I had often thought that Third Watch had been a show in search of an identity. It just seemed that way because every season John Wells, in his desperate bids to save the show, tinkered with it to the point of recreating it. The premise of the show was to examine the life of those often-unsung heroes: the patrol cops, paramedics, and fire fighters, the people who do the actual work between the homicide cop shows like NYPD Blue and the hospital shows like ER. In season one, as often is the case, the characters were likable, but bland. “Bland” may seem harsh, but the show seemed populated with uninteresting, or at least ill-defined, characters. In season two we saw more soap opera-esque elements as it became the paramedic/fire fighter/patrol cop version of ER. By season three, it decided to try and distinguish itself from the borders of TV land by more creative storytelling: using dramatic voice overs of that episode’s featured character, symbolic imagery, solid character development — less of the outright soap opera. That’s when the show started to gel and really grow on me. By season four, they stumbled on a ratings formula: insert more action shoot-outs, explosions, and major characters dying. They seemed to be pursuing a course that eschewed small-character driven episodes in lieu of the big bang.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the bang.

This season it has flourished on Friday nights in what was heretofore the “NBC, 10 p.m. cop show death slot” (see Homicide: Life on the Streets). This is especially ironic considering that it is replacing the much better, and recently canceled cop show, Boomtown). The show alternates between a return to its more character-driven roots and the occasional bout of bombast, which threatened to overpower anything approaching character development, but the writing remains strong.

Third Watch, in typical John Wells tradition, is a good show. ER is a good show. The West Wing, under his sole direction, is a good show (but not the “art” that it often came close to being under the brilliant, if erratic, voice of Aaron Sorkin). It has shifted its focus mostly to the cops, occasionally the paramedics, with the fire fighters, at best, making guest appearances. But meanwhile, the show has become a solid, second-tier cop show, not great like The Shield or Boomtown, but easily as good as any Law & Order.

Third Watch aired episode 100, “A Call for Help,”on Friday, January 9. It was a stand-alone episode, and if you watch closely, you sense the effort of straining for an Emmy nomination. This episode was reminiscent of the late, great, much-lamented Homicide: Life on the Streets. It was stylized, filmed in ten-minute segments (as opposed to the usual one) without cuts, a feat of direction and acting since a screwed-up line would mean filming the whole ten-minute sequence all over from the beginning.

It may be my favorite episode to date.

Spiritual Connections

There are numerous spiritual connections in the show. In season four, after a near-fatal heart attack, Fred Yokas, the husband of police officer Faith Yokas, abruptly discovers Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Suddenly the family had to cope with its anchor doing an about-face and becoming a religious zealot while he struggled to incorporate spirituality into their lives. But since this element of his character has been ignored of late (particularly curious in light of Faith’s struggle to regain the use of her legs after one of the aforementioned “big bang” episodes), there is another recurring theme that I want to examine: the show’s fascination with theodicies.

An Aside About Theodicies

A theodicy, simply put, is man’s attempt to justify God or explain suffering. Commonly, it addresses an issue often called “the problem of evil.” The problem came about in response to our changing view of God. “Consider the goodness and severity of God” Romans 11:22 states, and that thought ruled the day. Then, in the last couple hundred years, the image of God as both good and severe was gradually replaced with a God who is only good. He became a loving father, then a nice, kind father-figure, then just a granter of good gifts . . . a Santa God. There is nothing wrong with seeing God as good, as long as you realize that is not all He is. We have many sides to us, so we can only imagine how complex He is. Anyway, this was a subtle shift that proved inherently problematic, because it didn’t take long for someone to realize “wait a minute: if there is a good, loving God, why does He let bad things happen?”

The basic argument, in its four-pronged form, goes something like this:

a) If God is good, He would destroy evil

b) If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil

c) But evil exists

d) Therefore, there is no God

Obviously Christian apologists got tired of hearing this “ah-ha, what do you have to say about that?” argument all the time, so they developed their counterarguments, usually getting by with weakening each of the propositions. Maybe God is arbitrary or capricious; His definition/standard of good being different from ours. Maybe God can’t destroy evil; He’s limited by our free will. Maybe evil isn’t real, we only perceive things as evil. But there is a God. You’ll note however, God never justifies His actions. The closest He came was in the book of Job, though He never answers Job’s questions and basically tells Job “I’m God, you’re not. Shut up.”

But I digress.

So What Does Third Watch Say?

Third Watch tends to apply a reverse perspective to theodicies, one that I can’t say that I’ve heard anywhere else. Let me give you an example from season one (an example that obviously has stuck with me), from an episode titled “Ohio.” The paramedics are stationed in a hotel garage, during a Clinton-Giuliani debate, discussing their worst cases, religion, and relationships. At one point, I believe it was Bobby turns to Doc and asks “after all the stuff we’ve seen, how can you still believe in God?” Then Doc gives an answer that pushed me over the edge and made me want to give the show a chance: “You’re asking the wrong question. After all the things we’ve seen, how can you still believe in man?”

That’s one way to answer the problem of evil: Holding man accountable for the evil he creates and perpetrates on himself.

This brings me to “A Call for Help.”

A series of little annoyances and incongruities result in the apprehension of a man who, as it turns out, has gruesomely killed his friend. Throat cut, face hacked up, stabbed some fifty odd times — a random and wholly unnecessary act of violence. This left the cops wondering if the arrest was the result of dumb luck, good police work, or the work of a “higher power.”

Sasha: Maybe “someone” wanted him caught . . .
Bosco: You ever ask yourself how “someone” co
uld let something like this happen in the first place?

Sasha: It’s free will. We all have a choice in what we do with our time here. Some of us choose to be cops. Some of us choose to be killers. It’s all up to us. It’s our choice.

Again, the show points to man’s free will being responsible for a lot of the evil that the police, paramedics, fire fighters, and doctors see. There was a similar theodicy on the ABC show 10-8. The concluding voice over of the 1/11/04 episode said the following:

“The thing about the Garden of Eden is that paradise was doomed from the start. Yeah, sure, Eve could’ve said ‘no’ to the serpent. And Adam could’ve said ‘no’ to Eve, but trouble set in before then. Before the knowledge of good and evil. When all-knowing God decided on the sixth day to add humans to the mix, made in His image. At first just one, but God saw Adam was alone and needed someone to help him, knowing the likely outcome of putting more than one of us on the planet. But He took His chances. Why? Who knows? Maybe because He knows that our imperfections and need to help one another are more important than His perfect Eden. Ask me what’s worse: to go solo in paradise without the chance to screw it up or together in a whacked out world to help each other get by. I’ll take the world and take my chances any day of the week.”

A Few Last Words About Theodicies

If you’re anything like me, you’re left wondering “what do we say about the problem of evil?” Well, there are a lot of books written on the subject, so it’s not like I’m going to come up with some great revelation in a couple of paragraphs. But here I go anyway, keeping in mind the lessons learned from Third Watch.

We could argue the philosophy of “the problem of evil”, but in the end, where does that get us? Job had bad things happen to him because he was so righteous. And while the Third Watch argument scores a lot of points by putting the burden on us, it doesn’t address natural evils, such as earthquakes, floods, or tornadoes. There are a few things we just have to learn to live with:

-learn to accept that there is a mystery to creation; a complexity to reality. Some things simply can’t be explained from a human perspective.

-learn to shut up. Arguing philosophy, even if you present good theology, doesn’t help if some tragedy has occurred in a person’s life. Often our advice, whether we intend it or not, is cruel and insensitive. We can’t provide answers because, when all is said and done, we have none to offer. All suffering is not meant to teach us a lesson. The only things that can be said about all suffering are that

1) it is meant to refine our faith;
2) it is to make us more like Christ; and
3) it is to be endured.

-learn to care. Be a part of people’s lives. Be that helping hand. Be that shoulder to lean on. Few things console better than a sympathetic presence, especially by a fellow sufferer.

-learn to trust God in the dark. Again, some things are beyond human explanation and the best we can do is know that God is good and worthy to be trusted.

-and if you absolutely, positively, have to have some example to thwart the “problem of evil” consider this: the presence of evil is not in conflict with the goodness or power of God. Man, if only I could think of an example of when His goodness, His omnipotence, and the reality of evil could be found in one place, yet not be in conflict.

Oh yeah, at the cross of Jesus Christ.