The hospital setting of the demented new BBC America comedy Green
— debuting next Thursday — is as necessary to the show’s aims as the
future business health of Donald Trump’s empire is to who gets hired on The
. In the case of both programs, just show us bad behavior and
we’re 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. Joanna’s partner
in workday quickies is tweaked radiology head Dr. Statham (Mark Heap), a nerdy
tyrant of John Cleese–ian 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.
She’s 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 I’m not implying that’s a bad thing.

Green Wing is tasteless, funny and one of the more unclassifiable
comedies on television. It’s been a huge hit for Channel 4 in the U.K., partly
because its repertory of actors represents some of Britain’s best comedians,
and partly because off-the-wall is a cherished comedy notion in England. The
show’s 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. (I’m 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
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.

It’s 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 you’ll 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 doesn’t have to be hidden. In other words,
don’t worry about recognizing anybody on Green Wing. Just laugh at them.

the woman who
could be Grey.

Over at the American networks, ABC has found further ratings joy
in the more conventional medical drama. Grey’s 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 haven’t 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, it’s the Carrie Bradshaw–style narration of
Ellen Pompeo’s character, setting up the week’s theme — boundaries, intimacy
— at the start of each episode and bringing condescending, Cliff’s Notes–style
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 Grey’s on Sunday nights — the inescapable
Desperate Housewives — but there it’s less annoying: The irony is more
artfully written and, more important, articulated with ghoulish, detergent-commercial
smarminess by the unseen Brenda Strong.

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.
She’s a wispy Renée Zellweger clone — not exactly a good thing — who
flirts uneasily with Patrick Dempsey’s boyish surgeon and can’t sell the intense
“Isn’t this place and aren’t these people magical” close-ups required
of her at episode’s end. She also hasn’t 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 they’ve been relegated
to stereotypes: the acerbic Asian and the can’t-touch-this bombshell. Yet we’ve
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
isn’t one of them playing Meredith Grey, the sensitive, confused, pretty-yet-ordinary
Everywoman with the cloying voiceover? Don’t interns have to rotate duties on
a regular basis?

 L Word diva Beals

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. Evil–like
terms, accompanied by a photo of the actress posing like an America’s 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
she’s 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 she’s worth another shot, but most poignantly trying to convince
herself she’s 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 woman’s 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 daughter’s
new boyfriend; Beals made the moment less about prejudice and more about an
overachieving daughter’s insecurity. On a series that’s 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
GREY’S ANATOMY | Sundays at 10 p.m., ABC
THE L WORD | Sundays at 10 p.m. (repeats on Wednesdays and Saturdays),

LA Weekly