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Ally-free in Beantown

ABC News devotes six hours to Boston, all too many of them looking like an extended ER episode; public TV's Reel New York finds soul among the city's 9/11-rattled denizens.

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Crisis central: Paramedic Kelly Gillen, in ABC's documentary series Boston 24/7.  

Even if we've never lived there, we all have our own Boston, an imaginary city on a spectral hill, consisting of the social anthropologies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, J. P. Marquand, Henry James, and Robert Lowell. Or the political economies of Edwin O'Connor and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. Or the crime novels of George V. Higgins, Robert B. Parker, and Linda Barnes. Or the television fantasies of David E. Kelley in Boston Public, Ally McBeal, and The Practice. Or box scores of the Red Sox and the Celtics. My own Boston is part Cambridge, part Fenway, part Roxbury, and a lot of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry at the old Garden. What ABC News has come up with, in six hours of prime-time programming, after three months of beans and cod, is something more like the NBC dramatic series Third Watch.

Not that everybody we meet in Boston 24/7 is a cop, a fireman, or a paramedic. We also meet several prosecutors, a high-school principal, a press secretary, a tabloid reporter, a restaurant chef, a victims' advocate who works with battered women, a health inspector who catches rats, and even the mayor himself, Thomas Menino, who will be reelected to a third term in the course of this TV series in which he spends most of his time on-camera being disappointed by or furious about the media. But everybody seems to be on the urban ramparts, as it were, in a permanent emergency. Their personal histories -- the lesbian cop who rides alone, the paramedic who was born without a left arm, the former pro-football fullback who works domestic-violence cases in the ghetto -- seem somehow secondary to the continuing social crisis, to the fires they are forever putting out.

Thus not every student can be saved from violence by even the most energetic educator, an accused rapist walks out of court after a "not guilty" verdict in spite of the best efforts of a prosecutor just back from maternity leave, a child will die in an ER pediatrics ward even though the doctor is blonde and fierce, and we won't even talk about the decapitation. None of these defeats is shrugged off. Which is not to say that our heroes and heroines never doubt themselves; except for the homicide detective, they all do. But they never doubt the job that must be done. And while there is a certain amount of camera-consciousness as they answer the next alarm, we seem all to have become so practiced at performing in public, so used to surveillance by cameras that are far from candid, that maybe we are always in rehearsal.

I mean no disrespect for senior producer Terence Wrong, executive producer Rudy Bednar, or correspondent Sylvia Chase, who know how to tell wonderful stories and who conspire here at some absorbing television. But both TV news and TV entertainment need reminding that big cities are as much literature, music, sports, and beer as we are emergencies. That even in Boston they go to movies, concerts, ball games, and bars like Cheers. That Boston College and Boston University have something to say about the tone and temper of the town, not to mention Harvard and MIT, so full of themselves just across the Charles River. That Route 128 tightens itself like a noose, choking the arterial roads with the worst drivers in America and the job market with engineers. And that the tourists still show up in order to stand on top of the famous dead in Mount Auburn cemetery. Cities are culture as well as fire alarms.

Which is also a reason to watch the first two hours of the new season of Reel New York. While both comprise short takes from independent filmmakers with variations on a theme of September 11, they make something out of the hole in our heads and our hearts: souvenirs, politics, parades, memorials, theater, murals, music, survival strategies, even a video game. In as many languages as media, what we get are imaginative additions trying to make up for the horrific subtraction.

  • Stargate SG-1 (June 7; 9 to 10 p.m.; Sci-Fi) returns for a sixth season on a new channel, losing only one of its original cast, Michael Shanks as Dr. Daniel Jackson. Whether Corin Nemec is an adequate replacement remains to be seen. But before Richard Dean Anderson, Amanda Tapping, and Christopher Judge resume their holy war against the Gou'ald, they must slip through a hyperspace window to save Stargate from an explosion that would destroy our world. Followed Friday nights on Sci-Fi by a fourth season of Farscape (10 to 11 p.m.), in which displaced astronaut Ben Browder is interrupted in his wormhole research by female aliens, mercenary pirates, and the Hound of Hell.

  • Deep Sleep (June 8; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E) brings back Amanda Burton for another series of mystery movies in which, as Crown prosecutor Helen West, she's almost exactly the same troublemaker as she was when she was a medical examiner in her previous series, Silent Witness. Those of us who can't get enough of Burton have no complaint. But you may never go to a pharmacy again.

  • Bobbie's Girl (June 9; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; showtime) sends 10-year-old Thomas Sangster, after the death of his parents, all the way to Dublin to live with his aunt, Rachel Ward, who turns out already to be living with, gasp, another woman, Bernadette Peters -- not to mention Bernadette's odd brother, Jonathan Silverman. As if things weren't already too complicated for a 10-year-old, there is also breast cancer.

  • Atomic Twister (June 9; 8 to 10 p.m.; TBS) asks Sharon Lawrence and Mark-Paul Gosselaar not only to survive a couple of tornadoes in the overrated American Southwest but also to prevent those tornadoes from causing a meltdown at the local nuclear-power plant. Well enough done, with Corbin Bernsen and Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis also running around in high winds, but it rather misses the doomsday point of The China Syndrome. Bad things will happen despite pluck.

  • American Standoff (June 10; 8 to 9:45 p.m.; HBO), produced by Barbara Kopple and directed by Kristi Jacobson, inquires into the bitter strike by James P. Hoffa Jr.'s Teamsters Union against Overnite Transportation, which decided to ignore a vote by its workers to unionize five years ago. From Kopple, who gave us the marvelous Harlan County, U.S.A., we expect something sympathetic to organized labor. The very name of Hoffa, on the other hand, rings a warning bell. Even so, late-stage capitalism is not at all a pretty picture.

    Boston 24/7
    June 4, 5, 6, 7, 11, and 12; 10 to 11 p.m.; ABC.
    Reel New York
    Fridays, June 7 and 14; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13.


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