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Austin Chronicle TV Eye

Down the Rabbit Hole

By Belinda Acosta

APRIL 10, 2000:  As I was engrossed in the premiere of Wonderland (ABC), the new drama set in the psychiatric unit of New York's fictional Rivervue Hospital, I couldn't help but wonder what Fred would have thought. Fred wasn't exactly a friend, but someone whose life sort of sideswiped mine 13 years ago. He was a brilliant and diabolically funny man. He was also schizophrenic, and I took part in admitting him to a state mental hospital. The talk about Wonderland has ranged from glowing to dismissive ("It won't last against ER"), and mental-health advocates have objected to the show, complaining that the show focuses on "the extremes of mental illness," thereby playing off stereotypes of the mentally ill.

For the less die-hard ER fan, or for those of us whose interest has been waning with the re-hashed storylines, Wonderland is a breathtaking alternative. First of all, the central cast is marvelous. Michelle Forbes and Martin Donovan play married doctors Lyla Garrity and Neil Harrsion on the Rivervue staff. Billy Burke plays Dr. Abe Matthews, and head of the whole place is Ted Levine as Robert Banger. The first episode introduced each character, but more importantly, showed how each person copes with the demands of their job -- which range from the head-bangingly routine to high-voltage. It is the high-voltage aspect of the show that's brought the most criticism.

After a seriously disturbed man opens fire in Times Square, the shooter and his victims are rushed to Rivervue. The camera careens around the graphic emergency room scene with breakneck speed; all the while, the shooter becomes more and more agitated. Cutting away to other scenes in the hospital doesn't bring much respite. A suicidal man is surrounded by blathering patients, and the intake nurse, with calm -- but worn -- composure, tries to check in a patient whose inability to focus makes the task tedious and maddening at the same time.

Sound mind-scrambling? It is. But to hear critics talk, it's the only aspect that drives the show. Quieter moments are provided in scenes away from the hospital and in some scenes with patients, as in the touching encounter between an elderly homeless woman who apparently visits Garrity from time to time.

In some respects, the patients-in-distress scenes cannot be avoided. After all, Wonderland is set in a hospital, not a therapist's office. But it's not just "crazies" going haywire. In the fine closing scene of the show's pilot, a group of patients on the mend are shown in a group therapy session. A young man talks about wanting to heal, wanting to have a little Christmas back in his life. "I was wondering if you could help me with that," he asks the off-camera therapist.

As for the representation of the mentally ill, it's not as damning as the show's overall indictment of the public's poor attitude toward the mentally ill, the desire to make them invisible, and the deep fear that, given the right circumstances, anyone's mental health can move from good to bad as easily as turning a coat inside out. Wonderland is not about "crazy" people. It's potentially about the humanity required to help those at their most vulnerable.

As for Fred, my last time with him was at a competency hearing. He was stoked up on Thorazine but willed himself past the narcotic haze to lift his head and forearm to give me a "Hiya, Belinda," so that I knew that he was still "there." That was one of the great lessons I learned from Fred during that turbulent time. That in spite of his illness, he was still human with a need to connect. He was still "there." The groundbreaking Wonderland is capable of similar lessons -- depending on viewers' ability to endure a little discomfort and see what has been shunted to the shadows.


The Sopranos Watch

I was worried that the HBO drama was becoming mired in the power struggle between Tony (James Gandolfini) and Richie Aprile (David Proval), along with the fairly static relationship between Tony and his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), but the last episode had some of the elements that made Sopranos fans soar with ecstasy with the show's premiere season. (If you're a fan and haven't had a chance to watch your tape of the show, it's best to stop reading now.)

From the ballroom-dance sequence at the beginning (which turned out to be real and not a dream) to the chirpy closing music at the end of Tony's long day of (literally) cleaning up messes, the episode sang with the perfect chorus of dark humor, edgy character choices, and razor-sharp story development that the first season delivered in its exceptional 13 episodes (four of which were nominated for Emmy Awards last year).

Sadly, Proval's Richie is leaving the show. Tony showed great restraint all season with Richie, whose pride and temper kept him from minding his place, but it only took one pop in the mouth to get sister Janice (Aida Turturro) to subdue Richie, and the boys at Satriale's meat market to cut Richie down to size -- so to speak.

In the beginning, Proval was considered for the Tony Soprano role, and he would have made a good Tony, albeit a diminutive one and quite different from the bear-like Gandolfini. But after seeing Proval's intricate turn as the combustible Richie, I'm glad he was held over for the short-term supporting role. As Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese) said of Proval's Richie, "You know, for a man of his size, he's got a lot of moxie."


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