Years ago at the Ledger, I did an occasional feature called “A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words” where, in lieu of writing a review of some terrible show or TV-movie, I would simply select a publicity still that in some way captured its terribleness, thus allowing me to devote my time to writing about something better.
With NBC's new hospital drama “The Night Shift” (it premieres tonight at 10), I was sorely tempted to revive that tradition because… well, look at that picture attached to this review. That is perhaps the single most terrible publicity photo I have ever seen for a television show. Worse than anything associated with “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” worse than the “girls club” image that made its stars look like they were appearing on the cover of a pornographic VHS tape.
It's hilarious because most of the actors were not only clearly Photoshopped in separately (a not uncommon practice for shows with big ensemble casts), but in various action poses where they're all looking at different focal points, and where the photographer has clearly given the actors wildly different directions. There's poor Freddy Rodriguez from “Six Feet Under,” for instance, apparently auditioning to play Magneto in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” while Ken Leung from “Lost” has been told to act as if he's a cartoon character just woken from a dream, Brendan Fehr from “Roswell” is giving one of his co-stars a piggyback ride, and Daniella Alonso from “Revolution” is coming to save the day with paperwork.
But then there is the motorcycle, which is everything that “The Night Shift” unfortunately is about, and everything that makes you understand why NBC is burning this show off in the summer when it was ordered over a year ago. There is the show's leading man, Irish actor Eoin Macken as San Antonio trauma doc TC Callahan, looking as studly as he possibly can astride his hog in the middle of the ER waiting room, making it clear to everyone that he's a rebel who plays by his own rules and doesn't believe in such things as “following procedure” or “parking spaces” or “carbon monoxide emissions.” TC's gonna ride his bike where he damn well pleases, do whatever procedures he wants, all while listening to no one around him and making sure to take off his shirt whenever possible.
There is possibly a good show hidden at the core of “The Night Shift,” dealing with the overworked staff of a cash-strapped hospital that's the only trauma center in a wide radius, many of the doctors (including TC) veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan who have brought back both their emotional scars and ability to be medically creative under pressure. There are isolated moments where we're watching, say, Leung's Topher swapping favors between doctors to get an uninsured patient treated, or Fehr's Drew learning the difference between being a combat medic and a doctor, where “The Night Shift” functions as a passable imitation of “ER.” And TV still has room for a show like that (even though “Grey's Anatomy” has itself become more “ER”-like in its later years).
The problem is that the bulk of the action and conflict are built around TC, who is a parody of a cliché of a stereotype, such an over-the-top renegade who gets away with his rule-breaking because he's the very best there is (and because he takes his shirt off so frequently that other characters comment on it) that he feels less like someone creators Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah thought up than an artificial intelligence program built entirely on notes from network and studio executives. And Michael Ragosa, the penny-pinching hospital administrator played by Rodriguez, is such a stock villain – with a secret backstory that is designed to make him seem more sympathetic, but instead makes him come across as jealous and pathetic – that you will wish that he and TC get into some kind of mutually assured destruction scenario that would remove them both from the show for a good long while – possibly taking Jill Flint from “Royal Pains” as the bland night shift chief (and TC's ex-girlfriend) right along with them.
I have an extraordinarily high tolerance for the kind of show that “The Night Shift” wants to be. I suffered through a lot of dire, depressing middle/later seasons of “ER” just because I'm a sucker for hospital ensemble dramas. (And I was rewarded by the show getting onto firmer ground in the last year or two.) It would take very little to get me to watch a show like “The Night Shift,” especially on Tuesday nights in the slower summer months. But its hero is so obnoxiously awesome and self-righteous that I could only make it through half of the whopping eight episodes NBC sent out for review.
But if nothing else, it gave us that photo. The show's a dud, but that picture is something special.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org