Now I know how Michael Bay fans feel.
The first time I watched the pilot for NBC’s “Trauma,” I decided that its goals were simple: Make things go “Boom!” So I watched helicopters crash and cars careen and oil trucks explode and I figured the show had achieved its primary goals and I was perfectly content to put “Trauma” on my list of the Fall’s Best New Shows.
Rewatching the “Trauma” pilot yesterday, though, I noticed the other things “Trauma” was trying to do, the human element it was trying to present and the characters it was trying to introduce. I realized that its ambitions went beyond making things go “Boom!” Unfortunately, those aren’t the things that “Trauma” does very well and the pilot went from “mildly diverting” to “boring as sin” in a hurry.
Since most viewers are unlikely to watch “Trauma” twice (or even once, given NBC’s recent track record), perhaps they’ll be able to just accept its visceral thrills, courtesy of director Jeffrey Reiner, while ignoring its more tedious narrative familiarity, courtesy of creator Dario Scardapane.
[Review after the break…]
NBC publicity materials calls “Trauma” “the first high-octane medical drama series to live exclusively in the field where the real action is.” I’m not sure while NBC wants to denigrate TV classics like “Emergency!” or recent hits like “Third Watch.”
“Trauma” focuses on first-responder paramedics at San Francisco City Hospital. Whenever something dramatic happens in the City by the Bay, these are the guys who are on the scene, making the tough calls and saving lives. Not only do they handle physical trauma, but they’re all coping with emotional trauma, since something happens in the opening scene that all of the main characters will have to deal with the whole run of the series.
Most viewers will be at a loss to figure out the different ranks and experience levels of the main character. Derek Luke’s Cameron Boone and Anastasia Griffith’s Nancy Carnahan are both paramedics. Kevin Rankin’s Tyler Briggs and Taylor Kinney’s Glenn are EMTs. And back at the hospital, Jamey Sheridan’s Dr. Joe Saviano is… um… serving some other purpose, but he’s a doctor and the press notes call him a “mentor,” though only to Griffith’s character, who also went to med school.
Anyway, we also have Cliff Curtis’ Reuben “Rabbit” Palchuk as a flight medic and Aimee Garcia as Marisa, a rookie copter pilot.
The plotting of the pilot will confuse some viewers. There’s the big traffic event in the opening. Then there’s the week’s big emergency, a freeway pile-up. Those action set pieces are orchestrated with well-utilized stuntwork and scope and the fireballs were far more realistic than similar work in ABC’s “FlashForward.” With Peter Berg serving as executive producer, “Trauma” looks expensive and, in the early going, the San Francisco settings were effectively presented. In my mind, after that first viewing, the action set-pieces took up the majority of the pilot.
The reality is that most of the show, almost the last 20 minutes, is dedicated to what Rankin’s character calls “the clean-up and the come-down.” That means that the show is intent on being about how these people deal with the things they see each day, how they live with the horrors they sometimes witness. In that respect, “Trauma” plays as a less successful version of the summer critical hit “The Hurt Locker,” which also focused on adrenaline junkies and what happens when the high wears off.
It’s in that respect that “Trauma” is both familiar and disappointing, despite a cast that would probably be perfect for a well-rended version of this show.
At the center is Curtis. Since seeing him in “Once Were Warriors,” I’ve been convinced that Curtis could be a star, if the right casting director would ever take a chance on him. He’s good-looking, comfortable with drama and comedy both, and possessed with natural screen presence. He’s also been type-cast as a fill-in-the-blank ethnic character actor, meaning he’s played Iraqis, Indians and Latinos, but rarely has anybody looked at him and said, “Why isn’t this guy a leading man?” He absolutely is and he’s got the showy part in “Trauma,” as the rule-breaking, psychologically unstable Rabbit. “Trauma” is a pure ensemble, like “E.R.,” but Rabbit is the breakout role, the Dr. Ross part. That’s why I’ve been pushing Curtis as The Maori George Clooney for months. He has the most to gain if “Trauma” succeeds.
If only Scardapane knew how to write a renegade character. Note to the creator: If you need to make three explicit references to “Bullitt” and one to Steve McQueen in order to define a character, either you haven’t done a good enough job of making your point narratively, or else you think the audience is stupid. Which is it?
Garcia has some good moments with Curtis and shares the “Bullitt”/McQueen exchange. I wonder how long it took the writers, though, to come up with an ultra-Catholic Latina, who’s devoted to her mother, but turns out to have a fiery temper when provoked. I’m guessing 15 seconds. The smart money takes the “under,” though.
I also thought Griffith was very good, confirming that it was her character on “Damages” that I hated and not the actress. That “Damages” character was such a mewling sad-sack that it’s good to see Griffith being strong, emotional and sexy. Like Curtis, she stands to gain a lot from whatever success “Trauma” might have.
Less likely to gain is Luke, who’s taking his first “I’m a slumming movie star” TV role. And it shows. With the exception of one great scene with Curtis, Luke’s performance is mumbly and unengaging. Luke’s character is given the most domestic life, scenes that sink like a stone in the Bay.
Luke is one of several actors in the “Trauma” cast with “Friday Night Lights” ties to Berg. While Luke was in the movie, Kevin Rankin’s Herc was one of the very best parts of the NBC series, though he lost his reseason to be around when Scott Porter left the show. He has no real character in “Trauma,” so I hope they find a way to make use of him in subsequent episodes. Rankin even found a way to be good on “Bionic Woman,” so if Scardapane and company can’t let him by wry and funny, that’s their fault, not his. [The third “Friday Night Lights” cast member in trauma is a cameo I won’t spoil.]
Rewatching the pilot and seeing how small a part of things the set pieces are and how big the “clean-up and come-down” are made me like it less. The plot becomes ridiculously sluggish in that second half of the show, because even if Curtis’ character is driving the streets of San Francisco like a maniac, it’s mostly Griffith looking exhausted and defeated and Luke looking tortured.
But I also like the idea that “Trauma” might have aspirations beyond a simple procedural disaster-of-the-week. Once you shut down a bridge for an accident and scale a tall building, are you really going to be able to find big enough emergencies every week to keep this show running on spectacle alone? Where’s the series then? The second half of the episode, plus the “Hurt Locker” model, give me an idea of where “Trauma” could go that would interest me, but also a sense that this creative team may not be able to get it to that place in a way I’ll enjoy.
Then again, after the generally incompatible “Heroes” is done salting the Earth at 8 p.m. will anybody be tuning in looking for substance anyway? Enjoy the “Boom,” I guess.
“Trauma” premieres on Monday, Sept. 28 at 9 p.m. on NBC.