Stanley Tucci, playing the part in 3 Lbs. of an empathy-impaired neurosurgeon in a New York City hospital, likes to describe the human brain as “wires in a box.” Of course, Tucci’s Dr. Douglas Hanson also says that the cerebral cortex is “the only thing that separates us from the crocodile.” Whichever, he’s more comfortable with this wounded body part, weighing roughly the same as a rump roast, than he is with the sedated patient, behind whom he stands with a knife in his hand and a mask on his face. The ineffables—soul, spirit, mystery, miracle—he leaves to such associates and protégés as Mark Feuerstein, whose Dr. Jonathan Seger can be counted on to care a lot.
In the 3 Lbs. pilot, both a lawyer and a musician check in to Stanley’s shop with tumors. A son is frantic about his father, and a mother about her daughter. Words fall down from the nightmare ceiling during a performance of a string quartet, as if expressive aphasia were a gentle rain. A dead twin forwards a message to those she left behind. And even Tucci sees ghosts. On the other hand, have I mentioned the ambitious and manipulative doctor who will steal your patient while you’re scrubbing up? Or the sexy neurologist who’s so low-tech she goes barefoot? Or the vampy vendor of heavy-breathing medical machines who somehow suggests that stretching out for a CT scan is hard-core bondage? Or that even Tucci, in mixed company in a locker room, strips down to his skivvies?
The acting’s up to the best professional standards of dramatic-series television, and the cinematography combines the artiness of All That Jazz with the colonoscopic invasiveness of CSI. But 3 Lbs. obviously hasn’t yet decided if it’s going to be about life, death, and neuroscience, in which case the producers should read Richard Powers’s new neurological novel, The Echo Maker, or if it will settle instead for woo-woo and wink-wink, in which case they needn’t even be literate. Until it does decide, we are left with the usual imponderables:
(1) What is it with the skinhead look? Once upon a time, there was only Yul Brynner, then Telly Savalas, and finally Michael Jordan, as if only one celebrity per decade were allowed such bowling-ballsiness. Now everybody’s running around as naked on top as a bathtub knee, from Bruce Willis to Ice-T and Tucci. Rather than hint at wishful thinking on the part of balding executive producers, the scorched-follicle persona suggests instead manly single-mindedness and purity of purpose, like a guided missile.
(2) What is it with hospitals as stage sets? Brought to you by your local health insurance provider/begrudger: dress up, strip down, IV drip, showtime! It’s as if, in the attic on a rainy afternoon, we were pinning moths and killing flies. Blood clots, liver tumors, lumbar punctures, nose bobs: It’s our very own Petit Guignol.
(3) What is it with all the hanky-panky? ER makes a ratings comeback riding a topless teenage girl with a fractured ankle and Neela’s sex dreams about John Stamos. To edge out CSI, Grey’s Anatomy wastes our time with a woman whose two uteruses are occupied by two separate pregnancies and a middle-aged couple who stick together mid-sex when his genital piercing gets caught on her IUD. Meanwhile, Meredith is so addlepated she can’t decide if she’s throwing up because of pregnancy or ulcers. Speaking as someone who has spent more than his fair share of the past few years in cold hospitals with warm machines, I would have checked into a better hotel, where doctors actually dock.