This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff, who’ll review the show week to week, and Phil Nugent talk about A Gifted Man.
A Gifted Man debuts tonight on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Todd: A Gifted Man has one of the best pilots of the season. It’s filled with lovely, tearjerking moments that, nonetheless, don’t feel manipulative in the slightest. It’s got beautiful direction, a script that lets some nicely emotional moments play out, and actors who are fully committed to a premise that’s, let’s face it, pretty damn goofy.
It’s almost certainly going to be a terrible TV show.
Most of the time, TV critics are supposed to tell you what elements in a pilot bode well for the future. If the pilot’s kind of a mess but has good in it, we’ll usually inflate the score just a bit to let you know that this may be rough, but we think it might be worth staying with. It goes along with the job, where all you’re really reviewing are the opening chapters of what will be a much longer work. By that token, A Gifted Man’s score should really be deflated, simply because what makes the pilot work so well won’t be present in future episodes. But at the same time, it’s such a nice, satisfying, quiet hour of television that it’s probably worth watching, even if you have absolutely no desire to watch the rest of the show.
Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson) is one of the world’s top neurosurgeons. He’s, as you’d expect, a bit of an asshole, but one of the strengths of the pilot is that he’s not so big of an asshole as to become unbelievable. He’s just very brusque and quick to brush people off. He’s also the sort of man who doesn’t mind leading a life that’s surrounded by solitude, content to sit alone in his giant, New York City apartment and eat take-out. He has a good life, and he’s good at his job, but it’s also a life that’s fundamentally surface-level and sterile. (To the pilot’s credit, it doesn’t condemn him for this; it just says this is the way things are.) Michael’s surprised to find that his ex-wife—from when he was just starting out in Alaska—has also moved down to New York. He bumps into Anna (Jennifer Ehle) while picking up his order at a restaurant, and the two go back to his place and talk about the old days. It’s clear there’s still a strong connection between the two, but Anna chooses to go back home, rather than spend the night with him. It’s a nice, well-developed moment: Two people who are lonely realize to get together, even for a night, would put too much strain on their fragile, rebuilding relationship.
Then Michael finds out Anna’s dead, and he’s seeing her ghost.
The problem with A Gifted Man is that for all of its beautiful, truly moving, often transcendent moments, if it’s going to be a TV series, it’s going to fundamentally be about a guy learning to be a better person with a little help from beyond the grave. Honestly, that might work over a two-hour movie. There would be a way to do that without descending into outright sentimentality. But it’s hard to imagine a season—or a series—of television that accomplishes this without becoming cloying. The medical drama nature of the program will eventually overwhelm it, and we’ll soon be left with a show where Michael just can’t believe the crazy ghost of his long-dead ex-wife keeps telling him to help out the less fortunate, instead of only helping the rich who can afford his services. There will be occasional, veiled critique of the problems with our country’s health care system. Every so often, Wilson will break down in tears. But the show itself will almost certainly grow too sappy, too quickly.
In the pilot, however, there’s a muted, beautiful tone to all of this. Almost all of this is due to pilot director Jonathan Demme, a great film director who bounces between genres as well as anyone working but almost always succeeds (barring that weird period when he was making Manchurian Candidate remakes and the like) because he never loses sight of the humanity at the center of the story. What unites movies as disparate as Melvin And Howard, Something Wild, The Silence Of The Lambs, and Rachel Getting Married is the fact that Demme always the people at the center of these stories in clear, cool-eyed focus, and he never pushes the emotional beats too far. He understands the fundamental difference between having a man be on the edge of tears—as Wilson is a couple of times in this pilot—and seeing him actually break down. The former builds a bridge to the audience, inviting us to contemplate moments in our lives when we’ve felt like this and complete the act of crying. The latter tells us how to feel.
The pilot’s script—by Susannah Grant, probably best known for her screenplay for Erin Brockovich though she should be just as well known for her work on the surprisingly moving adaptation of Charlotte’s Web from a few years back—is clunky in places. In the early going, the many different storylines and patients Grant tosses into the mix don’t especially seem like they’re going to blend together, and she’s written several lines of terrible exposition. But by the end, the script’s structure has brought together nearly all of its elements in a way that doesn’t feel forced. It simply feels like this is Michael’s life, sure, but there’s also an invisible thread running through it, connecting incidents, a thread he couldn’t see until Anna returned to help him see it.
The cast is generally very good. Wilson’s never taken off as a movie star, but his work on the TV version of Angels In America was very good, and he’s similarly good here. He never pushes Michael’s asshole-ishness too far, and he makes the moments where Michael realizes just how much he’s missed his wife deeply moving and believable. Ehle doesn’t have as much to do, but she’s good at keeping the moments where she subtly pushes Michael to be a better man from becoming too gooey. Margo Martindale turns up here as a secretary, and she’s also given very little to do, but the show’s producers have promised she’ll be serviced more in the future. (She’s, of course, very good at the little she’s asked to do.) Pablo Schreiber is surprisingly funny in the role of a shaman recruited to help Michael with his little “problem,” and as Michael’s sister who finds the shaman, Julie Benz isn’t as irritating as she can be (though she’s definitely the weak link in the cast).
It’s also difficult to explain just how moving this pilot is without having you sit down and watch it. There are moments that are clumsy scattered throughout, but by the time the final two acts—which deal with a host of problematic cases hitting Michael’s office all at once, just as he’s trying to deal with this specter that’s unexpectedly shown up in his life—roll around, the show has found both its footing and its voice. The central question of the hour is one that just about everybody has asked themselves before: If someone you once loved came back to you from beyond the grave, as weird as that would be, would you really ask them to go away? Or would you treasure every second you got with them? (Anna has a beautiful line about how the experience affects her, just a long series of moments when she sees Michael again and she realizes how much she loves and cares for him anew every time.) And the final shot is as good as any a pilot has ever had, a perfect encapsulation of all of the emotion the episode has built up until that point. If this were a movie, it would be borderline great. But it’s not.
As a pilot, A Gifted Man works, early clunkiness aside. Will it work as a series? Only time will tell. There’s a good show in here about a man who learns what it is to be good, thanks to unusual circumstances, sort of a Breaking Bad in reverse. But there’s also a clumsy medical drama that frequently goes in for goopy New Age mysticism. Demme helps the pilot mostly avoid that tone, but he won’t be around every week, even if he’s serving as a producer on the series. On the other hand, CBS is the network where a similarly high-concept drama—The Good Wife—popped up a few years ago, only to gradually evolve into one of the best shows on television. With time and patience, this is a show that could be that good. But the fear, as always, is that this will simply collapse into an ocean of overly maudlin syrup, dragging the audience down with hard to stomach sentimentality. And while that’s probably the most likely scenario, even if that happens, we’ll always have the pilot.
Phil: During the first few minutes of this thing, with the sweeping views of the New York skyline and the news announcers on the voiceover saying something like, “Billionaire Ron Moneybags has collapsed and is being taken to Manhattan Rich Folks’ General, where he will presumably be tended to by his best friend in the world, Dr. Awesome T. Handsomedouche,” I thought I was seeing a soap opera writer’s version of a Norman Mailer fantasy about the modern superman in today’s world. (For what it’s worth, this is the second show I’ve seen this week where a surgeon subscribes to the peculiar notion that he should be the one to perform a delicate, life-saving operation on someone close to him.) Then it turns out to be… about as stupid as I thought it was going to be, but stupid in a way that makes my head hurt much worse.
Maybe successful people in the TV industry think that, if they want to tell a story about a rich asshole who becomes aware that there are people in desperate circumstances who could use his help, this is how they have to package it to convince people it might be entertaining and, God help us, logical. How would he ever notice there’s a world beyond his navel, unless a ghost tells him about it? (The commercials flash messages on the screen such as “Open Your Eyes” and “Listen To Your Heart.” They ought to say, “Chug The Treacle.”) The worst thing about A Gifted Man is that this is the first thing a lot of people will see Jennifer Ehle and Margo Martindale in, after Ehle’s breakout role in Contagion and Martindale’s Emmy win for Justified. Actually, the worst thing will be if the heat they bring to it results in it staying on the air a minute longer, and keeping them from doing better work.