essentials of a high-pressure medical soap — lack of sleep, clashing personalities, flaring passions, the inevitable toll of life or death decisions — and putting them in the middle of war. But a war that is over seems a much better bet. Even though the action of “Combat Hospital” is firmly, and rather arbitrarily, set in 2006, all manner of emotional and narrative issues get in the way of what should be a simple character-driven medical procedural. As if afraid they will be accused of not taking things seriously enough, the creators walk through much of the pilot as if through a minefield, which is to say ver-ry slowly and ver-ry carefully. Not the best pacing considering the subject matter. The wounded are dealt with in very small numbers, one at a time, and offered so much bedside manner and post-op respect that it borders on religious reverence.
As she was in HBO’s “Tell Me You Love Me” and ABC’s “The Forgotten,” Borth is the best thing about “Combat Hospital.” Although weighted down with a pesky ex, that possible pregnancy and the inevitable brilliant-doctor-meets-military conflict, she is as human and appealing a lead as the series will allow. But when a B-plot involving a wounded member of the Taliban is given as much dramatic weight as the appearance of a snake in the operating room, one senses an uphill battle that may not be worth the effort.