'Heartbeat': TV Review

Get the defibrillator.

Melissa George plays a heart surgeon in a love triangle in NBC's clunky new medical dramedy.

NBC's new drama Heartbeat fits comfortably into the resilient genre I've long referred to as the vocational irony narrative, in which the main character's personal life runs counter to the expectations set by her professional life.

To wit, Melissa George's Dr. Alex Panttiere is a successful cardiothoracic surgeon, but her personal life is a mess. More to the point, Alex can give hearts to her patients, but she cannot give her own heart as freely to boyfriend Dr. Pierce (Dave Annable), former mentor and ex Dr. Jessie (Don Hany) or her gay ex-husband, Max (Joshua Leonard). She can open up chests, but she can't open up her own heart. She can also fix patients with neurological infirmities that keep them from speaking clearly, but she struggles to express her own inner agita. She can separate conjoined twins, but she also wonders if she'll ever feel inseparable from another person.

Heartbeat is so invested in using its title and medical milieu for symbolic or transferrable meaning that I suspect the creative team almost would appreciate my condemnation that Heartbeat is, sadly, a show without much of a pulse.

Premiering on Wednesday, March 23 (after a Tuesday, March 22, sneak peek), Heartbeat is based on Dr. Kathy Magliato's memoir and situates Alex as the chief innovations officer at a Los Angeles medical center. What does that mean? Well, she's frequently giving tours to potential investors, so any time you can't make sense of something, she's happy to offer, "which means I'm responsible for bringing cutting-edge procedures to the hospital." And why, if she keeps giving her specialty as cardio, are her cases so varied? "This is a research hospital, so I have patients in every department," she explains, even though the show can't be bothered to ID any of the students who tag along behind her. Dr. Alex is the latest in a never-ending string of TV doctors who don't play by the rules, which we know because her boss, Millicent Patel (Shelley Conn), keeps saying things like, "When it comes to rules and procedure, they only apply to you when they suit your needs, Alex!"

Dr. Alex has a difficult balancing act. "Mother, girlfriend, cardiothoracic surgeon," she lists helpfully in the third of three episodes sent to critics. In addition to being a vocational irony narrative, Heartbeat is also a worthy (in a way not intended as a compliment) companion to The Mysteries of Laura in NBC's roster of "Can women truly have it all?" dramas. The biggest difference is that Dr. Alex's two sons aren't even on the level of props here. I'm pretty sure the two young actors were recast between the pilot and second episode, and even if they actually weren't, they could have been without audiences noticing. By the fifth episode, Alex might as well have two daughters, and then by the end of the first season, she could just be struggling to manage a pair of magazine subscriptions.

There's always something admirable in watching a TV show take a big swing, even if it misses wildly, but it's less admirable to take only little swings and still miss wildly. Heartbeat is a fumbling rom-com, a perfunctory soap opera and an uninvolving medical drama all in one, plus there's how totally apathetic it is on the domestic front. Consistently, series creator Jill Gordon seems to be on one tonal page, but pilot director Robert Duncan McNeill and each individual technical department are on different pages. Jaunty comedy music plays over scenes that don't have comedic beats, overwrought pop songs mar moments that are maybe supposed to be dramatic, and all gradations of mood are erased by glaringly overlit cinematography.

Of course, the writing isn't consistent either. Heartbeat took an extended post-pilot production hiatus while George was pregnant, and several characters, most conspicuously Jamie Kennedy's disgusting Dr. Callahan, were rewritten to be basically unrecognizable, while the less said about Callahan's relationship with a Korean nurse (Maya Erskine), the better. Nobody's exactly figured out why having D.L. Hughley as a humorless shrink is a good idea. There's a fair amount of willful ignoring that Hany is only a year older than George, but he's supposed to be playing her seasoned, older love interest. And that's before I get to the show's disinterest in Alex's kids, which was probably a course correction after NBC also decided that Mysteries of Laura needed less mom and more cop.

With all of these pieces struggling to come together, Heartbeat requires a star capable of serving as unifying glue, but George's record shows that, while she's very much able to be a leading lady if the show around her is solid, she's not going to be the one to pull a show together. It doesn't help George's characterization that the Heartbeat pilot is one piece of annoying introduction after another in proving Alex is a rule-breaking genius, but it lacks the material to make us invest in her as a person. Will Alex always go against the wishes of the unseen hospital board to attempt the unproven procedure? Of course. Will she ever develop chemistry with any of the men who are supposedly central to her life-work balance? Doubtful.

Does that mean that Heartbeat needs more heart? Sure, if you just want the damning pull quote. Honestly, it isn't even that close to working.

Cast: Melissa George, Dave Annable, Don Hany, Shelley Conn, D.L. Hughley, Jamie Kennedy, Maya Erskine, Joshua Leonard
Creator: Jill Gordon
Premieres: Tuesday, March 22, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, then airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. starting March 23 (NBC)