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TV's Newest Admission
Debut: Chicago Hope alum Peter Berg created this disturbingly aictive ensemble drama set at a New York hospital's psych unit.

Martin Donovan and Michelle Forbes head a primo cast as Neil Harrison and Lyla Garrity, married doctors on staff at the fictional Riverview Hospital. In the pilot, all hell breaks loose after a patient opens fire on Times Square, then commits an act of brutality in the ward that leaves at least one life in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Dr. Abe Matthews (Billy Burke) faces his own inner demons while helping a suicidal man; and Riverview head Robert Banger (Ted Levine) finds himself locked in a bitter custody battle. (1:00)

TV Guide April 8, 2000 issue
Next Stop, Wonderland
by David Handelman

Forget the emergency room - welcome to the psychiatric ward. The extreme hospital drama has arrived

It's just another morning on the hospital ward. Doctors Robert Banger (Ted Levine) and Neil Harrison (Martin Donovan) are leading an entourage of medical students on their daily rounds from bed to bed, waking up the patients and assessing their status. Today, there's a patient who says he's "depressed." Banger asks him why. "Something happened," the man says evasively. Turns out he poured gasoline on his mother and set her on fire.

OK, this isn't your everyday hospital ward. It's got prison bars, uniformed guards and signs warning: NO WEAPONS BEYOND THIS POINT. Doctor Banger runs the forensic psychiatric ward of a New York public hospital, tha place where crime suspects displaying mental disorders land between arrest and their ultimate destinations.

Nor is it your everyday network drama series. But Wonderland (Thursdays, 10 P.M./ET), created by former Chicago Hope star Peter Berg, got the go-ahead from ABC to air as an eight-week, mid-season tryout. "There's no question this is a very risky show for us," says Lloyd Braun, cochairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group. "But it's unlike anything else on television right now."

The risky, gritty Wonderland further blurs the line between cable and network programming. Like The Sopranos and Oz, the show takes a decidedly non-glossy approach to its volatile subject matter. It's shot in a documentary, improvisational stye; its writing staff includes literary humorist Mark Leyner and Scott Burns, an advertising executive who had never written for TV before; and it's filmed in New York on locations that include the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, which radiates an institutional creepiness that set decorators could never fake. Even the actors' dressing rooms are former solitary confinement cells.

"It's the real deal," Levine says with a bit of a shutter. "There's some ghosts in those walls for sure." When Berg left ChicagoHope after four years, he swore he was done with hospital drama and was convinced that his taste was too extreme for the networks. (One Hope episode he'd written about family psychoses was deemed so disturbing that CBS has vowed never to rerun it.) Yet just a year later, Berg, 38, is behind an extreme hospital drama on ABC. He was inspired watching the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" on TV and, he says, "It occured to me that there'd never been a show that took a realistic approach to the psychiatric concepts of medicine."

When Berg was 13, his mother, Sally, who voluteered at New York Hospital's psychiatric unit, introduced him to Frederick Wiseman's "Titicut Follies," a 1967 documentary about a Massachusetts mental institution that made a profound impression on him. Growing up in Chappaqua, New York, he had always heard about the city's notorious Bellevue hospital, where the corrections department and psychiatry met. "It represented a scary, forbidden place," he says, "and there's something irresistable about scary, forbidden places."

When Berg got a deal with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's Imagine Entertainment to create a pilot, he spent six months there following the doctors on their rounds. "From the minute I walked in, I was hooked," he says. "It's a very dramatic and dynamic place. I felt like I'd stumbled onto some uncharted territory."

After securing stringent non-disclosure agreements, Bellevue opened its doors to the writers (including veterans of Law & Order and Homicide) and actors (Homicide's Michelle Forbes, Joelle Carter, Michael Jai White and Billy Burke), who spent time with patients whose sordid crimes had landed them on the covers of New York tabloids. "It was amazing," recalls Forbes. "I walked away with enormous respect both for the doctors and for patients who are devastatingly ill and have families broken apart by this illness."

Despite the harrowing backdrop, what will ultimately drive the show will be the doctor characters' personal struggles. "Their lives are very complicated; there's a lot of pressure," says Donovan. "When they get a high-profile case, like subway shovers, they have to deal with the D.A.'s office, the press and all the pressure to, quote-unquote, fry these people. And they have to be able to steer clear of the politics of it and fight for what they believe in."

The toughest problem has been fashioning plot resolutions. "It's not like a cop show or a traditional medical show where you can cure a patient or convict a criminal in one episode," says Berg. "Mental illness is a bit more ambiguous than that. So it's a curse and a blessing for the show that we're trying to portray it as realistically as we can."

But realism still has its limits in network TV. When Berg submitted the pilot to ABC, the brass found some scenes too disturbing. So he wrote and filmed a softer first episode, which emphasized the family lives of the principals. After much debate, the network decided to go with a toned-down version of the original pilot. "It was the best example of what the show is and the version Peter had in his head," Braun says. "Some scenes were tough for me to watch, too, but it also was extraodinarily gripping television."

ABC's view, says Braun, is that "it's not about mental patients; it's a much broader show than that. It's about very multidimentional, flawed and yet heroic characters who work in this world." Even if it's toned down, the show is certain to spark debate -- which is fine with the cast. "The worst thing you can do," says Levine, "is be half-baked."

Besides, Donovan has a foolproof plan for selling Wonderland to the public: "We're thinking of bringing in Regis to run the hospital."

NOTE: This episode never aired. TV Guide was published before ABC put Wonderland on hiatus.

Editor's Choice
"The Raw and the Uncooked"
Thurs 10pm, April 20, 2000

Jeremy Piven, who wooed a shrink in Cupid, revisits the mental-health system in an alternately funny and heartbreaking episode.

Piven is Charles Fischer, a stand-up comic whose manic-depressive rants turns the ward into a lock-down comedy club - until his keen take on Abe (Billy Burke) cuts the doctor a bit too deeply. In another plotline, Derrick must call for backup while handling a patient (Ruth Williams) consumed with sexual desire; and Neil (Martin Donovan) tries to trick Lyla into seeking help of her own as she slips deeper into denial about their unborn baby's chances for survival. Tammy: Patricia Clarkson. Heather: Joelle Carter. (1:00)

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