Providence (tv)

The Boston Phoenix

DIRECTED BY: John Masius

REVIEWED: 01-04-99

The capital of Rhode Island looks a lot like Venice on NBC's new drama Providence (Fridays at 8 p.m., premiering January 8). Almost every outdoor scene takes place on or near a bridge, and I half-expect to see a gondolier (perhaps Mayor Buddy Cianci, in a cameo) pushing his way toward Pawtucket. I say "half-expect" because the first few episodes of Providence cautiously flirt with surrealism and Ally McBeal-type whimsy. One regular character, for example, is the ghost of the lead character's mother, who drops dead at a wedding ceremony in the first episode and must spend eternity in a hideous pastel dress and an indestructible hairdo, with a lit cigarette always in her hand.

Providence was created by John Masius, who was a co-producer and Emmy-winning writer on the sublime St. Elsewhere and who more recently created the insufferable Touched by an Angel. This latest effort leans more toward Angel, but there are glimpses of something much better. Part medical drama and part domestic comedy, Providence is certainly an improvement over the show it's replacing, the overcrowded and muddy Trinity, and it's probably NBC's best new drama in a couple of years. That's not saying much -- the last moderately successful new drama on the network was The Pretender in 1996.

We meet lead character Sydney Hanson (Melina Kanakaredes) as a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, and the first few scenes in the pilot -- featuring a parade of patients with wildly different reasons for wanting to rearrange their faces -- are tightly written and intriguing. At first, it seems a shame for Sydney to abandon her sleek beach house in Malibu and move back to the costume-jewelry capital of America, but Providence turns out to be as sunny and as clean as a Disneyland commercial. Adding to the wholesome atmosphere is Sydney's dad (Mike Farrell), a kind-hearted veterinarian with an office in the basement of the spacious family home. Farrell, who was painfully miscast as an Army surgeon on M*A*S*H, is more believable as a white-haired Dr. Doolittle here. There's a hint of self-righteousness in this character, and if Providence evolves into a complex series, he could become as interesting as the self-consciously noble Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) of St. Elsewhere -- that is, if Farrell is willing to put some grit into his performance.

As Sydney, the appealing Kanakaredes is sort of an older version of the title character on Felicity, complete with frizzy hairdo. She doesn't know how to run her own life, but she doesn't hesitate to meddle in everyone else's. After dumping her boyfriend and job in LA, she goes to work at a free clinic in Providence, where the patients have more important problems than bags under their eyes. (As on most shows set outside of Los Angeles, the only people with accents are guest stars playing salt-of-the-earth proles.) In the second episode, a beaten-down single mother decides to send her autistic daughter to a state institution, but Sydney persuades her to keep the kid and take in a stray dog. This kind of pat solution is typical of the Touched by an Angel in the Promised Land of the Highway to Heaven genre, and it smacks of right-wing morality -- what St. Elsewhere's Mark Craig once called "reheated Reaganism." St. Elsewhere was full of stoic characters shouldering family burdens (such as Westphall's autistic son), but we got a better sense of the costs involved, partly because the stories stretched out over several episodes.

"It's like a dysfunctional-family version of Our Town," Sydney remarks in assessing her new life. When not oozing concern for her patients, Sydney offers unsolicited advice to her kid sister, an unmarried mother with a knack for plain speaking; and to her little brother, a goof-off bartender with various get-rich schemes. She also moons over a hunky limo driver whom she secretly admired in high school (more shades of Felicity). And every morning she wakes up from a dream featuring her deceased mother -- who, in her endearing dominating manner, assures Sydney that she'll get by with a little divine . . . providence. You didn't think the show was set here solely because the downtown got a face-lift, did you? (In her first appearance as a spirit, the snooty mother explains, "For the afterlife, they sent me to hell . . . Providence.")

There are occasional witty images -- the sister puts her baby in a dog cage for safekeeping, Sydney opens the front door to see a gang of firemen looking for their Dalmatian -- but Providence needs a stronger visual style to meet the standards set by ER and Homicide. The veterinary setting is a potentially rich source of storylines and throwaway gags, as long as the writers balance the cute kids and dogs with the more-grotesque pairings of master and pet that we can see on any city street. (Memo to John Masius: all writers should be required to view Errol Morris's affectionate and scary Gates of Heaven, the 1978 documentary about the clients of a pet cemetery.)

Similarly, there's a funny send-up of TV soap operas in the third episode, but otherwise Providence is still too preoccupied with clearly drawing its main characters to engage in wordplay. The closest we get to sophisticated dialogue is Sydney defending her dream lover to Mom: "He may not wear a power tie, but he's something you never find in LA: a real man, a Grade-A guy, a T-bone among the mixed vegetable plate."

Providence ain't Grade-A. But it is a different animal from the standard cop/lawyer/doctor drama, which is a good start. I just hope Della Reese and those other damned angels never make their way to Rhode Island.

--Robert David Sullivan

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