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
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 . . .
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
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.