Television Review

Diagnosis: weak plot

Alex O’Loughlin stars as a smug but brilliant surgeon on the new CBS drama “Three Rivers.’’ Alex O’Loughlin stars as a smug but brilliant surgeon on the new CBS drama “Three Rivers.’’ (Sonja Flemming/Cbs)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 3, 2009

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‘Three Rivers’’ is going to have a profound effect on viewers. After watching the new CBS medical drama about organ transplants, you’ll never think of coolers in the same way again. Once a sacred picnic essential, a portable home to beer and burger patties, coolers will hereafter be identified with the cross-country transfer of hearts on ice. And we’re not talking romaine.

The series, which premieres tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Channel 4, is otherwise pretty useless. “Three Rivers,’’ named after a fictional Pittsburgh medical center, is just more TV gurney sprinting - the same material that drove “ER’’ for 15 seasons. Patients’ vitals crash, pregnant women are put in mortal danger, young black men are shot amid gang violence, actors are required to spit out many mouthfuls of medical terminology as the blood flies. We’ve been here before, and before that, too.

The new twist is supposed to be that “Three Rivers’’ will revolve almost solely around transplants. But over the years every other medical series has featured transplant plotlines, along with the attendant ethical and emotional issues and the clock-is-ticking pace. The thought of watching a family battle over their dearly departed’s organs on a weekly basis - it sounds as inviting as driving miles over speed bumps. Sure, the show will raise awareness of organ donation; but it is certainly not going to raise the profile of good TV drama.

Casting and nuanced writing might have helped, but neither are in evidence here. Alex O’Loughlin, formerly of “Moonlight,’’ is the smug but brilliant and heroic surgeon. He arrives at meetings late, but everyone knows he’s worth the trouble. The premiere has him trying to save a man who has no health insurance, and coolly tossing off lines such as, “Bottom line, you need a new heart.’’ O’Loughlin has a wooden delivery that is ultimately forgettable, and Alfre Woodard, as an administrator, is similarly bland.

The only member of the ensemble with some distinction is Katherine Moennig, who plays a surgeon with a habit of caring too much and losing her temper. Moennig, who played Shane on “The L Word,’’ holds the screen, but the script lets her down. She’s burdened with a one-dimensional daddy complex - her father was a famous surgeon who neglected her - and by the end of the premiere you might already be tired of her issues.

“Three Rivers’’ has gone through a few changes in recent months. The original pilot was reshot, and then the reshot pilot was put on hold so that CBS could air a later episode as the premiere. But all the tinkering doesn’t seem to have improved the product. Ultimately, it seems, no amount of surgery can save such a weak premise.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at More TV, at

THREE RIVERS Starring: Alex O’Loughlin, Justina Machado, Christopher J. Hanke, Alfre Woodard, Katherine Moennig, Daniel Henney

On: CBS, Channel 4

Time: Tomorrow night, 9-10

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