Ellen Gray: Today's TV physicians are less predictable, more fragile than Marcus Welby, M.D.

Posted: November 06, 2012

* THE MOB DOCTOR. 9 p.m. Mondays, Fox 29.

WHEN I WAS growing up, the white coats most TV doctors wore might as well have been white hats.

If not quite gods, they were at least dedicated crusaders who could be trusted to put patient care before anything else, including their personal lives.

And those personal lives didn't seem to require much effort. Because they were (mostly) men. And handsome. And doctors. Who wouldn't want to go out with them?

But you don't have to be old enough to remember "Marcus Welby, M.D." - much less those '60s icons "Dr. Kildare" or "Ben Casey" - to have noticed that today's TV doctors are decidedly more human.

Maybe it started in the '70s with "M*A*S*H," or in the '80s with "St. Elsewhere," whose hospital, Boston's fictional St. Eligius, was considered a dumping ground for people who couldn't afford better and whose doctors, while generally well-meaning, had nearly as many problems as their patients.

You might be able to draw a line from "St. Elsewhere" to "Grey's Anatomy," where the hospital is reputable but the staff is frequently on the verge of emotional collapse, and even to "House," which for eight seasons starred Hugh Laurie as a Vicodin-addicted diagnostic genius with the bedside manner of a surly adolescent.

I'm not sure, though, what the antecedents are for all of this season's TV doctors, who include:

* A promising young surgeon named Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) who's become tangled with organized crime in Fox's "The Mob Doctor," putting her in situations in which she's asked - seemingly in every episode - to do something prohibited by the Hippocratic oath.

* An ob-gyn (Mindy Kaling) who, in Fox's "The Mindy Project," is not above using a fictional patient in labor to get out of a date (or telling the guy the patient died when she changes her mind).

* The CW's "Emily Owens, M.D.," a recent medical school graduate (Mamie Gummer) whose incessant internal monologue makes "Grey's" Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) seem positively stoic and who, in a recent episode, probably violated a few privacy laws to get back at some teenagers who'd ticked her off.

* Dr. Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson), the central figure in the CW's sophomore series "Hart of Dixie," a fast-talking Yankee transplanted to a Southern town who's spent most of the season so far in bed with a guy she's using while she waits for another guy to go to bed with a few more women before he settles down with her. (Whew.)

I'll admit to loving Zoe almost as much as I love Kaling's Mindy, but they both do seem to have a lot of time on their hands.

And, no, TV doctors living complicated lives is not just a woman thing.

Later this season, NBC's "Do No Harm," which is filming in Philadelphia, will introduce viewers to Dr. Jason Cole (Steven Pasquale), a handsome and truly dedicated neurosurgeon who can't really have a private life until he gets rid of Ian Price, the licentious alternate personality who's out to destroy him.

For "Do No Harm" creator David Schulner, the inspiration came from a couple of other shows and one classic novella.

"I always describe this show as 'House' meets 'Dexter.' You know, I watched a lot of 'House' episodes, and I watched a lot of 'Dexter' episodes, and I really tried to key in on what made us love these characters, these truly dysfunctional characters," said Schulner.

"Dexter's a real sociopath, and House is probably a borderline sociopath. But what was great for me is that it really wasn't a matter of doing a doctor show. I wanted to do a Jekyll and Hyde show, and the doctor part was given to me by Robert Louis Stevenson," who wrote Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"So I said, of course he's a doctor. And wouldn't it be interesting if he was a neurosurgeon or a neuroscientist and he can have some insight into his own disorder?"

What NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke found interesting about "Do No Harm": "The show has really credible, very interesting neurological kind of medical stories, but the tone of the thing overall is like entertaining, sexy, fun," and something viewers may not have seen over and over.

Another medical show the network had considered for this season "was a beautiful pilot, that Jason Katims ["Parenthood," "Friday Night Lights"] did, that was an ensemble of young medical interns," Salke said.

"There was nothing flawed or larger than life about them, beyond just relatable personality attributes and . . . it was beautifully executed; it told realistic medical stories; it was an ensemble of interesting young people."

But when the network tested it with audiences, "the response [was], 'That's really entertaining, but . . . I had my medical show with 'Grey's Anatomy.' That doesn't feel really different,' " she said.

One of the things that may make the physicians depicted in both "The Mob Doctor" and "The Mindy Project" seem more human than their TV forebears is that their creators grew up around medicine.

Kaling, whose mother was an ob-gyn and whose brother also went to medical school, said that "because I know that they're real people and that they have their issues, I've never had that sense of that godlike feeling about them. But it's really fun to play a doctor."

Her mother, Dr. Swati Chokalingam, who died of pancreatic cancer in January, had the same "sleep-deprived schedule" as a doctor that her daughter had as a writer and performer, Kaling told reporters this summer. "I could call her in the middle of the night [from Los Angeles] and she would be awake" in Boston.

As for "The Mob Doctor," a series so absurd that I can't help but love it a little for its sheer audacity, it comes from Josh Berman, who's written for shows like "CSI" and "Bones," but who's also the creator of Lifetime's even- further-out-there legal show "Drop Dead Diva," which stars Brooke Elliott as a former aspiring model who, after her accidental death, returns to earth in the body of a plus-size lawyer.

"I don't like to be pegged," said Berman, who admitted that "when I pitched 'Drop Dead Diva,' people looked at me like I was insane. Like this is the guy that's the dark, brooding 'CSI,' 'Vanished' guy?"

The son of a nurse and an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, Berman said he "never wanted to write a medical show [but] . . . when this idea came to me, and the notion of blending a mob story, a mob series, which I've always wanted to write, with a medical show, I knew I had to write it."

His mother, a former teacher who started nursing school when he was in 10th grade - they had chemistry the same year and did homework together - has been consulted on the show, he said.

"I asked her to come to the writers' room to make sure the nurse dialogue was authentic and she was fine doing that, but really all she wanted to talk about was the mob story line, because that was what intrigued her the most."

Contact Ellen Gray at graye@phillynews.com or 215-854-5950. Follow her on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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