Through the Looking Glass

Peter Berg struts into the lobby of the Mercer Hotel escorted by his dog and one of the writers on Wonderland, his new drama, which premieres on ABC March 30 (see John Leonard’s review, page 80). Apparently, Berg is a big enough deal to elicit full-tilt sucking-up from the maître d’, who rushes over to thank him for “gracing the lobby” with his presence, and to inquire if Berg is “going to do a little afternoon-tea action?” He is indeed, and his writer, Scott Burns, orders Evian.

“And for the pooch?”

“A small bowl would be killer,” Berg tells him.

It is difficult to get Berg’s full attention, what with the ringing cell phone, the vibrating beeper, the fussing dog, and the fawning staff, but you get the sense it would be difficult anyway: He rarely looks you in the eye, and he answers questions with practiced, deliberate responses, except when he doesn’t feel like answering at all. He flips out some photos of his wildly adorable three-month-old baby Emmett. Is Berg married?

“Uh, I think so.” (This followed by a hearty round of heh-heh-hehs from Burns.)

If Berg seems part cocky Hollywood stud, part prep-school keg-party lug, it’s not all that surprising a personality to match his career so far. He was Linda Fiorentino’s hot, dumb “designated fuck” in The Last Seduction, he was the bad-tempered, hockey-loving Dr. Billy Kronk on Chicago Hope, and he was the writer-director of the 1998 bachelor-party-gone-stripper-murder flick Very Bad Things, which was widely dismissed as very bad. So here’s the weird thing: Wonderland is the most original New York TV series to come along since George C. Scott roamed the slums in East Side/West Side.

Shot entirely in New York City, this textured, engrossing drama about life in the psychiatric ward at fictional Rivervue hospital asks questions about the boundaries of sanity and healing through the stories of its doctors and patients – a schizophrenic cop-shooter; a pregnant, coffee-craving emergency-room chief; a foxy shrink obsessed with bedding models.

Berg spent eight months conducting research at Bellevue (Bellevue was the show’s original title) and brought all four of the show’s writers in as well. They started out with five, but one guy “couldn’t take it,” Berg recalls. “It was too intense.” When he talks about his time at the hospital, he actually manages to focus and temporarily resist incoming calls and passing schmoozers. “Friends, people, anyone we take to Bellevue … they’re so charged up after seeing what goes on,” he says. “I divided my time between the maximum-security ward for criminals – from Goldstein the subway pusher to a guy who swallowed a couple of batteries at Rikers in a suicide attempt – and the psychiatric-emergency program, in which people come in off the street or are brought in by the police or EMT. I’d start talking to a doctor or a patient, and I’d spend what I thought was like 25 minutes, and I’d look at my watch and it would be six hours later.”

when berg was growing up in chappaqua, his mom brought home stories from the mental hospital where she volunteered. Years later, an episode of Chicago Hope recharged his interest in investigating the world of the insane. “David Kelley created this character – Mandy Patinkin’s wife – who developed schizophrenia at a late age, drowned their two children, and was put in an institution,” he says. “It occurred to me that nobody had ever really done a show that attempted to deal with those issues from a realistic perspective. The other representations have been caricatures from an extreme and distorted point of view.”

Though he cites dark classics like Titicut Follies and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as major influences, there are no Nurse Ratcheds at Rivervue. One of the most compelling characters is Dr. Robert Banger, the hospital’s chief forensic psychiatrist and a devoted, divorced dad who cares so much about his patients that he jeopardizes custody of his kids. When the doctors mess up on Wonderland, it doesn’t seem perverse or punitive; it seems like human frailty, their own struggles with mental health.

These are complex characters, and Berg has managed to attract some quality talent to portray them: Banger is played beautifully by Ted Levine, who visited the land of the criminally crazy previously as the flesh-wearing killer in The Silence of the Lambs; his ex-wife is Patricia Clarkson, who was so memorable as a smacked-out German lesbian in High Art; psychiatric criminologist Dr. Neil Harrison is Martin Donovan, a regular in the films of Hal Hartley (Trust, Simple Men, Amateur); and other actors who may be less easily recognized are equally impressive in Wonderland.

The show’s link to Very Bad Things is its willingness to present horrifying situations as the result of ordinary occurrences. “He’s developed good instincts about finding the flinch point – the point where people would normally look away – and then going one step further,” says Burns. “A lot of interesting things happen in terms of a story then, because it’s not always what you think will happen next. The first day I was at Bellevue, there was a guy who had killed his kids, and his wife came by. I thought, My God, what kind of interaction do you have with your husband after he’s killed your kids? She wanted to have a conjugal visit before he went away, because she wanted another baby. One of the doctors said, ‘Well, good – at least we know he’s not the most fucked-up person in the world.’ “

But Wonderland is not just about the truly mad; it’s as much about the little ways we all lose our minds every day in New York. “Bellevue is its own world, but it’s also right in the middle of Manhattan, and it’s a reflection of what’s happening around it,” says Berg. “They say we all experience bipolar symptoms, so we’re certainly not trying to limit our portrait of mental illness to the severely debilitated.” He looks around the lobby at the fancy outfits and sleek settees. “I mean, what about the people right here in this room?”

Through the Looking Glass