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On 'Combat Hospital,' war is heck but it's not controversial

It's a safe bet that life and work in a military hospital in Kandahar make for a gruelling experience.

Combat Hospital (Global, ABC, 10 p.m.) is about that life and line of work, but watching it is very far from gruelling. The drama, which starts Tuesday and is the latest of those Canadians co-production dramas to air simultaneously on a U.S. network, is actually quite pleasant viewing. That's because it is merely competent and adheres to a firm template for TV drama.

The template is not, as some press coverage has suggested, M*A*S*H. Nor is it Grey's Anatomy-on-the- front-lines. Apart from the most superficial of resemblances, Combat Hospital isn't a new M*A*S*H because it doesn't include - so far - much snarky chat about the stupidity of war and governments that encourage war. There is no social realism or satire in this show. And it isn't a conventional contemporary hospital TV drama like Grey's Anatomy because it doesn't include - so far - much in the way of lurid romantic entanglements. Nope, none of that.

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Combat Hospital is a war-is-heck drama. It's the horrors of war and the awfulness of a combat hospital seen emphatically through the prism of TV drama. There are no shocks here. Familiar characters and situations abound. Throw in the occasional eruption of something weird - one day a surgeon has to pull out a gun and shoot a snake while performing surgery - and you've got the gist. The show is as plain-spoken as its title.

Tuesday night's starting episode, written by Daniel Petrie Jr. and directed by Iain MacDonald, unfolds without fuss or surprise. We meet Canadian Major Rebecca Gordon (Michelle Borth), a trauma surgeon, as she is landing in Kandahar. We know she's a bit loopy and lost and, soon enough, we meet her fellow new arrival, Captain Bobby Trang (Terry Chen), an enthusiastic but inexperienced doctor. They will be the eyes and ears that guide the viewers through the ensuing heck of it all.

They show up for work at the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit and are immediately asked to grab a mop and help get the blood off the floor. They overcome their surprise, as do we. Then we all meet the boss-doctor, one Colonel Xavier Marks (Elias Koteas), who is obviously very tough - he talks in a dramatic whisper and says things like, "Let me explain this to you in words of one syllable." But, in all likelihood, he is also fair and a great doctor.

Stuff happens: Badly injured soldiers and others are rushed into the hospital. We meet a handsome-but-slimy civilian doctor, neurosurgeon Simon Hill (Luke Mably). By some law of television, he is, of course, English, and talks in a posh voice about buying carpets cheaply in Afghanistan to sell at a huge markup in London. The viewer is fully aware that in the unlikely event that a woman falls for this guy, it will end in tears.

In takes a while before we meet Major Grace Pederson (Deborah Kara Unger), a psychiatrist, but we are immediately aware that she's the intellectual and if there is any commentary to be made about Afghanistan and the war taking place there, she will be the one doing it. Before long, mind you, there's a crisis and everybody has to perform well under pressure. Who will be the first to fail? If you've seen more than half a dozen TV dramas, you can pick out the likely suspect.

There would be no point in attacking Combat Hospital for being bland. It's network TV drama, airing in the summer, and it was never intended to be political, controversial or unconventional. The show has likeable characters and there are regular flashes of wit. A running joke, from the start, is the Rebecca Gordon character saying that she has read "the manual" about working as a doctor at a military hospital. When something allegedly shocking happens, she says, "I'm fine, sir. It's just that this wasn't in the manual." The show itself has all the hallmarks of being made with a TV-drama manual.

In the matter of Afghanistan and military life there, if you want a gruelling experience, watch the news. Combat Hospital is the entertaining version.

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Frontline: The Madoff Affair (PBS, 9 p.m.) is a repeat, but worth your time if you missed it. It's a scathing look at how Bernard Madoff's investment business managed to operate with little oversight and few questions. It was, of course, a Ponzi scheme of colossal scope that cost investors billions. As the program says, "Overnight, Madoff became the new poster child for Wall Street gall, greed and corruption." No one is spared in this examination.

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Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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