by Karen Petruska
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Heartland premieres on TNT on June 18 at 10 p.m. (EST), following The Closer. Starring Treat Williams (Everwood) as a transplant surgeon, the show features a hospital team dedicated to continuing life through tragedy.
Based on the first two episodes, both penned and directed by series creator David Hollander, Heartland has yet to find its steady beat. Williams’ character Dr. Nathaniel Grant dominates the storylines, but he must juggle a nervous hospital board, an inexperienced fellow, an ex-wife/co-worker, a girlfriend/co-worker, and a teenage daughter. Throw in a mentor refusing a needed transplant (special guest star Dabney Coleman) and a new hotshot doctor on staff, and you have a pretty full plate for one character.
Dr. Grant is unquestionably gifted, but his arrogance grates. Williams proved on Everwood that he could play an arrogant doctor fighting to maintain his humanity, but so far his character on Heartland has yet to register as sympathetic. His ex-wife throws herself at him despite his history of work obsession and philandering, his girlfriend waits patiently as he repeatedly blows her off, and the hospital staff quakes in his wake. I couldn’t help but wonder why everyone was falling all over themselves for this jerk. Tragic flaws have provided the basis for drama for centuries, yet little can make up for an unlikable protagonist.
In the first episode, Hollander struggles to establish the relationship of Grant and his ex-wife, Kate Armstrong (Kari Matchett). Their first badly-written exchange features Grant asking Armstrong to accompany him to dinner. “Oh, that’s right, you divorced me,” he says as an afterthought. This awkward introduction to their characters only becomes more so as Hollander depicts the two bickering IN FRONT OF their new love interests. This scene is painfully awkward and rather unbelievable. In the second episode, Grant and Armstrong decide to put aside all romantic possibilities to focus upon their role as parents and co-workers. Let’s hope they stick with it, because the tension between mature exes can generate intriguing conflict without reducing male-female chemistry to easy sexuality. Matchett’s elegance as an actor certainly deserves a more nuanced portrait of exes on the job.
The addition of R. Thomas Jonas (Kari Matchett) in the second episode as a possible rival for Dr. Grant provides a much needed counter to the weight placed upon Grant. Jonas’ charisma that made him stand out on Prison Break may help humanize Dr. Grant here. Carrying a bit of a grudge for Grant’s shabby treatment of him years ago, Jonas also espouses a radically different attitude than Grant towards donor transplantation. Their relationship promises to infuse Heartland with a much needed spark of life.
So far, the science has been pretty vague. Dr. Grant is a radical in his field, willing to accept organs that others are not. Just how he accomplishes this is unclear, but the risks he takes may pay off for audiences if Hollander lets Grant lose sometimes. Also, Hollander hasn’t yet explained how organs are assigned. For anyone who has watched a friend or family member languish while awaiting a needed transplant, the ease with which Dr. Grant seems to come up with organs belies reality. But these are petty concerns that the show will likely address throughout the lifespan of the series.
One conceit suggests that Dr. Grant sees the spirit of the donors who provide the organs for his work. Yet Hollander is unable to provide much of a context because Grant is rarely the person who finds and secures the organs. Instead, this is the work of his ex-wife: convincing the families of dying patients to sign over their organs. She shares more of a connection with the dying donors and their families, yet he somehow knows enough about the donors to witness their lingering spirits in the patients their organs save. Hollander seems a bit desperate to show Grant as sensitive but even this conceit may derive more organically as Hollander develops the balance between telling the stories of the dying and the living.
Heartland poses challenging questions about the link between donors and recipients. Where is the line between duty and harassment for Armstrong as she attempts to convey the urgent need for organs to the families of potential donors? Do these same family members who lose loved ones deserve any satisfaction from learning how donated organs have saved individual lives? Examining the complex relationship between death and renewed life, Heartland has an inexhaustible store of human relationships to investigate.
Basing a review of an entire series upon only the first two episodes is impossible and really rather irresponsible. Nervous networks frequently cancel quality shows that require time to develop their potential, and I have no interest in playing party to that mindset. Luckily, cable television (even ad-supported cable television) generally demonstrates more patience. Heartland boasts an impressive cast, a highly relevant premise, and multifaceted narrative potential. With time, it may realize its potential.
Karen Petruska is a film critic living in Chicago.
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