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Embracing the patient, but neglecting the viewer

How can you talk trash about a reality series that brings help to the desperately ill and carries messages of medical hope to America?

ABC's ''Miracle Workers" is another TV good Samaritan in the manner of ''Extreme Makeover." It's a tears-of-gratitude show that goes all Mother Teresa and Marcus Welby on people who suffer from seemingly insurmountable ailments. Not only does ABC hook up the patients with first-class doctors, beginning tonight at 10 on Channel 5, it pays the bill for procedures that would make an insurance company cringe.

And noblest of all, ''Miracle Workers" is not ''Trista and Ryan's Wedding," although the emotional displays can be treacly, and it's not ''Fear Factor," even if some of the surgery scenes are decidedly gag-worthy. It's not the vilest roach in the reality sink.

OK, here's how to talk trash about this latest TV beacon of good works: It's kind of boring. It's a version of those obvious newsmagazine segments from the likes of ''Primetime," but longer, and more redundant.

Each episode of ''Miracle Workers" follows two dire cases. We meet each patient and his or her family, we're flies on the wall during their meetings with doctors, and, in the final minutes of the hour, we learn whether or not the operations worked. Along the way, the narrator-doctor reminds us of the intensity of the drama, in case the overdone soundtrack hasn't already signaled it enough: ''Twenty-two years of hope and dreams are hanging on this moment," he announces tonight.

We also get a major corporate plug, a plug the network certainly should have pulled.

The more suspenseful (read: manipulative) of tonight's cases is the story of Todd Heritage, a young Ohio father who has been blind since age 12. Can a stem-cell procedure help him? Who will donate the cells? Will Todd be able to see his wife and three children for the first time? The tension builds ploddingly, as it would in a grade-C script, and we are subjected to not one but two major reveals when doctors remove patches from Todd's eye.

Tonight's second case is less gimmicky. Vanessa Slaughter has a degenerative disc disease that has left her depressed, in a wheelchair, and, after a number of failed surgeries, pessimistic about finding help. Can the team improve her life? Will she smile again? Can ABC really expect us to wonder about these questions in a show called ''Miracle Workers"?

The members of the show's medical team are attractive, articulate, of course, and compassionate. They're an affectionate group, too, as they offer patients' families hugs during the trying times. But despite their perfection, even these Drs. Feelgood can't make viewers feel fully awake.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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