The Reasons to Watch (and Love) Three Rivers


After my initial review of Three Rivers, there was an enormous amount of response from the Three Rivers fan community which – wait, wait, what? There’s already a sizeable Three Rivers fan community? After two (now four) episodes? How does that even work?

…suffice it to say, I started to do an awful lot of thinking and investigating before, during, and after the two following episodes. The questions at the core of my exploratory process: Why do so many people love this show? And, why do they love it so soon?

I came up with two possible explanations* for how the fan community is so large so early. One is the cast. Simply put, if you watched Moonlight you love Alex O’Loughlin and if you watched The L Word you love Katherine Moennig (generally speaking). So, Three Rivers had a fairly strong potential following before it even reached the starting gate because of the already established popularity of two of its stars. A second possible explanation is that we are living in a post-ER world now and there is a good number of sad sad people with separation anxiety out there trying to find a new place to get their fix of dramaliciousness in scrubs.

*I don’t  have any statistical evidence to support the second point, it is just a theory. As for the first point: the Three Rivers fan site has 339 registered and active members at this moment in time, the Katherine Moennig fan site thekword has 147 registered and active members, I’ve found 5 of Alex O’Loughlin fan sites (on the first page of my search, no less), and my readership stats spiked dramatically after members of the first two communities mentioned posted links to my review. According to Nielsen reports, the show aired with approximately 9.2 million viewers and the numbers have since dropped to around 7.8 million per episode (as of last week). That is a lot of people (not by CBS standards, but it is Sunday.)

So this can help explain why babyshow Three Rivers has already gained such a significant audience. But the fact that it has such a devoted following cannot be chalked up to the pre-established fans/groups alone. The reason for that is, I believe, more intrinsic to the show itself. Because, while it is definitely not perfect – or even necessarily remarkable – Three Rivers has many elements that do make it a quality series:

  1. The Visuals
    • The aesthetics of Three Rivers are pretty fantastic. The hallways of the Three Rivers hospital itself are wide, shiny, and all the surfaces are color coordinated. It definitely doesn’t look like a real, functioning hospital (certainly not one that isn’t brand new), but it is very very pretty.
    • Also, there are a significant amounts of monitors and screens shown over the course of an episode of Three Rivers. They look far more advanced than anything I’ve ever seen in terms of medical equipment, and the detail and quality of the images are plenty eye-pleasing and fascinating in their own right.
    • Finally, Three Rivers features some truly fantastic aerial views of the northeastern quadrant of the United States. As someone from Seattle, I haven’t ever seen a lot of that scenery – either in person or in pictures. The images are just gorgeous and are certainly one of the highlights of any episode for me.
    • The one visual aspect of Three Rivers I don’t enjoy is the pre-commercial side-by-side triptych of storylines. It is useful (and vaguely reminiscent of 24) in the way it establishes the simultaneous nature of what we have seen. But frankly, the color-washed images are pretty damn ugly. I mean, really, did they have to choose those colors? Maybe my view of the colors is getting skewed because I’ve watched every episode so far on my computer monitor, which may or may not be true to the show, but I’ve found the combination pretty gross.
    • Oh, one other not-so-great visual: that horribly amateur digital rendering of an ambulance zooming down the highway in the opening credits. That shot has got to go.
    • Overall though, Three Rivers is a wonderfully aesthetic show. So even when the plot gets a little boring or a pause goes on too long, there’s always something interesting to see.
  2. The Medicine

    • As I mentioned in my initial review, one of the strengths of Three Rivers is the fact that it highlights an angle of medicine that doesn’t get much detailed attention in most medical shows (not in my experience, anyway). Transplant medicine is a fairly new area, historically speaking, so the show is interesting just because it shines a light on something that is still relatively unknown in the wider world.
    • Another great thing about the medical angle of the show is that it isn’t gross. I mean, I am a huge fan of the gross. But there’s only so much gushing blood and weird skin allergies and rotting flesh a person can take. Three Rivers isn’t overly concerned with visual shock factor – case in point: the bus crash in “Code Green” wasn’t shown at all. The surgery scenes are perhaps a bit too neat and clean to be even mistaken as realistic, but that’s alright. Because it means the show has more to offer than an ability to make the audience squeamish.
    • The “more” is its attention to the non-medicine. Three Rivers is, superficially, a medical show. But it is much more about the patients and the process and the nonmedical duties of doctors/surgeons than it is about rattling off a list of complex procedures or long chemical names that no-one understands. It is medical drama television without the pretention of superior scientific knowledge. The main characters are doctors and they are performing medical procedures, but they are more human than educated professional.
  3. The People
    • That brings me to the final strength I see in Three Rivers: its attention to human nature and human characters and genuine emotion and conflict.
    • The best thing about the show is that it isn’t just a drama about the melodramatic personal lives of the medical staff. No-one is cheating on their spouse or having crazy sex or competing for a position via underhanded or down-right-nasty manipulation. Actually, the doctors have about an equal (if not lesser) amount of per-episode screen time as the patients.
    • Patients aren’t treated as mysteries or difficulties or tasks. Their personal lives and emotional baggage are more than merely token attempts to humanize two-dimensional fleshpuzzles. Personally, by the end of an episode I am usually far more emotionally attached to the patients than the doctors because the latter are the ones with the real struggles and stakes. Instead of overdramaticizing the weight of medical decisions or doctor conduct in order to garner a cheap sort of investment in the medical staff, Three Rivers acknowledges the fact that the doctors have it hard, but the patients have it even harder. Life and death is given appropriate preference over do-or-don’t.
    • The character development of medical staff isn’t falling flat because of the emphasis on patients, though. It’s just that the show is actually taking time to learn about the main characters and become more than superficially interested in their personal histories, emotional baggage, and characters. A main character’s personal drama isn’t shoved down our throats one episode to get that person established so they can move on to the next character. Instead, each episode contains tidbits of development for each character, making the process of getting to know and love the staff of Three Rivers more gradually – and, ultimately, more genuinely.
    • A final note about the people of the show: Here is minority casting done right. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing this because it is a very delicate subject in our modern, PC-obsessed world. But the fact that the medial staff is heavily female (and led by an African American woman) and the fact that the majority of the patients (donor or recipient&family) have not been white is notable and commendable considering the lack of true (so not counting token minority characters) diversity of most shows. Even better, the show doesn’t make a big deal about this. It is merely the way of things.

So basically, Three Rivers is turning out to be athoroughly enjoyable show in a lot of ways. Not groundbreaking, perhaps. But it provides a new angle on an old staple, it is interesting to watch in terms of what you see and what you feel, and the overall presentation is well laid out and satisfying to watch. Plus, it is just so damn good at making me cry.

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