A Gifted Man: “In Case Of All Hell Breaking Loose”
C-

A Gifted Man: “In Case Of All Hell Breaking Loose”

So I liked the pilot for A Gifted Man. I thought it was beautifully filmed and well-acted and solidly written. It wasn’t the sort of thing I usually watch—this sort of goopy supernatural drama is really far outside my comfort zone—but it was an exceptionally well-executed version of a show I wouldn’t have normally watched. I liked the way that Jonathan Demme used straight-on shots of Patrick Wilson to let you know that his character, Michael Holt, was isolated from everyone around him, while always keeping Jennifer Ehle’s Anna in a two-shot with him, to let you know she was a part of him. I liked the way the characters seemed to have lived a life together before the show began. I liked its sense of texture, and its moving climax.

But a lot of people—including a lot of you—thought the whole thing was sentimental, sappy glurge. I can’t say I disagree with this either. It is sentimental, sappy glurge. And in this case, you either think it’s a well-done version of that particular form, or you start gagging at all of the syrupy schmaltz the show is insisting you swallow. This is definitely a case where when people didn’t enjoy the pilot as much as me, I nod in agreement, even if I think they’re, ultimately, just a little bit wrong.

On the other hand, I’d bet that even someone who hated the pilot and I could agree that it didn’t seem likely that pilot was setting us up for something as rote and boring as this.

Now, the danger with A Gifted Man was always that the pilot didn’t leave a great deal of room to make an actual TV show. It felt like a movie, truncated to an hour. Sure, you had the medical cases of the week, but those were secondary to the discovery of the premise—Michael is seeing his dead wife, and she’s here to help him understand how he can make the world a better place. The problem with any pilot that relies heavily on the discovery of the premise is that you can only discover the premise once. It’s one of the reasons the pilot for Modern Family seemed to be setting up a greater show than we actually got. The show as it stands is a fun family comedy, but the pilot—which concludes with the “twist” that all of the characters are in the same family—suggests we’re going to get something a little more unorthodox. But that was a “discovery of premise” moment. It was a moment that couldn’t be repeated, no matter how much the show tried.

So once you toss out the ghost stuff, what’s left? Well, you have the self-improvement bits, which at least provide an excuse for why Anna might still be hanging around on a sheer “construction of the show” level. But you also have the medical cases of the week. And since this is CBS (or, more accurately, network television), the medical cases of the week are going to be given more weight than they probably deserve. This is what happens tonight, as Michael gets involved in an attempt to save the life of his accountant’s pregnant wife and figure out a way to reunite a father and son he’s stupidly split apart by being a jackass (somewhat unrealistically). The accountant goes to his big, ritzy clinic, while the little boy pops up at Anna’s old clinic, and the show immediately strains to do interesting things in either storyline. This is all the usual TV medical claptrap you’ve seen a million times before, only now, there’s a ghost who pops up every so often to act smug and grimace a bit.

In other words, robbed of the “discovery of premise” moment, A Gifted Man has just become another medical procedural, House-lite, if you will, since the show keeps insisting Michael’s an arrogant jackass, but he’s also played by Patrick Wilson, big screen golden boy. This means that Michael can only be as arrogant as his dimples, and his dimples don’t seem especially full of themselves. (Also, Wilson seems to have been asked to look up at the end of every scene and stare fretfully at nothing in particular, as if to remind us that he has a lot of important things on his mind. I beg of you, oh, Internet: Make a video of all of these silent stares with the word “ACTING!” flashing at the bottom of the screen.) (Update: YouTuber GeoffSundin has heard my pleas and made this video!) As a medical procedural, this is more or less serviceable, I guess. The resolution of the pregnant-lady-with-brain-tumor storyline is kind of okay—even if the show makes Michael transitioning from cutting out a tumor to CUTTING OUT A BABY ridiculous as all get out. And I like the world of the free clinic, even if the storylines there are regularly snooze-worthy. Plus, Raul Esparza dropped by, and he’s always good!

But at the same time, there’s none of the emotional immediacy of the pilot here, none of the sense of a man who’s deeply missing someone who was important to him getting more precious moments with that woman. Where Susannah Grant’s pilot script pondered ideas of eternity and what sort of grace might bring two estranged lovers back together from beyond the grave, this second episode (scripted by members of the show’s full-time writing staff) reduces Anna to an occasional scold who wanders in whenever the show needs to make Michael seem like he’s particularly kooky for the rest of his staff. (The pilot didn’t lean too heavily on footage of Michael seemingly talking to himself; episode two seems to possess that as the only trick in its bag of tricks.) It also features a scene where Michael’s going to tell the little boy that his father isn’t actually his father (which is something the dad didn’t know until Michael informed him of that fact), and Michael gravely intones, “I’m sorry to tell you, but your father is…” and the dad pops his head in the door and says, “RIGHT HERE!” Wilson plays the moment with all the gravitas of Phil Keoghan, while the dad doesn’t seem to realize this isn’t Dr. Kildare.

I still like the way A Gifted Man digs into issues of how hard it can be to get effective health care in this country, even if it soft-peddles these issues a bit by suggesting that if you can’t afford health insurance, you should probably just wait for a talented doctor to randomly bump into the ghost of his ex-wife if you want respectable care. I also liked the half-mentioned idea of Margo Martindale’s Rita going over to work at Anna’s clinic, an idea that actually might be worthy of Martindale’s talents. (You just know the writers were working on this script when Martindale received her Emmy nomination, prompting them to toss in that bizarre, “YOU KNOW, I USED TO BE A NURSE!” scene that seemed designed to utterly and completely shift her character in the space of, like, two sentences. At least they’re aware they have an actress of Martindale’s caliber on hand.) And I still like the chemistry between Wilson and Ehle. But the pilot for this show oozed like an open wound; episode two took one look at that wound, slapped a bunch of brightly colored Band-aids on it, and declared it good as new. Episode one was TV bullshit, but it was deeply felt TV bullshit. Episode two was just a bunch of wading through the muck.

Stray observations:

  • Favorite shot of Wilson ACTING!!!: He’s looking down at the boy’s blood cells, and he realizes that, shit, kid’s got sickle-cell anemia. Look up from the microscope he found in the back room of Anna’s clinic. Look concerned. Cut to commercial.
  • Pablo Schreiber as Captain Shaman drops in to tell Michael just how wrong he’s doing it. Also, he’s a carpenter. He’s… not supposed to be the Christ figure here, right? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t handle that. It’s taking everything I have to not just unload on this show with snark as is.
  • I also liked when Wilson went to the construction site and started shouting at the sky about how our construction worker friend’s wife done treated him wrong.

And now, the continuing adventures of Frank Fisticuffs, in an excerpt from the new Frank Fisticuffs novel, Frank Fisticuffs in Pocatello Ransom:

(Since no one’s going to read these reviews anyway, I may as well start burying excerpts from my never-to-be-published Frank Fisticuffs novel at the bottom of the stray observations. I mean, why not?)

And there she was.

Margaret Wallace, the reason for all this mess, sat prettily on the trussed up bed in room 423 of the Hi-Ho Hotel. Her hands tied behind her back, she stared up at him plaintively, lips twisting their way into a half-smile. He removed his hat. She had that effect.

“Took you long enough.”

He nodded, pulled out the thick stack of bills and riffled through it. “The ransom. The… Pocatello… ransom.”

She rolled her eyes and turned her bound hands toward him, gesturing for him to untie. “I have got to get out of Pocatello fucking Idaho.”

He was about to agree when the wall caved in beside him. Drexler’s goons, plunging through, hands closing around his throat, sending him tumbling toward the stained carpet.

More TV Club