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TV Tonight: Trauma

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The first few minutes of Trauma, the paramedic drama that debuts tonight on NBC, seems determined to show where the network put some of that money it’s saving with The Jay Leno Show. Depicting a crisis/rescue/disaster on a rooftop high above San Francisco, it starts with a guy getting fried in an electrical accident and ends with a spectacular helicopter crash. After that, we’re thrown into a multi-car accident capped off by a fuel-truck explosion. When NBC said it was going to set a medical show in the Bay area, turns out it meant the Michael Bay area.

As NBC has trying to been emphasize in its advertising campaign, Trauma does not look like just another medical show. It’s true. The problem is that Trauma still mostly sounds like any old other medical show.

In particular, the special effects aside, Trauma plays a lot like NBC’s old Third Watch, which similarly focused on the emotional effects of high-stress work on emergency responders. If you were a Third Watch fan, this will probably be enough for you. If you, like me, are a fan of NBC’s Friday Night Lights—whose producer Peter Berg brings us Trauma—you’ll be disappointed that Trauma doesn’t bring the same kind of freshness and well-drawn characters that FNL did to high school drama. (Berg also made the fantastic but short-lived Wonderland, set in a psychiatric hospital, so I had high hopes for him here.)

The main action of Trauma’s pilot picks up on the one-year anniversary of the crash, as the surviving paramedics are still dealing with the fallout of the accident. There’s hotshot chopper pilot “Rabbit” Palchuk (Cliff Curtis), who acts out by becoming ever more reckless; Nancy Carnahan (Anastasia Griffith), who’s shakily trying to return after being out on leave; and Cameron Boone (Derek Luke), a married man who we see macking on a mildly injured crash victim—um, because it’s a manifestation of the life force?

The performances are strong all around, but there’s too much that seems too familiar in the paramedics’ crises, both personally and professionally. We see that old standby, the medic getting a civilian to help him administer a tracheotomy; that older standby, the frustrated paramedic continuing to pound on a victim’s chest while someone yells, “He’s gone! He’s gone!”; and Rabbit marking the anniversary of his surviving the crash by racing his car Bullitt-style through the streets, declaring “I can’t die.” (The last of these does lead to an amusing scene involving Brad Leland, FNL’s Buddy Garrity.)

Technically, Trauma is very well-made. There’s a well-curated soundtrack (Nick Lowe, The White Stripes and the Buzzcocks, for starters), and the chaotic shots of emergency scenes look as if the guy who made FNL decided to shoot a medical drama—which, of course, he did. And the show resolves, in contrast with the explosive opening, on a low-key, touching note that holds out some hope the show could find a voice and develop its characters.

I worry, though, that the need to deliver the “high-octane” action show that NBC seems so invested in will continue to hold Trauma back as a character story. One has to assume that after the expensive pilot, Trauma won’t be able to rely on these spectacular visuals week after week. At that point, if it wants to maintain interest without pyrotechnics, it’ll need the writing to deliver some indoor fireworks.