Saving Hope

Saving Hope debuts tonight on NBC at 9 p.m. Eastern.

The more shows that attempt to rip it off, the easier it becomes to realize that Grey’s Anatomy was a rather singular achievement. Nobody would mistake it one of the best TV shows ever or anything, but when Grey’s Anatomy was good at what it did, it was really good at what it did. For one thing, it had a mastery of tone. It understood when to be silly and when to be soapy. It understood that being both of those things meant that its “tragic” moments had to be over-the-top melodrama, and there was little room within it for melodrama. On a fundamental level, it grasped that what was most fun about itself was the fact that in its best episodes, the show felt like reality had drunk about a dozen 5-hour Energy bottles and was looking for walls to smash through. It was real-ish, not realistic.

The problem with all of the show’s copycats is that they don’t grasp this important lesson. They think the best way to do a medical drama is to keep the soapy complications of Grey’s but try to ground them in something closer to realism. The problem with this is that hospital shows have rarely done gritty realism well (as opposed to cop shows). Marcus Welby was chock full of easy moral lessons, St. Elsewhere was loopy and goofy (to offset its own melodrama), Chicago Hope took that loopy tone even further, ER had the sheen of a high-stakes action film, and House shifted the big life-and-death stakes from its guest stars to its protagonist (whose soul—if it even existed—was always on the line). Viewers rarely want to think about realism in a hospital setting, because the chances are good that they will die in one. Being reminded of your own mortality is something TV has always struggled with. It tends to cut down on the appeal of the dish soap pitched at ad breaks.

Saving Hope, the latest attempt to drag Grey’s Anatomy just a little bit toward realism, is hurt by that very effort. Somewhere in here is a vaguely enjoyable medical drama that wouldn’t make anybody jump for joy but would be a good way to keep the lights on over the summer. This is just the latest Canadian import purchased (or often co-produced) by a major American network to have something to air in the season’s dead spots. While these shows don’t have a great track record, sometimes the networks get a Flashpoint or Rookie Blue, and they have one less hour to worry about. NBC, in all its shamelessness, has tossed the show on at the same time as Grey’s normally airs, perhaps hoping that viewers will mistake it for its American counterpart. (Hey, this whole philosophy basically worked for Carly Rae Jepsen.)

What’s impressive is that this almost works, then ultimately doesn’t. The Canadian Ellen Pompeo turns out to be Erica Durance—formerly of Smallville—and it’s interesting to see how her headstrong confidence works in a hospital setting. Durance probably isn’t a great actress, but she’s an effortlessly appealing one, and that counts for a lot in a genre that naturally has to deal in life-and-death stakes. Much of tonight’s first episode revolves around her character Alex’s decision to go back out onto the hospital floor to take care of patients while her fiancé—whom she was on her way to marry when the two were in a car accident—is very possibly dying in another room, and Durance makes this decision feel as natural as anything else she does. It’s patently ridiculous (since it all occurs within about 24 hours), but she sells the notion that Alex is someone who just cares that much, someone who needs the work to distract her. Durance pushes through it all with plucky resolve and firmly pursed lips. Given her most famous role, it would be easy to see her as a kid playing grown-up, but she always feels at home, and that’s a tribute to screen presence, if nothing else.

One of the weird “benefits” of these Canadian import dramas is that they often employ lots of actors famous for genre shows, thanks to filming in a place where lots of American genre shows are produced to save a little money. Not only does this show feature Durance in the lead, but it also has Michael Shanks—famous for Stargate SG-1—playing her fiancé, Charles, the aforementioned guy in a coma. Charles is the brilliant chief of surgery (on TV, there’s never any other kind), but unlike the total dicks who serve as chief surgeons on other shows, he’s a pretty nice guy, particularly to Alex. This is to be his second go at the whole marriage thing, and Durance and Shanks have a lived-in chemistry that suggests a couple that has good sex, sure, but also has fun lying in bed and looking up dumb animal videos on YouTube. Charles is also meant to be a doctor who cares too much, and he enters the coma because after the accident he’s in, he races over to the other car involved to save the life of its driver before promptly collapsing from a case of heart-five-sizes-too-large syndrome.

All of this might work, but for one really strange decision: After Charles collapses into the coma, his consciousness leaves his body, and he starts wandering the halls as an ethereal presence in a tuxedo, with bow tie eternally undone. While his body lies in bed, hovering between life and death, he’s out wandering the halls, meeting the other deceased patients and, in next week’s episode, having conversations with a little boy who keeps falling in and out of consciousness, the better to leave messages for Alex about how he’s doin’ okay, aside from the whole could-die-at-any-minute thing. This is one of those ideas that probably looked cool on the page but ended up just goofy in execution, and functionally, it results in Shanks moping around, occasionally talking to one of the guest star patients who’s just died, then offering up long-winded voiceovers about what it all means to go to the hospital.

There are other characters and other storylines, but none of them rise above the level of hospital drama boilerplate, up to and including that old chestnut about someone refusing medical treatment because of their religious beliefs, a storyline that was tired when good old Marcus Welby was trotting it out. There are appealing characters here—particularly Julia Taylor Ross’ Dr. Maggie Lin, headstrong and forcing her way through stuff because she can—but they all feel isolated in a totally different series from Alex and Charles. Where the Alex and Charles series doesn’t really work, at least it’s attempting something new, if utterly bizarre. The other half of the show is a medical drama you’ve seen a million times before, loaded down with lens flares as a key part of the visual design of the show for no apparent reason. Nobody ever would have thought Saving Hope could be great TV, but in its main storyline, it at least had a chance to be a sober, serious-minded medical soap about death, which would at least be new. Instead, that half of the show is a tonal mess, and the other half is bland mush. It’s passably entertaining at times, but only that.