Test Pilot #66: Chicago Hope
Debut date: September 18, 1994
Series legacy: Award-worthy, but ultimately the second-place finisher to ER in the Great Doctor Shows of 1994
Hello there! Welcome back to Test Pilot, where we’re a bit behind schedule this week, so please accept our apologies for the delay.
Nevertheless, we’re eager to dive into the world of David E. Kelley-produced television once more! As a quick recap:
With David E. Kelley’s The Crazy Ones having just debuted on CBS, I thought it would be intriguing to take a look back at his career, which boasts numerous major successes along with a few peculiar choices.
While it may be problematic to attribute a series’ creative output solely to one individual, pilot episodes often provide us with the clearest insight into a writer’s vision for a project.
So, in the upcoming entries, we’ll aim to avoid delving too deeply into overly auteurist interpretations of Kelley’s work, although my guests and I will be on the lookout for recurring themes and common threads.
David E. Kelley’s place in television history is undeniably fascinating: is he a true innovator, or did he excel in one particular area for far too long?
Is he an advocate for women or simply another patronizing white male? Or perhaps, he embodies all these facets? We’ll do our best to unravel these questions.
Our third stop on this journey is CBS’s Chicago Hope, a show the network requested after Kelley gained prominence with Picket Fences.
Chicago Hope made a strong debut and even collected a few Emmy Awards over the years, but it’s primarily remembered for entering the competitive landscape simultaneously with NBC’s ER.
Well, that was the first show that Mandy Patinkin decided to leave because he had better opportunities elsewhere.
Today, we’ll determine if Chicago Hope merits further discussion or if it’s content with its place in history as a footnote.
Joining me today is Sidant Magar. Sidant serves as the Editorial Assistant at The A.V. Club in Chicago, where he has been a regular contributor for the past three years, covering topics ranging from television and books to music and film.
His work has also been featured or is forthcoming in publications such as The Atlantic, Paste, ChicagoSide Sports, Pick-and-Pop Culture, and various music blogs.
Kevin is a proud graduate and avid football fan of Northwestern University, where his enthusiastic sports tweets occasionally pester media professionals, and his television tweets occasionally befuddle sports enthusiasts.
In his spare time, he maintains the Tumblr page Old Yelliott Smith, a delightful combination of adorable puppies and Elliott Smith lyrics.
Sidant: Initially, I wanted to discuss Chicago Hope because it was the other significant hospital drama set in Chicago.
However, I was too young to be watching a lot of dramatic television in 1993, so I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of television history converging when Chicago Hope and ER went head to head on the fall schedule.
Think about how peculiar this history seems, especially considering CBS’ current dominance in television ratings.
CBS premiered a medical drama set in a Chicago hospital, created by David E. Kelley, in a special Sunday time slot, just one day before NBC’s highly anticipated medical drama, ER, also set in a Chicago hospital.
The following week, both shows began airing head-to-head in the Thursday 10 PM slot, and surprisingly, NBC emerged victorious.
Not only did they win, but ER went on to enjoy a 15-season run as a runaway success. In that same year, Michael Crichton became the only author to simultaneously hold the top film, book, and television show in America.
Meanwhile, Chicago Hope was moved to an earlier time slot and later to Mondays, fading into obscurity as the loser.
How often can NBC claim victory over CBS in a conflict during my adult life?
Since those glory days on Thursday nights for NBC, the network has seen its fortunes decline, struggling to find a worthy successor for its flagship programs.
In hindsight, they made some questionable decisions, such as the now laughable choice to cancel JAG after just one season, which subsequently found success on CBS, giving rise to the unstoppable NCIS franchise that continues to dominate television today.
Chicago Hope, despite picking up scattered Emmys during its run, never truly recovered from ER’s initial triumph.
Frustrated by CBS’ pressure to create a second show following Picket Fences and increase his workload while diminishing the quality of each show, Kelley chose to depart during the second season, followed by the show’s biggest star, Mandy Patinkin.
Both would later return to the series, but the revolving door of cast members and creative talent couldn’t compete with ER, which managed to retain its core cast for the first five seasons before transitioning to a revolving door of doctors within an established setting, all while Chicago Hope had already been canceled.
These kinds of television showdowns occur sporadically, typically when imitators emerge in response to a new hit, like the numerous Lost imitators you discussed earlier or the family sitcoms emulating Modern Family.
Just a few years ago, Once Upon A Time and Grimm debuted in the same season, both occupying the supernatural/fantasy niche.
OUAT even spawned a spinoff, while Grimm has maintained a decent audience on Friday nights.
However, the Chicago Hope/ER-type showdown is a rare event: a major network face-off in the same time slot within one of the major procedural genres—doctors, lawyers, and cops.
David E. Kelley began his career in legal drama with L.A. Law, but he primarily alternated between medical and legal shows throughout his career, with high points including Ally McBeal, The Practice, and Boston Legal, and the outlier being Boston Public, until this year when The Crazy Ones was introduced.
So, now is the time for me to mention that my father is a doctor (an anesthesiologist close to retirement, a topic I’ll address shortly), and during my upbringing, I absorbed a lot of peculiar medical knowledge on the periphery simply by listening to my dad recount work stories at the dinner table.
However, my interests in entertainment and my father’s profession intersected most intriguingly when we occasionally watched medical dramas.
He had little to no interest in anything depicting the medical profession for the same reason any other profession hates seeing how mainstream media often misrepresents their work: it’s rarely accurate enough not to induce cringing.
I participated in Mock Trial, which meant I watched a lot of legal shows because Mock Trial is more akin to acting than it is to practicing law.
However, Law & Order got both sides of the cop/lawyer divide horribly wrong, at least in the eyes of those who actually held those jobs.
That’s how my father would dissect medical dramas.
To him, House is laughably absurd as a Sherlock Holmes-esque hospital mystery series.
Grey’s Anatomy, or any other romance-focused soap, exaggerates the hospital environment, which supposedly fosters so much romantic entanglement between coworkers on those shows.
Scrubs was an exception because, at least for the first two seasons, it more accurately portrayed the life of a recently graduated medical school intern navigating the complexities of medical care in a teaching hospital.
So, when I delved into Chicago Hope, I did so with the context of perhaps the final significant victory NBC scored over CBS before reaching a towering peak and declining over the next two decades.
I came with minimal preconceived biases about medical shows stemming from my father’s work.
Structurally, the Chicago Hope pilot evenly divides its focus among three storylines, with a few additional character developments sprinkled in.
First, there’s the transition from the old-guard surgeon Arthur Thurmond (E.G. Marshall) to the up-and-coming hotshots Jeffrey Geiger (Patinkin) and Aaron Shutt (Adam Arkin), orchestrated by Chief of Surgery Philip Watters (Hector Elizondo), who was once Thurmond’s mentor.
The second storyline showcases Dr. Shutt using a new surgical device to remove a brain tumor from a nervous older man who wants Shutt to see him as a person, all while Shutt grapples with his wife, Camille, a nurse.
Finally, the third and most prominent storyline involves Watters bringing in a case from another high-profile Texas hospital: the separation of Siamese twins connected at the stomach, who share vital internal organs.
He wants Geiger, who is considered the best surgeon in the best hospital in the country, to perform the surgery, despite Geiger’s lingering heartache over losing a son in infancy.
Since this is the pilot episode and the primary focus is on establishing the major characters, Kelley didn’t have the time to expand the cast to the extent it would reach in subsequent seasons.
This means we don’t see Peter Berg, Jayne Brook, Vondie Curtis Hall, or Thomas Gibson, all of whom stayed on for multiple seasons.
Mandy Patinkin gets to showcase his talent, delivering charming wit while hinting at emotional instability beneath the surface.
He is undoubtedly the most dynamic part of the episode, leaving an impression wherever he goes, embodying the archetypal doctor who can fix anyone but himself.
Now, let’s revisit the changing of the guard for a moment. It’s the only point during Chicago Hope where I felt that Kelley had a perspective on the medical profession, as well as on the often mundane aspects of hospital administration.
Thurmond makes a critical error during surgery, nicking a patient’s aortic arch, which forces Shutt and Geiger to intervene and save the patient from a less confident surgeon who might have otherwise caused the patient’s death.
Thurmond argues that it was a minor mistake, while Watters wants it to be Thurmond’s final mistake before his declining skills lead to a more severe error.
However, the hospital board sees Thurmond as the individual who attracted substantial grants and the top medical school graduates to train at Chicago Hope.
It’s a clash of politics, reputation, and foolish pride against what is best for the patients. Interestingly, the episode resolves in a way that benefits both sides.
The board supports Thurmond—after a compelling scene with Peter MacNicol as the hospital’s attorney who engages in damage control to prevent a lawsuit—but Watters refuses to schedule Thurmond for any surgeries.
I’ve encountered this plot in various medical shows, but it highlights that Kelley doesn’t view doctors as infallible gods of surgery.
Moreover, it underscores the limitations of a surgical medicine focus and suggests a broader perspective on evolving medical practices (hence the introduction of that high-tech tumor-dissolving instrument).
My final significant observation: the melodrama is overwhelming.
The final segment, essentially just the intense surgery to separate the Siamese twins, epitomizes what the phrase “right in the feels” was coined to describe.
It aggressively tugs at every conceivable heartstring but ultimately leans toward the Perry Mason-style conclusion where everything miraculously turns out well.
Consequently, by the time the pilot concludes, both young male surgeons are seen as heroes, the aging Thurmond seems on his way out, and two separate baby girls are wheeled out to their parents.
While there are hints of the underlying brooding sadness beneath the surface, particularly with Shutt’s divorce and Geiger’s son, the pilot doesn’t quite have the courage to establish the complex, high-risk reality of surgery.
To be candid, I peeked at the opening segment of the second episode of Chicago Hope, where Patinkin enters a room shortly after an elderly woman’s death and passionately persuades the grieving widower to allow a procedure involving the implantation of a prototype artificial heart.
I understand that second episodes are typically rushed in terms of writing, but that idea was simply preposterous and immediately eroded the do-no-wrong attitude the pilot had toward Patinkin’s character.
There’s nothing in the Chicago Hope pilot that suggests it would become anything more than a solid genre show with respected actors delivering familiar stories while incorporating new technology.
However, like ER, I can’t quite discern why these shows, to varying degrees, became hits other than being reliable and initially sketching out one or two characters worth following.
Perhaps it’s just that my weakness for workplace dramas centers on firefighters—seriously, I’ll watch anything involving firemen, as that profession fascinates me.
However, it takes a very specifically crafted hospital drama to capture my attention.
The Chicago Hope pilot feels like a relic, now more interesting as a part of television history than as a medical drama.
But what did you think, Kriti? Did the Chicago Hope pilot appear to be more than a somewhat well-regarded footnote in the annals of workplace dramas to you?
Where does it fit within the legacy of David E. Kelley’s shows? (I haven’t even touched on my thoughts about this in relation to the bolder but poorly received Monday Mornings.)
How much of this show and ER have you watched over the years?
And just how much more captivating is Mandy Patinkin than the rest of the cast here, even when delivering some overly cheesy dialogue?
Kriti: We’re about the same age, so I wasn’t watching much TV when “Hope” and “ER” squared off.
However, over time, I’ve seen a substantial number of “ER” episodes.
Before this project, I hadn’t seen a single second of “Chicago Hope,” or at least, I don’t consciously remember doing so.
After watching the pilot, I’m not very surprised that David E. Kelley’s medical drama was outperformed by “ER,” despite some truly outstanding performances at the top.
You mentioned your general ‘meh’ reaction to most medical dramas, no matter how well-produced they are.
While I largely share that sentiment, “ER” was also a different animal when it began, especially from a technical standpoint.
“24 Hours,” the “ER” pilot, was fantastically directed, with Rod Holcomb masterfully capturing the kind of chaos and frenzy that can define an emergency room (or at least, that’s how I imagine it; don’t tell your dad I said that).
In contrast, the “Chicago Hope” pilot isn’t particularly visually engaging.
The opening sequence attempts to ramp up the energy with Patinkin’s Geiger rushing through traffic to get to the hospital while on a cell phone call with his bookie (because he’s an outlaw or something).
However, the level of urgency just doesn’t match that of “ER.”
To be fair to “Chicago Hope,” the two shows were more distinct than history might lead us to believe.
In premise and setting alone, “ER” had an advantage; emergency rooms inherently offer more excitement than broader approaches to the hospital setting.
The operating room sequences in the “Hope” opener aren’t unexciting, but they’re fairly standard. Once you’ve seen one surgical scene, you’ve essentially seen them all.
Without the pervasive sense of excitement and danger, “Hope” simply can’t compete. You rightly pointed out that “Hope’s” most compelling story revolves around Thurmond’s declining skills.
It provides some strong individual moments and underscores that the high-stakes drama in this workplace extends beyond the operating room.
However, even that, along with the Siamese twins storyline, cannot compete with the aftermath of a horrific accident.
Similarly, although Patinkin lives up to his billing throughout this first episode – charming, complex, a bit of a secret jerk – the rest of the “Chicago Hope” cast doesn’t leap off the screen like most of the actors in “ER.”
Adam Arkin and Hector Elizondo are consistent, reliable performers, but they don’t have the same impact as Noah Wyle, Eriq La Salle, or Anthony Edwards.
While it’s easy to make this assertion in hindsight, the styles of the two shows seem fitting for their respective networks at the time.
“Hope” is straightforward and professional but lacks a certain ‘oomph,’ whereas “ER” is bold, grandiose, and just feels different.
That’s the difference between CBS and NBC.
One might argue that you could switch the shows, and “Hope” could have been the cultural juggernaut, but I don’t believe that to be the case.
In any case, this isn’t just about how “Chicago Hope” couldn’t measure up to “ER.” Six years, over 140 episodes, and a handful of Emmys are nothing to dismiss.
Shifting our focus to the show’s creator, I couldn’t help but contemplate the context in which “Hope” was born.
After the success of “Picket Fences,” CBS asked Kelley for another show, which makes sense.
But after watching the opening episodes of both series, you can certainly discern which one bears the more distinct Kelley signature.
I didn’t care for “Picket Fences” at all, but it possessed a specific voice and vision of its world. While it didn’t reach the zenith of Kelley-ness that people might associate with his work on “L.A. Law,” “Ally McBeal,” or “The Practice,” it still felt like the somewhat peculiar, mostly lackluster show that its creator wanted to craft.
In contrast, the “Chicago Hope” pilot doesn’t exude that same feeling.
There are fleeting moments where something shines through – like Thurmond playing the piano or Shutt realizing that the new-fangled machine is merely unplugged – and the Siamese twins surgery is one of those elements that feels like Kelley’s attempt to tap into a nebulous zeitgeist. But that’s not much to go on.
We’ll never know for sure, but I wonder if CBS asked Kelley for a second show and followed up with a note about making the next project somewhat safer in some way.
Here are some of the other dramas on CBS’s schedule in 1994-1995: an aging “Northern Exposure,” “Due South,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and “Touched By an Angel.” They still aired movies on Tuesdays.
To say that they needed a safe, broad hit would be an understatement. Although “Hope” didn’t achieve the same ratings success, cultural impact, or longevity as “ER,” it did help CBS secure a spot on the schedule at a very odd time.
It’s also not surprising that Kelley experienced burnout and left “Chicago Hope” within a few years.
The show illustrates what happens when producers gain significant clout in the industry.
It’s great to be able to create your own shows, sometimes even multiple ones, but it’s an enormous amount of work.
Conclusions on legacy: It’s just fine; Patinkin!
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