'Three Rivers': A great show is not in striking distance

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Despite fits and starts and many changes along the way (and then changes to those changes), CBS's "Three Rivers" is fine.

It's not great, it's not awful. It's an adequate, conventional CBS-y medical drama about transplant surgeons set at Pittsburgh's fictional Three Rivers Regional Medical Center.

What makes it CBS-y? "Three Rivers" (9 p.m. Sunday, KDKA) is a procedural medical drama, which means character development comes second to plots-of-the-week. It's also a very safe show that's generally uplifting with characters that evince a bland camaraderie.

Knowing it's set in Pittsburgh, local viewers may be chagrined to see the show's first images are of Cleveland. The premiere episode's teaser is set at a Cleveland construction site where an accident impacts a medical emergency involving a pregnant woman in Pittsburgh.

The show's intent is to tell stories about organ transplantation from three points of view: Donor, patient and doctor. Sunday's premiere tells those stories as well as a nontransplant subplot about a boy whose condition causes him to vomit blood.

Alex O'Loughlin ("Moonlight") stars in "Three Rivers" as Dr. Andy Yablonski, who viewers are told is a top transplant surgeon. Viewers also get some sense of the daddy issues that envelop Dr. Miranda Foster (Katherine Moennig, "The L Word"), whose now-deceased father founded the transplant program at the hospital and worked alongside current head of surgery Dr. Sophia Jordan (Alfre Woodard, "St. Elsewhere").

Other characters include mildly arrogant Dr. David Lee (Daniel Henney); pretty, unremarkable ER doc Lisa Reed (Amber Clayton); chipper operating assistant Pam Acosta (Justina Machado, "Six Feet Under") and newbie, occasionally clueless transplant coordinator Ryan Abbott (winning newcomer Christopher J. Hanke).

Ryan is intended to be the audience's window into the transplant world, but in the show's blah writing he's less a character and more a vessel for the dissemination of facts. He frequently spouts talking points that get across a pro-social message about organ donation in a clunky, heavy-handed way. Ryan also makes an embarrassing-to-watch blunder when he almost hysterically confronts a donor family. That awkward moment is redeemed by a scene of reconciliation later in the episode that Hanke underplays with admirable subtlety.

No scenes with actors were filmed in Pittsburgh for Sunday's episode but the show uses many exterior establishing shots of the city skyline, an ambulance rushing over one of our bridges and another shot that comes through the Fort Pitt Tunnel.

The hospital exterior is the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles but through the magic of special effects, you can see One Oxford Centre and PPG Place rising behind it in at least one establishing shot (look quick or pause the picture on your DVR/VCR). This is also confusing because it makes the hospital appear to be in the middle of the Golden Triangle even though a backdrop through windows in the hospital conference room shows a view of the Point from somewhere near Heinz Field.

Sunday's episode also includes a shout-out to Oram's Donuts in Beaver Falls.

Compared to the fall's other medical dramas -- NBC's "Mercy" and "Trauma" -- "Three Rivers" is an improvement over the painfully bad "Mercy." "Trauma" is a grittier program with more nuanced characters but no one in the "Trauma" pilot came across as particularly likable.

All the "Three Rivers" characters are pleasant in a vanilla way -- a lot like this humdrum new show.

Up 'Three Rivers'?

We know "Three Rivers" stood a chance of doing well in local ratings because of 1) The ratings strength of KDKA in prime time and 2) Local interest in Pittsburgh-set shows as seen in local ratings for CBS's "The Guardian," which was canceled as the 12th most popular prime-time show in Pittsburgh (No. 38 nationally).

That makes CBS's decision to premiere "Three Rivers" this Sunday particularly foolhardy -- especially for KDKA -- because it airs opposite a Steelers game on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" on WPXI.

Although Pittsburgh is just a small part of the national ratings picture, local viewing of the Steelers will not help the national ratings for "Three Rivers." And don't discount the national impact of the Pittsburgh diaspora: Many former Pittsburghers are also likely to watch the Steelers over "Three Rivers."

Go behind the scenes of "Three Rivers" in Sunday's Post-Gazette.

Kelly Frey baby update

WTAE morning news anchor Kelly Frey called with an update about her baby boy, Bennett, born last week. He was diagnosed during her pregnancy with a severe form of holoprosencephaly, a major defect of brain formation. The impact of that remains to be known but Frey sounds upbeat.

"He's eating, breathing, growing and doing everything a newborn should," she said. "His diagnosis does change. We've had a lot to take in over the last few days: What lies ahead, what doctors think it is. It's not going to be easy. We're taking things day-by-day. We're taking in a lot of different news and what they think is going to happen, but you know what, he's managed to defy everything up to now and even they admit that."

Frey directed viewers to see new online photos of Bennett and family at weddingsbyheather.com/blog/2009/09/bennett-ryan-1-week-old.

More from WQED

The big news out of WQED Multimedia's annual board meeting Wednesday was that president and CEO George Miles will retire in September 2010.

Newly promoted chief operating office Deborah Acklin, who will be Miles' successor, said she sees no further staff reductions in the company's future.

"On Q" is only funded through December but Acklin is optimistic that new funds will be raised to keep the nightly newsmagazine in production.

A documentary and follow-up panel discussion on teen suicide will air at 8 p.m. Oct. 22.

"Science Mission 101," a pilot for a new series aimed at middle school students, will air at 8 p.m. Nov. 12.

The last funded "Dave & Dave" special, "Eat Pennsylvania 2: The Second Course," airs at 8 p.m. Oct. 8. (Although Dave Rhodes was among nine staffers laid off from the station this summer, he came back on a freelance basis to finish the project.)

Rick Sebak's 2010 national program has a title: "Breakfast Special."

Development continues with "American Masters" on an August Wilson documentary. Other projects in the works: "The Shot Felt 'Round the World," a Carl Kurlander documentary on polio; and a documentary on jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams.

Channel surfing

An international deal has ensured that "Primeval" will get another 13 episodes, including in the U.S. on BBC America in 2011. ... Verizon's FiOS TV has added four new HD channels: AMC (Channel 731), WE tv (649), IFC (894) and Fuse (716), bringing the number of HD channels to 126. ... Steel Valley Middle School student Amanda Barnett, 14, will be featured in the HBO Family documentary "Locks of Love, The Kindest Cut" (6 p.m. Saturday). ... Discovery Health Channel's "Mystery Diagnosis" will film an episode at St. Clair Hospital in Mt. Lebanon next Friday. The episode will feature a case of Systemic Capillary Leak Syndrome that was diagnosed by Dr. Gregory J. Fino, a pulmonary disease specialist.

Tuned In online

Follow TV news from the Post-Gazette on Twitter or Facebook. I'm registered as RobOwenTV on both sites.

Today's TV Q&A responds to questions about "Little People, Big World," KDKA's anchor assignments and Comcast. Tuned In Journal includes blog posts about "Mad Men," "Cougar Town" and WQED programming. Read online TV coverage at post-gazette.com/tv.

In this week's Tuned In podcast, online features editor Sharon Eberson and I discuss "The Good Wife," "Flash Forward," "Project Runway" and "Three Rivers." Listen or subscribe at post-gazette.com/podcast.

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv.


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