It sounds like a nightmare. You are responsible for the death of someone, somehow, and the remorse is churning your soul and burning on your face. How did this happen? A loud, cold voice is speaking to you in front of everyone you know, shaming and demoralizing you, rubbing your nose in your bitter disgrace.
For the doctors at Chelsea General Hospital on TNT’s “Monday Mornings,” though, it’s just another Monday morning. The new medical drama from David E. Kelley and Dr. Sanjay Gupta revolves around the weekly sessions when doctors are singled out for their mistakes in front of their colleagues. They stand on a stage while the hospital chief of staff, Dr. Harding Hooten, berates them. “Do you do anything other than prescribe Extra Strength Tylenol,” Harding asks a doctor responsible for a death in Monday night’s premiere, at 10. Played by a stern Alfred Molina with snakelike eyebrows and a fierce gladiator haircut, he’s a waking horror.
The episodes of “Monday Mornings,” which is based on a novel by Gupta, revolve around these shame events. Outside of the “morbidity and mortality” meetings, as they are known, the show is a straight-up TV medical drama, with fast-paced cases of the week, children with cancer, mysterious illnesses, and repulsive glimpses of bloody brain macaroni salad. But the conferences lend each hour a needed sense of thematic focus, a center amid the hospital chaos. In the second episode, Dr. Buck Tierney is taken to task for his too-eager approach to transplantation, allowing actor Bill Irwin a strong, cohesive moment in the episode as he says, “I am not a predator, I am not a vulture.”
Here’s the problem with “Monday Mornings”: The characters. They are types, and in some cases stereotypes, with none of the weird quirks you might expect from Kelley, the maker of “Ally McBeal” and “Picket Fences.” The most obvious example is Dr. Sung Park (Keong Sim), a Korean-American with a heavy accent whose catchphrase appears to be “Not do, dead,” in reference to surgery. Also up there when it comes to stereotyping: Ving Rhames as Dr. Jorge Villanueva, a black trauma expert who has a magical ability to bring calm to the stressed-out. They are likable characters, as are the rest of the ensemble. Even Molina’s Harding shows a soft side in episode 2, when a 13-year-old girl declines yet another brain surgery.
But, at least based on the first three episodes, they are pretty one-dimensional, and not just in terms of race. Fans of any TV ensemble drama set in a law firm or a hospital are going to recognize these people immediately. Dr. Tyler Wilson (Jamie Bamber) is the gentle hunk having a flirtation with the unhappily married Dr. Tina Ridgeway (Jennifer Finnigan). Dr. Sydney Napur (Sarayu Rao) is a young workaholic who is sacrificing her romantic life for her pager. Again, they are easy to spend time with, and the writers and actors may well succeed in deepening them as the season progresses; but initially, they are boilerplate.
It’s a pleasure to see Kelley letting go of his signature excesses this time around. He has had a bad habit of misusing his characters as debate tools; “Harry’s Law” was particularly guilty of that pitfall, with legal cases that often appeared to be excuses for Kelley to sound off about ethical issues. He has also had a fondness for surrealistic flights of fancy, to the point where they are gimmicky tics rather than character revelations. But “Monday Mornings” doesn’t succumb to either of those flaws, as it aims for the stark, ensemble drama of “ER.” It’s a straightforward piece of work that, with some deepening of characters and a few detours from too well-trodden plot paths, could be a decent addition to the TNT lineup.