The little boy sits in a big hospital bed, his head in a horrific neck brace, his eyes closed, a beeping monitor in the background. His mother stands over him with a pair of impossibly good-looking doctors, watching the boy with all their might, waiting.
"Move your hand if you can hear us," says one of the MDs. "Can you do that?"
The camera zooms in on the boy's hand, so soft and innocent, resting on the bed. There is no movement. Nothing. Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Can you move your hand, son?" says the tearful mother, the voice of maternal willpower. Again, the camera turns to the hand, waiting. No movement. Silence. A long beat ensues. And then: the miracle. The boy wriggles his hand ever so slightly. Tinkling, emotive piano notes begin on the soundtrack, the doctors nod at each other with relief, the mother gasps, and the boy opens his eyes. "Mom," he says.
That's a scene from every mediocre network hospital drama ever, including NBC's "The Night Shift," which premieres on Tuesday night at 10. It's the kind of manipulative, boilerplate material that you could use as a teaching tool at the school for TV hacks, in a seminar called "How to Be Bland and Formulaic." It is definitively generic.
Yes, "The Night Shift" — set during the dark hours at a San Antonio ER — has its mild satisfactions as brainless pap. It's comforting in its predictability, calming in its unwillingness to challenge you morally or intellectually, distracting with its cast of pretty people. It's a fantasy about our medical system; the writers are committed to creating unequivocally heroic characters who'll do anything to save patients. Despite all the blood and tense surgery ("BP and heart rate dropping"), despite the hospital's funding issues personified by Freddy Rodriguez's money-obsessed administrator, "The Night Shift" offers up a shot of optimism while you sit hypnotized on the couch.
But creatively, the show is hollow. We've seen each of the characters many, many times before, and they were types to begin with. Irish actor Eoin Macken plays the buff Afghanistan veteran who gets in bar brawls and rides a motorcycle but is a brilliant doctor. He has his shirt off before the first commercial break. He and the new night-shift boss, played by Jill Flint ("Royal Pains"), were a couple — and, well, my money's on some back-and-forthing in their relationship before all is said and done. But right now, they're just colleagues with a past and a penchant for very significant eye contact with each other.
There's Ken Leung's loyal and laconic ER whiz, and there's Brendan Fehr's closeted former Army medic. There's a newbie, of course, played by Robert Bailey Jr. Do you think the newbie is squeamish? Do you think he gets hazed by the gang? No spoilers here; no spoilers necessary.
NBC has a small hit with "Chicago Fire." "The Night Shift" plays as if the network simply ordered up another "Chicago Fire," this time in a hospital in Texas. Or maybe, in the concept meeting, the executives talked more about "ER" and "Third Watch," both of which "The Night Shift" is clearly straining — and failing — to emulate. The action may be as fast and persistent as a gurney on the way to an operating theater, but nothing can hide the wobbly scripting and weak characters it's all riding on.