Combat Hospital: Welcome to Kandahar!

Combat Hospital - Ken Woroner

ABC’s new war zone medical drama, Combat Hospital [Tuesdays, 10/9C] wants to be a dramatic version of M*A*S*H, but leans in equal proportion towards Grey’s Anatomy. It’s an uneasy mix that captures the chaos of war and the difficulties of medical work in such a context, but tries a little too hard to meld that with character development.

Our points of entry into the series are Canadian trauma surgeon Major Rebecca Gordon [Michelle Borth] and American trauma team leader Captain Robert ‘Bobby’ Trang [Terry Chen] – both of whom have just arrived. They’ve hardly announced their arrival before they are given mops and told to mop up blood, but the arrival of new patients gets them into the trauma center and, subsequently, the OR.

Their CO is Col. Marks [Elias Koteas] leads by doing. He’s a younger Sherman Potter, staying with the M*A*S*H analogy – tough but fair, and in an odd way, fatherly. He always carries his standard issue pistol and an unexpected occurrence in the OR shows this to be a good idea.

Then there’s civilian surgeon/black marketer Dr. Simon Hill [Luke Mably]. He’s a whiz in the OR, a bit of a horndog and purveyor of medicinal sleep aids, exotic carpets and who knows what else. He’s pleased to meet Rebecca, but not Bobby – to the point of being rude…

There’s also an Australian army psychiatrist, Dr. Grace Pedersen [Deborah Kara Unger] who runs a women’s clinic off base – that’s stocked via ‘requisitions without paperwork’ – and drafts Rebecca to help out. She seems like a decent enough person, but a bit manipulative.

The series premiere, Welcome to Kandahar, dumps Rebecca and Bobby into a whirlwind of activity. Injured allies, unusual protocols [nurses and orderlies know where all the equipment and meds are, doctors don’t; doctors mop the floors] and even the number three Taliban man in Afghanistan come through the hospital in the first forty-eight hours they are there – and the episode ends with them running back into the hospital, still without sleep, as more casualties arrive.

Welcome to Kandahar is an acceptable series premiere. It quickly establishes its main characters and the more important peripherals [like Col. Marks’ aide who functions as a more dramatic version of M*A*SH’s Radar O’Reilly, always a step ahead of the CO] and gets the action going. Daniel Petrie Jr.’s script [based on a story he helped devise with two other writers] mixes mundane and eccentric in agreeable proportions and isn’t entirely lacking in wit [there’s follow up to Col. Marks’ gunplay in the OR that is pretty savagely funny, for example].

With all the activity in the ep taking time away from more subtle nuances in character development, Petrie still manages to give us a sense of who all these people are – and how they’re going to fit together.

Ian B. MacDonald’s direction is solid, but, for the most part, not much more. Welcome to Kandahar moves like a bat out of hell, but Macdonald doesn’t really make as much of the quiet moments as he could. Instead of feeling like character beats, they mostly come across as attempts to catch one’s breath.

Combat Hospital might seem a bit dark for summer fare, but it definitely has the potential to become a very good show. I plan to give it a couple more weeks to see where it goes.

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Photo by Ken Woroner/courtesy of ABC