Thursday, November 30, 2006

What Makes Us Us

3 Lbs.

It is the weight of the human brain. The weight of memory, of knowledge, of inventiveness, of personality. The weight of the soul. Your real weight when it comes down to it.

It is also the title of a quite involving new TV series starring Stanley Tucci and Mark Feuerstein as neurosurgeons. And because people who write about TV for a living like to say that a show is like something else, this show gets compared to House for what I feel are largely superficial reasons. But I’ll get to that later.

In the episode I saw on Tuesday night featured two stories (I hesitate to call one of these stories a case). In the main story Kathleen Ellis, a woman that Dr. Doug Hanson (Tucci) treated three years ago for a cerebral aneurysm, has returned to the hospital complaining about double vision, symptoms similar to what she exhibited before. Tests conducted by Hanson and his new associate, Dr. Jonathon Seger (Feuerstein) reveal that not only has she developed a new aneurysm but it is located in a part of the brain that is extremely difficult to reach and nearly impossible to operate on without either killing her or leaving her with extreme brain damage. Hanson is all for trying to deal with the aneurysm surgically, but Seger expresses doubts about whether it might be better to do nothing and let nature take its eventual course. He and Hanson go with the patient to a nearby park to discuss her options and in a move that thoroughly surprises Seger, Hanson clearly and concisely tells her off all the risks that go along with the surgery. Her trust in Hanson and his abilities is so complete that she gives her consent to the operation without qualm despite Seger’s insistence on repeating his reservations.

Things are complicated by the arrival of the patient’s brother, Brad. He’s a lawyer and immediately on arrival at the hospital he cancels the woman’s surgery and is intent on taking her out of the hospital as soon as she awakens from some medication that the doctors gave her to sleep. He is convinced that because Hanson operated on her successfully the first time he is able to exert undue and improper influence on her to get her to agree to the surgery. He demands that Hanson give him the odds that his sister will die during the surgery. Hanson has no patience with the man and tell him that the odds of her dying are 100% since the procedure requires that he reduce the body temperature to induce hypothermia and stop her heart for exactly thirty minutes while he repairs the aneurysm. And then he goes ahead and prepares to do the surgery anyway. After all, the brother can’t revoke the approval that his responsible adult sister gave. When the Brad finds out that the surgery is going ahead he flies into a rage, threatening to sue the hospital and getting into a physical confrontation with Seger, who isn’t part of the surgery because of the doubts he’d expressed to Kathleen about the surgery. Eventually Brad settles down and starts to play a piece of classical music on a piano that is located near Hanson’s office.

Eventually, Seger decides to go to the OR, persuaded by his colleague Dr. Adrienne Holland (Indira Varma) that he needs to participate in the operation. He arrives at just the right time. The heart surgeon who is working on the case and needs to do a bypass before the cooling procedure can be accomplished doesn’t believe that he can harvest a viable piece of vein to do the surgery and wants Hanson to go ahead without the bypass. Seger informs the heart surgeon that the likelihood of success goes from 23% to 25% if the bypass is done, but if the operation is done without the bypass and fails people will blame the heart surgeon while if the bypass occurs and it fails the blame will go to Hanson. The bypass is successful, as is Hanson’s surgical procedure although he finishes just seconds before the time limit for the hypothermia.

The “B” Plot in this episode is not quite comic but is far less serious and more personal than the main story line. A visiting professor of Astronomy who starts to see his student’s faces only as smudges. He is suffering from something called Prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” He goes to see Dr. Adrienne Holland about his situation and she puts him through a series of tests to determine if he actually does suffer from the condition. At the same time she is feeling an intense attraction to him – he’s handsome, gentle, intelligent and she has always had an interest in astronomy. In conversations with Seger she goes over the ethics of doing other tests when she knows that there is nothing medically that can be done for the condition. Eventually, after she admits to the patient that there is no medical treatment and that there are no more tests she can perform, he invites her out on a date, which she accepts. And suddenly things go all wrong. When he arrives at the hospital for their date, he asks Adrienne if Dr. Holland is in her office. He doesn’t know her face, just the context of her in the office. She claims that she has work to do and can’t go out on the date and then agonizes over her decision. It all ends up well in the end when he shows up at her home shortly before he is supposed to leave the city. He takes pictures of parts of her face and it is highly implied that they made love.

3 Lbs. is an interesting show although not one that is easy to dissect. The two principal actors are excellent of course. I first became interested in Stanley Tucci when he played Richard Cross in the first season of Murder One opposite Daniel Benzali. I first saw Feuerstein when he played Cliff Calley, one of Aaron Sorkin’s assorted “good” Republicans in The West Wing. Tucci brings the right degree of arrogance to the role of Doug Hanson without being over the top about it. It is a similar quality to what the character Richard Cross had. On the other hand Feuerstein is nicely positioned to play the less arrogant and more wondering Seger. I am less impressed with Indira Varma’s performance as Adrienne Holland, which seemed to consist mainly of bantering with Seger and looking beautiful. I have a suspicion that this might have been the fault of the episode that I was watching rather than of the actress or the character. One character whose existence in the episode, and possibly the series, I did not understand was Dr. Thomas Flores, played by Armando Riesco. In the episode I watched he seemed to do nothing beyond drinking coffee and acting hyper because of it. Oh yes, he also broke up the fight between Seger and Brad Ellis, but mostly his role seemed to be comic relief and not very good comic relief at that.

I found the writing good at points, uneven at others. There are things – like the piano outside the office – that I’m sure would have become clear to me if I’d seen the earlier episodes, but there are other things that seemed just too convenient. At other times, as when Kathleen’s brother Brad cancels the surgery and said that if he hadn’t been in Asia when his sister had the first surgery he wouldn’t have permitted that, when I wondered at the character’s motivations. Did he want his sister dead, paralyzed or otherwise subjected to the effects of the aneurysm exploding? It was even more convenient at the end, after Kathleen’s surgery had been a success and he was waiting for her to regain consciousness, that he suddenly became Hanson’s biggest booster. It is too sudden a transition. The secondary plot was fun but it really felt as though it had simply been tacked on to give Indira Varma something more to do in the episode than just banter with Seger.

The obvious comparison is made to House, and as usual with such comparisons I think it is made simply because writers need to compare shows to each other. For all that House the show is interesting to watch because of the performance that Hugh Laurie delivers as Gregory House, the character is damaged. I’m not talking physically but rather emotionally. This emotional damage makes him susceptible to addictions, it makes him treat the people around him badly, and yes it makes him arrogant. Hanson on the other hand is arrogant because he’s a surgeon. He’s not just any type of surgeon either, he’s a neurosurgeon, on of the two sorts of surgeons – along with heart surgeons – for whom the old line about the difference between God and a surgeon (God doesn’t think He’s a surgeon) truly applies. In short he comes by his arrogant manner honestly. He’s not damaged. He doesn’t treat his subordinates like ignoramuses even while he doesn’t treat them as equals. On the whole, House is a more complex character filled with various nuances, while I suspect that Hanson is more realistic in that he feels (at least to me) closer to what a real neurosurgeon would be like.

As for the show, I have to say that House is far superior to 3 Lbs. but they are different shows in tone and substance. I hate to suggest that 3 Lbs. is the more realistic program but it seems more grounded in reality. The show is reasonably interesting, and probably worth watching at least a few times, even with the things that irritated me about the writing, but I can’t say that it falls into the top echelon of shows that must be seen. And opposite Law & Order: SVU and Boston Legal that might very well be what it would need to be.

No comments: