Jada Hits Primetime

TNT’s ‘Hawthorne’ revives a rarely visited subgenre of TV hospital drama. And with Jada Pinkett Smith starring and producing, the show may provide a fresh showcase for black talent.

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TNT.com

The hospital drama is a staple in the pantry of prime-time television, and recent events in Washington to restructure the nation's health care system could prolong the subgenre's shelf life. The latest entry, Hawthorne, which debuted this week on TNT, begins in the midst of real-life health emergency, as President Obama advances a plan to provide up to 47 million uninsured Americans with health care coverage.

Jada Pinkett Smith in the lead role is game, capable and moving in a series that may be a fresh showcase for African-American talent. Hawthorne has promise; there are likable characters and some diverting touches, but beyond one highly notable casting coup, there’s little here that breaks new ground. By not tapping into the real-life drama of the current health care crisis, the series misses an opportunity to be both dramatic and topical.

Pinkett Smith plays Christina Hawthorne, the chief nursing officer at a high-profile hospital in Richmond, Va. A tireless advocate of her patients, Hawthorne leads a life that is part teacher, part negotiator, part air traffic controller for a busy ER. There’s precious little time for her to be the mother of an independent, fiercely intelligent teenage daughter; her private is life so painfully constricted that she takes to speaking to the ashes of her husband, who died a year before.

The various professional and social interactions that have made a modern American hospital such an appealing stage are all here. The show’s producers (including Pinkett Smith) clearly set the traps for future drama: The paramedic flirts with the admitting nurse; a doctor benignly spurns the advances of a young nurse; a short-tempered foreign-born doctor mangles the English language (a sure setup for an episode on the dangers of prescription errors and miscommunication).

Hawthorne mines a well-tapped vein. From Ben Casey to Dr. Kildare, from Grey’s Anatomy to House, from the just-canceled long-distance runner ER to the just-debuted Showtime dramedy Nurse Jackie, we’ve seen dedicated medical professionals go up against the system, and sometimes manipulate it, on their patients’ behalf. The maverick with a stethoscope is nothing new.

But Hawthorne has the potential to be the first serious hospital drama in an era when the health care system itself is on the verge of flatlining, a time when minority Americans are increasingly forced out of that system altogether. The Obama administration’s $1.5 trillion plans to overhaul the nation’s health care system should give Hawthorne a currency, a vitality that isn’t evident in the early going.

But the show deserves our patience. Hawthorne is a smart renewal of the sister as caregiver, casting Pinkett Smith in a historic role as the first African-American lead actress in a medical series since Julia, NBC’s groundbreaking vehicle for Diahann Carroll, which aired from 1968 to 1971.

(Angela Bassett, a standout of the final multiracial ensemble of ER, made that show’s 2008-09 season memorable; as attending physician Cate Banfield, Bassett’s depiction of the balancing act of her professional and personal lives was sometimes painful and always compelling. Grey’s Anatomy, ABC’s doctor-drama tentpole, features a deeply multiracial cast, about half of its members women.)

But Hawthorne needs to hook into the currents of today in a way that wasn’t evident in the pilot episode. There was nothing in the first episode —usually a reliable template for the rhythms and style of what is to follow—that hadn’t been done in TV hospital dramas over the past 20 years. There’s almost nothing here that represents a creative reaction to the unique and urgent challenges facing the American health care system right now.

Judging by its first episode, Hawthorne relies on too many of the standard devices of prime-time drama. But the producers can still make it the series it deserves to be, one that takes the pulse of a system in critical condition and does so in its own gritty, novel voice. There’s a lot to like, but we need more. And we need more that says today instead of the past.

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