This week’s reading assignment from the Amazon.com bestseller You’re Right! Any Blockhead CAN Be A Network Television Programmer is Chapter Seven, “When In Doubt, Repeat Yourself.” And for homework, watch the premieres of Revolution and The Mob Doctor.
As the second week of the fall season gets underway on Monday, Fox’s The Mob Doctor is a crossed-eyed look at one TV’s oldest staples, the medical drama. NBC’s Revolution, on the other hand, goes for the modern fad of post-apocalyptic thrillers. And if neither one exactly smells of a Peabody Award, they also don’t give off the stench of Real Housewives.
The first medical show was broadcast on television on approximately the first day the first viewer tried stretching tin foil between the antenna’s rabbit ears to see if it sharpened the snowy black-and-white reception. But Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare and even crotchety old Dr. House were scant preparation for the sight of surgeon Grace Devlin snapping at a patient, “Remember, this will hurt you more than me!” before yanking a screwdriver out of the side of his head.
Dr. Devlin’s contempt for her patients is neither subtle commentary on the bedside manner at HMOs nor an unforeseen side effect of Obamacare. It stems from the fact that so many of them are gangsters. Growing up on the wrong side of Chicago — the first corpse she encountered was her father’s, and at 237, she’s still keeping count — her family often brushed shoulders with the Mob. And some years back, to help pay off her brother’s gambling debt, Devlin agreed to treat wounded Mafiosi on an off-the-books basis.
Saving the lives of a steady stream of hit men and rapists would make any doctor start looking for loopholes in the Hippocratic Oath, but Devlin is about to learn what a slippery slope she’s on. What if, instead of just patching up gangsters, the mob bosses ordered her to not save a life?
The Mob Doctor has all your standard medical-drama ruffles and flourishes, including a secret handsome boyfriend, an overbearing mom, a plucky nurse pal and a stern but fair surgical mentor. (Somewhat confusingly, the latter role goes to Damages’ Željko Ivanek, who specializes in playing the sinister and treacherous. If he turns out to be a Mob mole, you read it here first.) The unpronounceable medical vocabulary gives the illusion that the show is making you smarter, and the grisly medical-surgical footage gives you the unmistakably authentic sensation that you’re nauseous.
But Devlin’s complex relationship with the gangsters is what elevates The Mob Doctor into something a cut or two above a Grey’s Anatomy rip-off. The bootleg element of her practice has encouraged her to cut other corners in treating patients. Actress Jordana Spiro, who escalated winsomeness into grounds for justifiable homicide in her sportswriter role on TBS’ My Boys, is surprisingly dextrous here, wary with her mobster associates, jauntily arrogant with hospital associates. When a fellow doctor warns her that they’re undertaking an illegal procedure, she retorts: “Then it’s a good thing we’re not lawyers.”
A short supply of lawyers is one of the more felicitous side effects of the end of the world in NBC’s Revolution, a joint project of J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions and Supernatural’s Eric Kripke. Others include a pastoral view of deer grazing in the deserted streets of San Francisco with a tumbled-down Golden Gate Bridge in the background, and a half-submerged Florida in which Medicaid fraud and corporate welfare for professional sports teams seem distinctly things of the past.
Television has been setting dramas in post-apocalyptic landscapes almost as long as in hospitals. (Florida, naturally, has been a proud participant. Way back in 1960, the much-honored Playhouse 90 did an adaptation of Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon about a band of survivors near Orlando trying to rebuild civilization after a nuclear war. And no, smart guy, they didn’t all have white gloves and big ears.) The pace has picked up in recent years with shows like The Walking Dead (zombie uprising), Falling Skies (space-alien invasion) and Jericho all gleefully tap-dancing on the world’s grave.
Revolution seems less inspired (or, to use the technical TV term, stolen from) any of those shows than from The Hunger Games, which takes place in a similar quasi-medieval landscape where crossbows and battleaxes have become the high-tech weapon of choice. There’s also an echo of a 1945 short story by science fiction writer Frederic Brown titled The Waverlies, in which a horde of electricity-eating microbes invade the earth and leave it literally powerless.
A similar catastrophe strikes the world in Revolution. “Physics went insane,” recalls one survivor, and everything went off. But that’s where the similarities end. In Brown’s story, the result is a placidly agrarian America without junk food or junk culture where everybody eats better, exercises more and lives longer. The countryside in Revolution, by contrast, is bleak and lawless, marauded equally by bandits and warlord militias.
It’s after one of those militias kills her father and kidnaps her brother that teenage archer Charlie Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos, of the American version of Being Human), sets off on a quest to find a long-lost uncle. When her companions wonder why, she can only shrug: “All my dad ever said about him is that he’s good at killing.” This being a J.J. Abrams production, it scarcely counts as a spoiler to say that there’s a conspiracy afoot and the massive power-outage that ruined the earth was anything but accidental.
Abrams’ sci-fi shows nearly always run off the rails into a weedy thicket of time travel and parallel universes. (Someday somebody will make a doomsday show about the worldwide migraine triggered on by the last season of Lost.) But that usually takes a couple of years, and in the meantime, Revolution is big, bold and brassy adventure, a cowboys-and-Indians story for end times. Pull up a chair and thrust your imagination across time and space to a world in which there are no Kardashians or Octomoms. This post-apocalyptic stuff may not be as bad as it sounds.