Since nothing else seems to work, why not throw excellence at ER and see what happens? All at once like a speed-freak rush, Wonderland (Thursdays, starting March 30; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC) is simultaneously an ensemble series set mostly in the psych ward of a public hospital in New York City; a handheld inquiry into the nature of madness and mercy; a savage critique of the politics of justice; a dream-tracking of fault lines and fissures in the seething self; a descent by bathysphere into a therapeutic hell that makes Girl, Interrupted, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Snake Pit look like summer camps; and -- as if it were possible to hear the music of wounds whose edges crave to heal, played on strings of raw nerve -- a cantata of the damned.
It is a Wonderland in which Alice herself is stalked. Executive producer Peter Berg, who used a knife on people in Chicago Hope, has written and directed the pilot. Co-executive producers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Tony Krantz have apparently spent time in places like Bellevue. But they also seem to have consulted Robert Altman (on cross-cutting scenes, overlapping voices, and extreme behavior) and maybe Paul Thomas Anderson (an excess of everything except frogs). And the shrinks they've rounded up to staff this frantic intensity are as frazzled as the clientele.
Dr. Robert Banger (Ted Levine), chief of forensic psychiatry at "Rivervue," is fighting his estranged wife (Patricia Clarkson) for custody of their two children. Dr. Neil Harrison (Martin Donovan), a specialist in psychiatric criminology, worries about his wife, Dr. Lyla Garrity (Michelle Forbes), who, besides being in charge of a critical-response facility for patients suffering broken-mind emergencies, is five months pregnant and feeling deprived of caffeine and nicotine. Dr. Derrick Hatcher (Michael Jai White) goes home from boot camp for med students to single fatherhood. Dr. Abe Matthews (Billy Burke) is the compulsive womanizer. Dr. Heather Miles (Joelle Carter), as you'd expect with a name like Heather, is the nubile resident.
All these doctors, and their nurses, and their security guards, talk all the time, and only occasionally hear one another, because their patients are screaming. And so are cops, the media, and the D.A.'s office screaming, because Rivervue's patients are usually suspected perps. Outside the psych ward, their gaudy derangements are grisly crimes. They are what one doctor calls shadow people, who embody society's worst fears -- to be wished away or put down like a mad dog. "I catch ghosts," Lyla tries to explain to a review board. And those ghosts don't show up in the blood work; medical technology can't see the misfiring of a neurotransmitter that turns into an instruction from Gaia, Zeus, or Satan.
Lyla is explaining herself to a review board because she turned away a walk-in patient named Rickle (Leland Orser), who will later on take rejection in the Coliseum Books store from a young woman looking at a paperback copy of Pindar's Odes as a paranoid-schizophrenic excuse to gun down six people in Times Square. Lyla turned him away because the computer was down, she didn't have access to his previous history, and she made a judgment call that he wasn't dangerous. On the other hand, as she admits to her husband, she was sick and tired and just didn't like him: "I wanted him gone." On a third hand, she will never be 100 percent successful catching ghosts because she isn't psychic. And on a fourth, one would think she's already been punished enough for her mistake by what happens in the emergency ward. I'm not going to tell you what happens in the emergency ward in the very first hour of Wonderland, but it might be the most shocking thing I've ever seen on commercial television, especially for those of us who felt that Homicide never quite recovered from the departure of Michelle Forbes.
Meanwhile, between competency hearings on his parenting skills, Dr. Banger must try to persuade a babbling Rickle to take his medication against the advice of an attorney who wants him in "psychotic free fall" to bolster his insanity defense, while an A.D.A. seeks to choreograph the gunman as a "poster child" for capital punishment in what Banger refers to as "the Giuliani death dance." And a Morgan Stanley investment banker (Jay O. Sanders) is so distraught at his wife's leaving him that he isn't safe so long as he's still attached to his own wrists. And if a 71-year-old grandmother really attacked her silent husband with a pair of scissors, what about her knitting needles? And rising all around these screaming wounds, these manic arias, is a choral movement of Greek myths and French bras, of flying-saucer wallpaper and hypodermic syringes, of handcuffing and channel-surfing -- a liturgy of panic disorder, sexual dysfunction, substance abuse, and suicide. This is the sort of series so craftily written that after a ballpoint pen fails to work in the first hour, in the next hour we can count on a fountain pen's being used to kill somebody.
If shrinks are generally reviled in novels and films, they are more often valorized on the small screen -- maybe because an intimate medium is predisposed to believe, like a Freudian, that most of our ogres live at home, under the bed, instead of outside in the lousy weather of politics or history. Still, it's a friendliness to the profession that not only includes Hal Holbrook and Tom Conti in TV movies but goes back to Bob Newhart's therapy group, Allan Arbus as Sidney Freedman on M.A.S.H., Elliott Gould in Sessions, Robbie Coltrane as Cracker, and Carolyn McCormick on Law & Order, as well as forward to Frasier and Dr. Katz. Even in this distinguished company, Wonderland, like The West Wing, is as good as television gets.