Rubén Blades wants to know: "What's life without cheese?" Andre Braugher tells him: "Longer." Meanwhile, in the morgue of a high-tech Boston teaching hospital that reminds one of its residents of "a medieval kingdom," frazzled students are actually smoking cigarettes. What's secondhand smoke to the dead, or even the dead-tired, compared with the fire-breathing oratory of their feudal lord? Braugher is the Gideon in Gideon's Crossing (Tuesday, October 10; Wednesdays thereafter, starting October 18; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC). And aptly named, a Prince of all Disorders that flesh is heir to. In the Book of Judges, Gideon was a hero-liberator as well as a role model. Inspired by tough-love Yahweh, he led the Israelites in their destruction of the Baal-worshiping, desert-raiding Midianites, after which we got monarchy, monotheism, and Gideon Bibles in hotel rooms and hospitals.
Braugher's Gideon takes disease personally. In the pilot of executive producer Paul Attanasio's splendid new series, he's still angry at his late wife for having "surrendered" to ovarian cancer. ("She was ready to die; I wasn't.") He will undertake the radical treatment of "venture capitalist" Bruce McGill on a gunslinger's sort of dare. McGill, a raider of corporations instead of desert caravans, can't buy off or leverage his way out of the metastasizing of his kidney cells. And he is far too unpleasant to appeal to anyone's sympathy. Shrewdly, he appeals instead to Gideon's pride and vanity, the refuse-to-lose, show-off side of him. ("A doctor," Gideon lectures his residents, "is engaged in a kind of performance.") Between them, maybe there is enough ego to intimidate death. If so, then McGill can safely return to playing golf with the Japanese clients he disdains, berating his wife, and pushing money through his modem.
Except that in passing back and forth over these dreadful borders, Gideon's Crossing asks subversive questions about the nature of the lives we live. As in the best episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street, in which Braugher's Frank Pembleton for six memorable seasons seemed to be interrogating Yahweh, the first hour of yet another medical show turns out, like a serious novel, to be genuinely worried about our souls. From almost anything, this doctor will save us. But for what have we been saved? Pure professionalism cleans up a crime scene; the shadows in the mind are something else. If it's "all a game," as McGill insists, then why, after he has apparently won a round, is he no longer even interested in reading the newspaper for his daily dose of Schadenfreude? His contempt for others metastasizes into a contempt for self. Wounds are sometimes windows. Medicine isn't meaning. And the pilot concludes with an ambivalence that's almost surly.
It will take us a while to sort out who's who among the multiculti residents, the usual motley of hunks and babes -- Eric Dane, Russell Hornsby, Ravi Kapoor, Sophie Keller, Hamish Linklater, Rhona Mitra, and Kevin J. O'Connor -- lashed to the mast of the hospital ship. But Braugher, of course, is why we watch. He's not only more complicated than, say, the combined staffs of ER, Chicago Hope, City of Angels, and St. Elsewhere; he may be more complicated than television. He could even transcend racialized discourse. After decades of social construction from drops of blood and certificates of birth and Supreme Court decisions and sitcom stereotypes and black bodies variously eroticized, demonized, fantasized, merchandised, and lynched -- in a bad-faith culture that would itself be unimaginable without the blues -- how are we to accommodate an African-American actor who is nobody's "other" than his own? Whose contradictions make the rest of us seem simpleminded? Who is smarter, deeper, and better than we are?