Doogie Howser clumsily but bravely tackled issues like racism

Doogie Howser clumsily but bravely tackled issues like racism

25 years later, the show is surprisingly sweet

The Internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past: Tumblr blogs regurgitating images of half-forgotten toys; YouTube compilations of long-lost TV-show intros; countless blogs playing “Remember when?” with movies and video games whose rose-colored recollections aren’t always properly earned. With Memory WipeThe A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?

Doogie Howser, M.D. was the first TV show I ever really loved. Make of that what you will—I was relatively nerdy, loved school, and had never been allowed to watch much television in general. Having a show to look forward to each week—an adult show, it felt like—was novel for me as a sixth- and seventh-grader. Formulaic TV wasn’t tired to me then, and I was perfectly willing to believe that a teenager could be a doctor. But, when I queued up Doogie on Hulu 25 years later, I thought I was going to have to write a piece about how watching it destroyed my not-insignificant seventh-grade crush on Neil Patrick Harris. And although the show is flawed, especially by contemporary television standards, it’s still surprisingly sweet.

There are many absurdities central to Doogie Howser. It’s about a 16-year-old doctor who graduated from medical school at age 14 (the youngest real doctor in the U.S. graduated from med school at age 17). Doogie (Neil Patrick Harris) survived leukemia twice as a child—at age 4 and again at age 6—which inspired him to become a doctor, but was he also studying calculus while he was undergoing chemo? And then there’s Doogie’s best friend, horndog Vinnie Delpino (Max Casella), who has apparently known Doogie since they were kids—neighbors, presumably, judging from how Vinnie climbs through Doogie’s bedroom window at the end of every episode—but they wouldn’t have been schoolmates past preschool, and the grueling hours of med school don’t leave a budding doctor with a lot of free time for video games. Finally, how does a 16-year-old genius develop the emotional maturity to have any kind of bedside manner? Anybody who’s been to a brilliant asshole of a doctor knows that genius isn’t everything. And anybody who’s been 16 knows that small talk has a learning curve as steep as brain surgery.

All of these absurdities must be surrendered to. But on top of that, there’s the tiresome formula that stretched across most of Doogie’s 97 episodes in four seasons. Nearly every one feels like a “very special episode,” with Doogie learning Something Important, usually thanks to a patient at the hospital where he’s a surgical resident, and maybe his parents (James Sikking and Belinda Montgomery) or co-workers, Nurse Spaulding (Kathryn Layng) and the shaggy-haired Dr. McGuire (Mitchell Anderson). After mulling over his newly won life lesson, he notes it with a pithy diary entry at the end of the episode—on his home computer, natch—usually after a chat with Vinnie, who remains clueless as ever. Subtle, this show is not.

There’s one big reason the show still works, to the extent that it does—Neil Patrick Harris. Harris had only been in a few movies before being cast as Doogie, and was a baby-faced 16, same as Doogie, when he started in his breakthrough role. Like Doogie, Harris was a kid in an adult world, and like Doogie, he had to be able to carry that weight. And he does: Harris had just the right balance of charisma and plausibility, so that even when he’s talking a pop star through her fear of having a nodule removed from her vocal chords, you believe he actually has the real-world experience to handle this kind of situation. And despite feeling burdened by “very special episode” didacticism, the show squarely, if clumsily, faces a lot of sticky issues better than most current sitcoms do.

Some of those issues are weirdly uncomfortable, and thankfully, I have no memory of watching them the first time around—like when the new chief of radiology wants Doogie’s sperm, but the genius boy-doctor doesn’t realize she means sperm donation, not sex. Or when Nurse Spaulding seductively removes Doogie’s scrubs as part of a surprise birthday party.  

But sometimes the show goes up against something like racism, and it does so audaciously.

In a late first-season episode (“Use A Slurpy, Go To Jail”), and a rare one away from home and hospital, Doogie and Vinnie are caught in a hold-up at the convenience store that Vinnie started working at three days earlier. At first, it doesn’t look promising: The dude doing the holding up is black and has the kind of two-dimensionality that comes from writing a character based on stereotypes and tropes. As the hostage situation heads into its third hour, Doogie tries to convince Raymond “Z-Man” Alexander (Markus Redmond), their captor, that he’s throwing his life away and that it doesn’t have to be like this. The show veers toward dangerous territory—genius, privileged white boy saving a black gangbanger—but then it pulls out of the nose dive and actually addresses what’s going on. When Raymond finds out that Doogie is a doctor who graduated from medical school when he was 14, he responds by angrily pulling down several food displays in the store. “A black man can’t even get a job most places! Now they’re making rich white boys doctors as soon as they learn how to drive.”

Raymond barely gives Doogie a chance to respond indignantly before he shouts that he needs to open his eyes. To his credit, Doogie does—in the show’s usual introspective moment near the end, he asks Vinnie if he has any black friends. Doogie might know some black people, but he’s not really friends with them. And… maybe he is a little bit prejudiced. Doogie is heavy-handed, but that’s okay when your audience is impressionable middle school kids who haven’t given any meaningful thought to high-minded concepts like privilege and prejudice.

And to the show’s credit, the issue isn’t dropped, either: By season two, Raymond is out of juvey, and Doogie convinces his boss to hire Raymond as an orderly. Raymond blatantly calls “racism” when a particularly nasty patient accuses him of stealing his watch. Unfortunately, the show back-pedals a bit when a black doctor tells Raymond that it’s not about race, it’s about hard work (can’t it be about both?):

Still, it’s novel territory for a half-hour show in the early ’90s, territory that usually isn’t treaded on too heavily even today. Co-created by David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco near the end of an era marked by dramas like Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, Doogie was unafraid to examine social issues, even when they proved uncomfortable, and even when the show didn’t always succeed. See, for example, the third episode, “A Stitch Called Wanda,” in which Doogie has to give his girlfriend, Wanda, a pelvic exam to properly diagnose appendicitis. Wanda is entirely stripped of any agency she might have had, and when she tells Doogie she never wants to see him again, Nurse Spaulding suggests that maybe she shouldn’t be so hard on him. The show at least gives Doogie’s mom a line about how an unwanted pelvic exam can be violating, but it’s discomfiting viewing for a woman in 2014.

Watching episode after episode of Doogie is indeed tiring. The dated references and big hair are only fun for a little while, Vinnie’s charming cluelessness gets a little less charming over time, and even Doogie’s “Yes, I really am a doctor” shtick wears thin. But its boldness in facing social issues remains admirable 25 years on, even when its mistakes grow more uncomfortable with time. And Neil Patrick Harris’ sweetness doesn’t age a bit.

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