Dear Mr. Kelley: Don’t Kill Dr. Kate

I am in mourning already. I am a fan of Christine Lahti, who plays Chicago Hope ‘s Dr. Kate Austin, and it seems the diva doctor extraordinaire is being dumped from the show. The reported manner of Ms. Lahti’s disposal–reading a script in which her character is fired–reminded me of Robert Aldrich’s darkly hilarious 1968 film, The Killing of Sister George , in which an actress in a maudlin British soap opera learns in an identically craven manner of her approaching demise.

You will remember that Sister George (Beryl Reid), a bike-riding busybody in the fictional village of Appleton, is in real life a royal pain, a coarse, gin-swilling lesbian who alternately wheedles and tortures her kewpie-doll mistress (Susannah York). Her ratings are slipping and the first sign of her redundancy comes during a script rehearsal. “Ooh,” she reads, “it’s a sniffle I’m getting,” then puts up such a squawk that her character is given a reprieve. She recovers from the flu, only to be mowed down several weeks later by a truck.

Such are the ruthless imperatives of TV demographics, even in kinder, gentler England. In the world of American prime time medicine, the doctors are disappearing faster than the patients, but at least the men seem to choose their fate. Pediatric heartthrob Doug Ross (George Clooney) leaped from the good ship E.R. , while bad-boy Billy Kronk (Peter Berg) on Chicago Hope took a sabbatical, presumably to make more bad guy movies. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) on E.R. did an hour as a missionary in darkest Mississippi, leading to the hope that he might take his attitude to some more meaningful real-life occupation, but alas he came back to continue rejecting the dynamite Brit, Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston), a woman who deserves better.

Where is Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie now that we need him/her? It’s been almost two decades since that desperate female impersonator stood up for the middle-aged woman as television drama’s most expendable character. Why should Jack McNeil (Mark Harmon), Chicago Hope ‘s charmless ex-gambler, get to continue his rounds while Kate, that bitch goddess of cardiothoracic surgery, receives a pink slip?

I know Chicago Hope has been slipping and I have watched as, in the tried-and-true but rarely successful manner of most long-running series, it has tried to jack up the ratings with frantic pacing and ever more outrageous plot developments. That failing, the next step is usually to shuffle the character deck and oust whoever’s got his or her head sticking out. Christine Lahti’s Kate Austin, bless her brilliant, bitter soul, always has her head sticking out.

But there’s a precedent for that on Chicago Hope in the original casting of Mandy Patinkin as Dr. Jeffrey Geiger, the abrasive star surgeon. Like Ms. Lahti’s Kate Austin, he was snippy, rude, possessed of a monstrous ego, a character I loved to hate, but Kate brings the added anxiety of a woman with a gender chip on her shoulder. At least one source of her ever-percolating rage is the treatment she got in medical school as the lone woman in a man’s field, and subsequent slurs and slights (by her repellent ex, for one, played by Ron Silver) only keep the kettle on high boil.

Dr. Austin put so much into the struggle that there’s nothing left over for the ordinary business of humanity. She tries to be a good mother for the ever-patient little Sarah, but sometimes it’s a losing proposition, and it doesn’t do her cause any good when she absconds with the little girl, violating custody orders. She expects Sarah to be enthusiastic when she applies to join NASA as a doctor on a space shuttle, a trip whose risks don’t seem exactly compatible with anybody’s definition of good-enough motherhood. (This may have been the first clue for her departure from the show.)

In other words, Kate Austin, thank God, is nobody’s role model. She’s arrogant, ambitious, insecure, maternally challenged, tactless, status conscious and rude. She’s more of these things than most women, but there’s a little of her in a lot of us, which gives a kind of intensity to our ambivalence toward her. Mine, anyway.

I am beholden to David Kelley, who in three currently running shows has created the most extraordinary gallery of female characters since Ingmar Bergman projected his neuroses and desires through a series of majestically sensual women. While movies deal with World War II, puberty and high-tech violence, Chicago Hope , Ally McBeal and The Practice explore the Pandora’s box opened by the entry of women into the workplace. Comically, melodramatically and slyly, they address the myriad social and legal problems (and joys) occasioned by men and women competing on an (almost) equal footing, and the infinite number of confusions and permutations that lie in that word “almost.” Fat and skinny, bossy and sly, neurotic and content, executive and secretarial, narcissistic and nurturing, their very diversity defies the very idea of a role model.

The fact that I–and others, I think–want to throttle Kate Austin as often as I want to embrace her is what makes the character so infuriatingly wonderful, and Christine Lahti such a gutsy actress for playing her. Kate lacks the human touch and has that mixture of brilliance and obtuseness you find more often in male doctors. She can be pigheaded, as when she tries to keep her Christian Scientist father alive against his will. Her fury, though it has a feminist dimension, goes beyond political cause and effect. But she can also have rare moments of self-awareness.

There’s a poignant scene with Dennis Hancock (Vondie Curtis-Hall), the patient black doctor who identifies with the unempowered. (He, Adam Arkin and Hector Elizondo as the hospital daddy figure, Dr. Phillip Watters, are the show’s real mensches.) They have just presided over a dangerous multiple birth caused by fertility drugs, and Kate has expressed exasperation at such squandered resources, while Dennis has passionately fought for the life of each octuplet. Kate is, she admits, more concerned with issues, while Dennis is always focused on human beings.

Kate’s furiously ambivalent relationship with a delectable new doctor, a Zen hunk played by Eric Stoltz, has been one of the juicier recent developments. They had a passionate one-night affair at one of his retreats, and since then have been competing to see who can appear less fazed by the encounter–while covertly wondering if it should be shrugged off.

Amid all this, Kate has a reunion with a man she’d been briefly married to 20 years ago, and with whom she had the hottest sex of her life. They meet for lunch, and before they can say, Are you married? they’re rushing to a hotel and diving into bed. Next scene: Both are lying back, Kate expanding rapturously on what has just happened between them. In typical Austin fashion, she pauses for a word from him but, getting no response, she hurtles breathlessly on and it isn’t until a full minute later that she turns to realize he is stone cold dead.

It’s a hilarious, edgy moment, a mordant joke on the gender clash of postcoital behavior, with men descending into silent torpor while women stay revved up for hours. Fortunately for Kate, it wasn’t the sex alone that killed him. Turns out he had a heart problem and had come to her for consultation–they just never got around to discussing it.

I ask, how can you get rid of a woman like that?