I like to think I’m pretty good at picking out when a TV show isn’t right for me but could be right for other people who like that sort of thing. If we’re talking Roger Ebert reviewing, then this would be a three-star TV show—a show that’s relatively unexceptional but does what it does well enough that fans of the genre would enjoy it. I tend to give shows like this B’s. They’re not for me, but they’re well done, and somebody somewhere would probably like them quite a bit. (For another example, see this week’s Last Man Standing.) Obviously, when people like something, then they think it’s good—which is how I’ve gotten into weird arguments about Unforgettable with relatives—but I’ve always hoped I could separate the Mentalists from the Charlie’s Angelses. They’re both procedurals, but the former is done with a certain amount of wit and verve, while the latter seems to have contempt for its audience. I don’t make a point of catching The Mentalist, but if it’s on, I can have fun with it.
This is largely how I feel about tonight’s A Gifted Man: I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch this show, but if I was home with my mom for the holidays and she had it on, I wouldn’t mind sitting through it. It’s schmaltzy, yes, but the medical cases are interesting, the guest characters are good, and the story has some emotional moments it largely earns. It’s the first episode since the pilot that made me think there might be something here, and it’s the first episode period that made me think this could be an actual TV show. (The pilot, interesting as it was, was very much a film in one hour.) This is a nicely satisfying little episode of television, and if you’re the kind of person who likes weepy medical dramas, well, if the show can copy this one diligently week to week, it might have something.
There are clunky moments throughout. At one point, Michael, trying to sum up the situation for viewers just tuning in, says, hilariously, “I've got a teenage girl refusing treatment. A guy on my soccer team may have AIDS!” The episode tries to tell three different medical stories and has a little trouble cramming that much into an hour. The series continues to have no idea how to incorporate Anna at all, making this two very different shows—a medical procedural and a show about a guy who talks to his dead wife for no apparent reason. And plenty of characters in the ensemble still have basically nothing to do.
But there’s also a moment tonight when Rita tells Michael that Donnie—the football player he treated at the height of his career who was later made destitute and homeless, thanks to the injuries he suffered on the field every week—has died, and Margo Martindale’s eyes brim over with tears, and the sad music on the soundtrack is well-chosen. And Michael’s told that Donnie left his brain to the Holt Clinic so Michael could study it, maybe help other athletes in his situation someday, and it’s a line of dialogue that should feel ridiculous—and probably would have in many other episodes of this show—but somehow feels earned here. Hell, the episode even uses this point to incorporate Anna in a way that feels mostly solid, as she tells Michael that he needn’t worry about Donnie. He’s okay now, in whatever afterlife he’s ended up in. It’s all very well done and very nice, and if I were the kind of person who just needed a little sappy drama to close out my week, I could see growing to like a show that did it this well very much.
The tri-furcated story is kind of a problem here. The stuff with Donnie is good, but it feels too abrupt, as does the stuff with Michael’s friend on the soccer team. (Plus, I hate when a medical show has the doctor suddenly run into a life-threatening situation when he’s on his downtime with friends. Obviously, it happens, but it tends to be a crutch medical shows rely on too much.) I liked most of the story about Chloe, the teenage girl suffering from a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder after her friend died, however, and I thought it gave Patrick Wilson—who’s really struggled with making the scenes where he solves the medical cases interesting—some nice notes to play. As a matter of fact, that final scene where he talks with the girl before heading back in to learn Donnie died was very well done. It might have been his best non-Anna scene since the pilot, and it gave what came after a nice sense of gravitas. When he told her that her friend’s death would always be a part of her life, just as much as her friend had been, it was a moment the show seemed to have been building to for quite a while.
Curiously, the episode’s one major Anna scene before the end wasn’t as good as the others have been. (Perhaps it was just the fact that the rest of the material was better.) It hinged on the idea that Chloe was going to receive treatment that would calm her body’s response to the trauma she’d been through, to give her mind time to heal via psychiatric methods. There was some concern that this would be too much like reducing the importance of the experience to her (concern that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but whatever), and Anna asked if he would take a pill to erase her, to forget all about her in perpetuity, or just to get rid of her. Now, while this made me think about how having Tom Wilkinson star in a series set at Lacuna would be awesome, it also baffled me because Michael had basically been presented with a version of this scenario in the pilot! And when he was on the verge of kicking her into the afterlife, he shifted course and decided not to do it. Doesn’t Anna already have her answer?
But that’s probably a small quibble for something that worked nicely on that heart-tugging level. Plus, the show found a good way to tell an issues-based storyline without pushing too hard. Granted, the plight of former athletes who suffer brain trauma from injuries sustained while in the world of sports isn’t exactly a story about poor families that can’t afford access to health care, but it’s definitely something worth talking about that fits into the show’s general setting and milieu. This wasn’t a great episode of television by any means, but it was at least a competent one with lots of nice grace notes around the edges. And sometimes, that’s enough.
- Rachelle LeFevre continues to add nothing to this show but the one or two people who are watching it simply because she was in Twilight.
- I didn’t get a chance to look up the singer who performed the closing song, but as sappy TV ballads go, it was a good example of the form. I also dug the closing shot, of Michael unwrapping Donnie’s bandages to collect his brain. (There’s no way to write that without making this sound like an unofficial Walking Dead spinoff.)
- I don’t know how much longer I’ll be covering this show, since even if it settles into this groove, there will rarely be all that much to write about it week to week, and it’s not like the write-ups get millions of hits (more like dozens). That said, Frank Fisticuffs. Speaking of which…
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?)
Khemkaeng, as it turned out, was handy at driving most vehicles, his skills as a Bangkok taxi driver coming in handy in city traffic, of course, but also in slower country, like the middle-of-nowhere Oklahoma, where the three now found themselves, crammed into the front seat of a rusted out Studebaker Khemkaeng had somehow gotten running with a ball of twine and some maple syrup.
They only had a few hours to prevent the war.
He looked down at the photo of Margaret he clutched in his hand. “How did you get wrapped up in all of this?” he murmured.
Byron, hands still bound, let out a rude bark of a laugh. “She’s the daughter of a U.S. Senator, Mr. Fisticuffs. Have you really not put it all together yet?”
Khemkaeng backhanded Byron across the mouth. “You fool!” he said. Frank gave him a terse nod. The two didn’t share much, but they shared a hatred for Byron Lawton.
Frank held up his hand, indicating that Khemkaeng should slow. Before them, silhouetted in the headlights, they could see the old barn, its face crumbling from years of neglect. As they approached, a swarm of bats flew out of the hayloft door, into the moonless sky.
His gun remained trained on Byron as they stepped out of the truck. “You want this as little as I do,” he said. “Why else would you move to Bangkok?”
“I don’t want it, Mr. Fisticuffs.” Byron’s face took on a haughty sneer. “But I know I can’t prevent it. They’ll stop at nothing to get what’s in Pocatello.”
And in an instant, it all made sense. The explosion. The gunfight. The secret lab. The strange amounts of cadmium that had been unaccounted for. The bear.
Clapping. Out of the barn stepped Drexler, belly shaking with laughter like a Santa Claus of death, an anti-Claus. “Very good, Frank!” Casually, he shot Khemkaeng in the head. “But you’re too late. The missiles have already been launched. In one hour, there won’t be a Pocatello. And there won’t be a Margaret either.”