The hospital setting of the demented new BBC America comedy Green Wing debuting next Thursday is as necessary to the shows aims as the future business health of Donald Trumps empire is to who gets hired on The Apprentice. In the case of both programs, just show us bad behavior and were happy.
But I could be wrong. As the quirk-ridden doctors/administrators of Green Wing spout nonsense, wave their freak flags, indulge barely concealed carnal cravings and play cruel jokes on one another, something about the antiseptic environs of an institution for caregiving lends this unmedical medical saga an especially lovely jolt. This is not a show about the impulse to heal, unless those wounds are psychosexual. A truly nutty throwaway bit, for example, involves undersexed human-resources director Joanna (the wondrously committed Pippa Haywood) sneaking a quick cheap thrill from a vibrating hospital bed arching her lanky form till it resembles a perverted rocking horse. Later, when told that smoking creates mouth lines, she shuts herself in her office, slathers wrinkle cream around her lips and shoves a lit cigarette up her nose.
The other characters are equally maladjusted. Joannas partner in workday quickies is tweaked radiology head Dr. Statham (Mark Heap), a nerdy tyrant of John Cleeseian proportions who practices the dramatic swish of his lab coat turning hospital corners. Curly-haired, egomaniacal and obnoxiously proud of his Swiss heritage, anesthesiologist Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan) has a mental rating system for women, belied by the fact that he rarely scores. His sights are set on Dr. Caroline Todd (Tamsin Greig), whose arrival as the new surgical registrar in Episode 1 is ostensibly our entry point into this asylumlike workplace, but she goes native succumbing to the farcical insanity of her surroundings too quickly to be much of a center of gravity for viewers. Shes a bastion of normalcy, though, compared to staff liaison officer Sue White (Michelle Gomez), a frighteningly rudderless comic creation who is as likely to greet visitors while pretending to be a Nazi officer from a 40s film as she is to get into a violent primping showdown in the ladies restroom with another woman. Imagine a scary female Kramer without the goodwill or, well, a sense of purpose. And Im not implying thats a bad thing.
Green Wing is tasteless, funny and one of the more unclassifiable comedies on television. Its been a huge hit for Channel 4 in the U.K., partly because its repertory of actors represents some of Britains best comedians, and partly because off-the-wall is a cherished comedy notion in England. The shows creator, Victoria Pile, in fact, was responsible for one of the more beloved sketch shows of recent years, the female-centric Smack the Pony, which made a defiantly funny stand for women as deadpan, off-color, even aggressive provocateurs. Green Wing continues that principle with its half-women, half-men cast of crazies, and arguably tips the balance of bizarro inappropriateness toward the females. (Im telling you, the Sue character will freak you out.)
Stylistically, Pile who also directed the nine-episode first season with Dominic Brigstocke and Tristram Shapeero has set out to make Green Wing play out unlike anything else in comedy. There are ongoing stories, but episodes ultimately feel like sketch collections, thanks to a trip-hop/industrial dance soundtrack that swells for each scene segue, and the speeding up and slowing down of film stock to add a disorienting silent-comedy-meets-music-video glaze on all the Pythonesque absurdity. It takes a while to get used to, but as with any original comedy, the inspired performances in this case, like graduates of the naughtiest clown school keep you going.
Its not a British Scrubs, either. Green Wing has no call for fantasy sequences and moral lessons. (Make it to the season finale, in fact, and youll encounter one of the more taboo-busting story turns in modern television comedy.) Its characters already live in a surreal parallel universe where the thrill of baser desires doesnt have to be hidden. In other words, dont worry about recognizing anybody on Green Wing. Just laugh at them.
Over at the American networks, ABC has found further ratings joy in the more conventional medical drama. Greys Anatomy has been likened to The Paper Chase and Sex and the City, which is probably causing a quizzical furrowing of your brows if you havent seen the show yet. The comparison stems from, in the case of the former, the focus on overly confident yet easily cowed interns. With the latter, its the Carrie Bradshawstyle narration of Ellen Pompeos character, setting up the weeks theme boundaries, intimacy at the start of each episode and bringing condescending, Cliffs Notesstyle closure at the end over a pop-scored montage. ("I wish there were a rule book for intimacy . . .") This fast-tiring device is also being used in the Sex-inspired show airing before Greys on Sunday nights the inescapable Desperate Housewives but there its less annoying: The irony is more artfully written and, more important, articulated with ghoulish, detergent-commercial smarminess by the unseen Brenda Strong.
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Pompeo, on the other hand, has no authority to her voice. In fact, she barely registers as an ingénue to anchor an emotionally gooey hospital ensemble, especially one that includes heavyweights Sandra Oh and Isaiah Washington. Shes a wispy Renée Zellweger clone not exactly a good thing who flirts uneasily with Patrick Dempseys boyish surgeon and cant sell the intense "Isnt this place and arent these people magical" close-ups required of her at episodes end. She also hasnt quite nailed that aura of body-pounding fatigue mixed with adrenaline shots that characterizes doctors-in-training. A few of her co-stars have Oh and Katherine Heigl but theyve been relegated to stereotypes: the acerbic Asian and the cant-touch-this bombshell. Yet weve seen Oh rock qualifiedly as the hot chick in the movie Sideways, and Heigl has shown she has ready reserves of fierceness and vulnerability. Why isnt one of them playing Meredith Grey, the sensitive, confused, pretty-yet-ordinary Everywoman with the cloying voiceover? Dont interns have to rotate duties on a regular basis?
The L Word, ending its second season Sunday, is remarkable for its unselfconscious bizarreness the "L" must mean "Loony" which can also make it smooth going as a dopey melodrama. But standing out this year something we all could see coming after Season 1 has been Jennifer Beals. The Showtime Web site describes Beals character in Dr. Evillike terms, accompanied by a photo of the actress posing like an Americas Next Top Model diva: "Art museum director and control freak, Bette will go to extraordinary lengths to keep people exactly where she wants them." This does something of an injustice, though, to the consistently complex work shes been up to. Since losing her life partner, Tina (Laurel Holloman), after entering into a misguided fling, Bette has spent the entire season trying to convince Tina shes worth another shot, but most poignantly trying to convince herself shes worth it, too. While the other cast members slog through ridiculous story lines involving strap-ons, hidden cameras and bad New Age writing, Beals with that beautifully sad smile of hers has been giving us a strong portrayal of a powerful womans exposed wounds, all the more remarkable after her has-it-all alpha-female turn last year. Do the writers just save their best stuff for her? Or does she just knock it out of the park? In a recent scene, Bette made the logical gripe to her father (the late Ossie Davis) that he never asked once about her soul mate, Tina, but now seemed keenly interested in his other daughters new boyfriend; Beals made the moment less about prejudice and more about an overachieving daughters insecurity. On a series thats rapidly turning into a circus sideshow, that kind of nuanced character work needs to be encouraged.
GREEN WING | Thursdays at 10 p.m. (repeats on Fridays and Sundays), BBC America
GREYS ANATOMY | Sundays at 10 p.m., ABC
THE L WORD | Sundays at 10 p.m. (repeats on Wednesdays and Saturdays), Showtime