Somehow David E. Kelley -- from "Picket Fences" to "The Practice" to "Boston Legal" -- can make a show work despite itself. Overly dramatic speeches, weird cases, provocative topics, hammy acting, dream sequences, broad characters, pure wackiness; in the hands of others, those elements would sink a show. But Kelley knows how to hone it all into something extremely watchable.
And the producer/writer/show creator does it again with "Monday Mornings" (10 tonight, TNT), an hour-long medical drama that engagingly examines the lives and learning experiences of a neurosurgeons and other doctors at fictional Chelsea General.
The title refers to the '311' conferences the surgeons have on Monday mornings, when doctors' patient care is examined by their peers. Dr. Harding Hooten (Alfred Molina with his true English accent) takes the lead at those meeting, calling doctors to a stage where they stand behind a podium and explain a case. Hooten, the chief of surgery, applauds the successes and lacerates them for errors. Those errors can be medical or personal.
Also leading the staff is Dr. Jorge Villanueva (Ving Rhames), compassionate and wise. The talented staff includes haunted hotshot Dr. Tyler Wilson (Jamie Bamber); Dr. Tina Ridgeway (Jennifer Finnigan), Wilson's close, ahem, confidante; Dr. Buck Tierney (Bill Irwin), a jerk of a transplant specialist; Dr. Sung Park (Keong Sim), brilliant and abrasive; intense and lonely Dr. Sydney Napur (Sarayu Rao), and resident Dr. Michelle Robidaux (Emily Swallow).
With Molina and Rhames as the vets, the show gets solid footing. Rhames can be hammy in roles, but he isn't on "Monday Mornings." Instead, he tones it down, plays it straight and is funny and compassionate. Molina, too, executes wonderfully. Irwin brings layers to being unlikeable. The most troubling character is Sim's; he speaks like an Asian Tonto, and in true Kelley fashion, he's often mocked for it and given lines like "stuck between a rock and an eight ball." Some will find it offensive (and probably implausible that he works at the hospital), yet as the episodes continue (I saw the first three), the character becomes less of a caricature.
While we see a lot of interesting cases and interesting, quirky patients, what makes the show sail are the examinations of the cases at the Monday morning meetings. Here, even happy endings can reveal a doctor's flaws -- an inflated ego, an insensitivity to a patient's family member, a disregard for ethics. It's powerful to see flaws that have life and death consequences explored.
Kelley came to this work through a novel by CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta (who also produces and co-wrote some episodes). It's a perfect match; Kelley loves hot button issues and health care is hot, and stuff like race and class fall nicely into its realm. So "Monday Mornings" should give us plenty to talk about Tuesday mornings.