Combat Hospital debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
There’s a scene about midway through Combat Hospital where Rebecca, a doctor new to Afghanistan and the combat hospital in Kandahar, struggles to stay awake after several days of staying up and caring for patients. It’s during a big meeting, and she keeps drifting off, no matter how hard she tries to pay attention to what her colonel is saying. And, of course, the inevitable happens and she briefly drifts off and she snaps awake and says something that causes everybody else in the meeting to titter. It’s not a bad scene (one of the better ones in the pilot, actually), but it does rather demonstrate the show’s biggest flaw.
Combat Hospital, see, is a whole TV show that seems to be based on that feeling of almost falling asleep, then catching yourself at the last possible moment. The whole thing is shot through with a weird lack of energy, and the actors all seem so sleepy that it’s obvious this is a stylistic choice by the show’s producers, yet it’s one that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. If the show were wildly gritty and realistic or if the show were doing some new and intriguing things, then the whole thing could be written off as the producers trying a bunch of new things, and the sleepy tone just didn’t work. Instead, the storyline is straight out of M*A*S*H or China Beach, and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before. Theoretically, the idea of setting ER in the middle of a combat zone is a great one. Instead, what we get is a show where performing surgeries in the middle of a war zone is treated with all of the urgency of popping out to the corner store for a couple of bags of beef jerky.
The cast, most likely, has taken its cues from Elias Koteas, who plays Colonel Marks, the stereotypical gruff guy with a heart of gold. Marks has been in the midst of the Afghanistan War for longer than anybody else, seemingly, and in the world of 2006 Kandahar, he’s the touchstone everybody else is able to cling to. Koteas, thus, underplays the role. It’s an interesting choice in a world full of overbearing chief surgeons who come on strong and shout everything they say. If everyone else hadn’t followed Koteas’ lead, he might have seemed even more intriguing. Instead, he just seems like the chief zombie in a world full of them.
Make no mistake: Koteas is the most fun thing about this show. He’s just so quiet and understated that he creates a world where no one is fazed by anything. There’s a scene where a rattlesnake slithers into the operating room in the middle of a procedure, and Marks carefully asks everyone to stand very still, then blows the head off the snake with a gun. And nobody—not even the brand new surgeons!—really bats an eye! Sure, there’s places in the dialogue where they say, “Oh my God, snakes in the operating room!” or something similar, but the delivery of that line should be shown in middle school classrooms as an example of when a period is used but an exclamation mark might have been preferable.
What it all comes down to is the fact that the two central actors are Michelle Borth—as Canadian Rebecca—and Terry Chen—as American Army member Bobby Chang. Borth, who’s perhaps still best known as one of the many actors forced to endure the sad slog of Tell Me You Love Me, seems like she has quite a bit going on, actually. She spends the pilot wondering whether an ex-boyfriend back home got her pregnant, trying to adjust to life in a war zone on little sleep, getting pestered by a roommate (Deborah Kara Unger) to work in a local clinic, getting hit on by a charismatic Brit (Luke Mably), and dealing with the global geopolitics of treating a highly valuable Taliban target who just so happens to be under the hospital’s care. And yet Borth plays all of this as if she’s just down at the local grocery store, trying to decide between melons. Chen is almost as bad, making Bobby’s utter inexperience at leading a trauma team into something he overcomes mostly through intense staring.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think either actor is terrible. They’re both very obviously trying to follow standards set up by somebody in the production chain. (The show is run by Daniel Petrie, Jr., who was one of the writers responsible for Beverly Hills Cop, oddly enough.) This sense that everyone is cool as a cucumber, to the point of being somnambulant, pervades the entire production. When the choppers come in with the wounded from the latest battle, when military men or Taliban targets or any patients seem to be on their last legs, the show doesn’t gain urgency. It disappears even further into its own shell. We’re so used to generations of medical dramas that amp the urgency up as far as it will go that this seems a remarkably strange creative choice, particularly when the actual script seems, well, straight out of a standard medical drama. You can’t play ER-style operating room excitement or Grey’s Anatomy-style soapiness without some degree of heightened emotion. Otherwise, it seems like two very bored people reading a TV Guide article to each other.
The series was produced in Canada, and surprisingly, the show is able to toss together a reasonable facsimile of Afghanistan in Toronto. Granted, it’s done this by building a single, massive set that the production utilizes for almost everything, but with a handful of shipping containers and some sand, the exteriors look Afghanistan-y enough for TV. No one’s going to think this is hard-hitting documentary footage of the real conflict, but the big set proves one of the strong points of the show. At the same time, it proves a problem, simply because the show can never leave the set, lest we realize it’s filming in Toronto. That gives everything a slight claustrophobia that contributes to the feeling that all of this takes place in a world very much like ours, but populated by alien replicants.
Series set in and around military conflicts are hard to do. The only one that was ever a raging success was M*A*S*H, and that stayed far away from the frontlines. And I have no doubt that the men and women who work at the actual combat hospital in Kandahar are cool customers, doubling down in a crisis and reducing everything to the decisions that will separate life from death. But the show’s central choice to present this military reality right up against the un-reality of the TV hospital drama is something it can never overcome. It’s not a bad show, just a ho-hum one that never suggests a reason to watch it beyond its (admittedly intriguing) premise. Put another way, Combat Hospital takes a great setting—Afghanistan in 2006 is a place rife with intrigue, both political and military—and a pretty great twist on an old genre, then sucks all of the life out of both of those things. It may not be the worst new drama to hit TV screens this summer, but it’s certainly the blandest.