David E. Kelley has one of the most singular voices in TV today — it usually only takes a minute or less to realize you’re watching one of his shows, and medical drama “Monday Mornings” is no exception.
Kelley used to be one of the biggest showrunners in network TV. After collecting a boatload of Emmys for “Picket Fences,” he went on to create hits in “Chicago Hope,” “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice.” He also had a few high-profile flops, but it wasn’t until the consecutive cancellations of “Boston Legal” and “Harry’s Law” — both victims of their older-skewing demographics — and a futile attempt to get a “Wonder Woman” pilot off the ground, that it made sense for Kelley to test the waters of cable TV.
Working with TNT seems like the perfect fit for an idiosyncratic showrunner like Kelley. He has a proven ability to draw an audience, and on cable that audience doesn’t need to be massive, they just need to be reliable. In theory, moving to cable should allow Kelley greater freedom to do his thing without the added pressure of pleasing a major network.
That’s why it’s even more disappointing that “Monday Mornings” turns out to be so warmed-over and dull. Instead of going all out with the eccentric characters and loopy plots he’s known for, Kelley — working from a novel by CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, also an executive producer on the show — offers up a forgettably routine medical drama involving eight different doctors who don’t feel fully formed even after seeing all three episodes TNT made available for review.
The show’s gimmick is an emphasis on the weekly morbidity and mortality meetings, overseen by gruff chief of stuff Harding Hooten (Alfred Molina, “Spider-Man 2″) who runs the inquiries like legal proceedings and mercilessly attacks the foibles and flaws of his team. In order for these meetings to have a purpose, someone on the show has to screw up every week — either losing a patient or causing a mistake that could lead to a costly lawsuit — which has the double-edged effect of making the doctors more complex and the patients’ problems more contrived.
Seeing doctors grapple with the intensity of life and death decisions is the stuff of great drama, but knowing that the outcome hinges on the need for another of Molina’s methodical interrogations makes it feel like the deck is stacked in advance. Not all the cases turn out badly, but enough do that the show takes on a rather grim formula. It doesn’t help that director, and frequent Kelley collaborator, Bill D’Elia opts for a highly affected visual style heavy on close-ups shot from the sides of characters’ heads and an intrusive use of music to inflate feelings of suspense or sentimentality.
“Monday Mornings” has a solid leading man in Jamie Bamber (“Battlestar Galactica”), who relishes the meatiest material as Tyler Wilson, a brilliant neurosurgeon tripped up by his own arrogance. Plus, prototypical Kelley types in Molina, callous organ transplant chief Buck Tierney (Bill Irwin, “CSI”), and the blunt, broken English speaking Dr. Sung Park (Keong Sim, Mike Chang’s father on “Glee”), a potential breakout character.
There are also two versions of Kelley’s usual single working girls: married-to-her-job Sydney Napur (Sarayu Rao, “NCIS: Los Angeles”) and promising young resident Michelle Robidaux (Emily Swallow, “Southland”). Rounding out the cast, Ving Rhames is desperately underutilized as the seemingly important but stuck on the sidelines trauma chief and Jennifer Finnigan is overshadowed by her co-stars as Wilson’s shoulder to cry on.
That’s a lot of talent to work with and the good news is that “Monday Mornings” shows signs of finding its voice by episode three — which involves more interesting cases and quirky guest turns by Kelley favorites Anthony Heald and Valerie Mahaffey. But with only 10 episodes in the first season and a creator as seasoned as Kelley, there’s no excuse to get off to such a slow start.