There Goes Chicago’s Last Hope

As Stephen Sondheim might have said, when you’re a bitch, you’re a bitch all the way. The great bitches of entertainment history understood this. They knew that bitchiness must be both extreme and extremely meaningful, or it just comes off as unpleasant. Nineteen-fifties noir diva Gloria Graham, an actress with a little-girl voice and bad-girl smarts, gave her quips an irresistible countercultural edge. Trash-mouthed Roseanne made everyone else look middlebrow by comparison. For the past two decades or so, All My Children’s Susan Lucci has waged a scorched-earth campaign against small-town feminine niceness. The producers of Chicago Hope had on their hands a bitch of potentially equal greatness, Christine Lahti’s Dr. Kate Austin, and they never let her achieve it. She never got to be more than wishy-washy, insecure, a good person who went wrong and apologized and would really be a lot nicer if she just got laid. A bitch without the courage of her convictions.

If she was such a compromised character, why get upset about Lahti’s not being asked back for the coming season? After all, Barbara Hershey and Lauren Holly, hired more or less to replace her, are powerful actresses. But you can’t imagine either of them inspiring the following Lahti did–the cult of professional women who used to call each other up and rage at the crap Kate Austin had to take every week. To them, this must seem like the final betrayal. Austin was a brilliant, sharp-tongued, and of course, being a bitch, somewhat manipulative heart surgeon, but instead of enjoying the occasional triumph over her supercilious colleagues, she just had more bad stuff happen to her than maybe anyone else in nighttime soap history. Really bad stuff: Her father died. She lost her daughter in a custody battle with an evil, power-mad husband (her own fault, of course–she tried to tell the girl what to say in court). She kidnapped the girl, got arrested, was fired, and then, when rehired, was forced to endure the humiliation of being the best heart surgeon on staff with the least seniority. She put up with petty bad stuff too, like the constant carping of her male colleagues about her lack of a gentle touch, or the punishments doled out by the writers for her–a single mother–occasional forays into romance. When Kate Austin went off for a little yoga-and-sex retreat with a colleague last year, for instance, her daughter wandered off into the winter night and nearly died of hypothermia.

If we’re talking betrayal, the real betrayal was that Lahti didn’t leave the series once the troubled ER clone started to abandon its blue-scrub realism for the creepy random fancifulness that passes for creative on televisionthese days. Here’s an actress with a rare knack for emotional realism, the kind of intelligent, commanding presence that drains reality from lesser co-stars. Cast her in a second-rate movie as the woman who steals Ted Danson from his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, and suddenly you’re thinking, without mistresses, who’d ever realize the falseness of a false marriage? Cast her as a flaky ex-radical on the run from the government in Running on Empty, and she comes off as the ultimate cool mother–competent under pressure, endlessly inventive, a fountain of love. Maybe the reason the writers saddled Kate Austin with so much misery was that she suffered more interestingly than anyone else on the show.

But the producers of Chicago Hope never managed to do anything more interesting with her interestingness than cause her to aspire to leave medicine and become an astronaut, the ridiculous quest to which she devoted her last year on the series. Workaholic Austin was a one-woman stress fiesta, a full-time mom, a 15-hour-a-day doctor, a woman bumping her head constantly against the glass ceiling. She was a woman ready to wreak some serious havoc. Let her loose and she could have been, to say the least, memorable. Instead they tried to send her into orbit. In space, presumably, no one could hear her scream.