A Young Doctor's Notebook

A Young Doctor's Notebook

Jon Hamm, clad in a suit, sits at a broad desk squinting ponderously as he exhales cigarette smoke in the opening scene of A Young Doctor’s Notebook. And that’s where similarities between Mad Men and this four-part period piece, airing on Ovation after a successful run on the U.K.’s Sky Arts channel, begin and end. An unnamed doctor (Hamm) lives in Moscow circa 1934, but instead of recoiling from his past like Dick Whitman, he fixates on it. The physician watches Soviet soldiers rifle through his office as he ruminates on the ignominious beginning of his career, in a remote, snow-crested Russian village in 1917.

The younger incarnation of the doctor is portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, a guileless baby-face wincing his way through his first job. As the show bounces backwards in time, Radcliffe arrives by carriage to a bleak-looking hospital quarters inhabited by a three staff members: two unsmiling nurses who regard his youth with justifiable suspicion (Rosie Cavaliero and Vicki Pepperdine) and one dorky feldsher, or dentist (Adam Godley, last screen flinching as Elliot Schwartz on Breaking Bad). The young doctor has just finished medical school and wants to make his mark on the medical world, but he's as trepidatious about his new position as the nurses. 

Adapted from A Country Doctor’s Notebook, a loosely autobiographical series of short stories by Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, A Young Doctor’s Notebook defies easy categorization, unless I’ve been missing out on a batch of winking-yet-melancholy magical realist dark comedies set in Russia. I didn't realize it was going to be funny until after the prologue, when we see Radcliffe shivering next to a carriage driver who looks an awful lot like Hagrid (or maybe that's just my Harry Potter fangirlism rearing its head). "It's better, now we have the road," the driver says to alleviate the doctor's worries about the journey's length. "This is a road?" Radcliffe asks. A few moments later, the driver abruptly hurls the luggage out of the carriage, sending the slight doctor flying. The doctor must trudge his way to the hospital 

Unlike the source material, based on Bulgakov’s pre-writing experiences as a novice physician and first published in the decidedly down-to-earth Russian journal Medical Worker, the series sidesteps realism to engage in a conceit that shouldn’t work as well as it does. Hamm’s older doctor apparates into his past and interacts with the younger version of himself, alternately poking fun at Radcliffe’s inexperience and naiveté and helping him keep his head during the first chaotic night as village doctor, when a woman in labor comes in for help. “I’m new to the area, I don’t know where anything is!” Radcliffe says, attempting small talk as he peers at the first human vagina he’s ever seen. His frantic stab at delivering a breech baby doesn’t result in tragedy, but it does confirm that this young doctor is kind of an incompetent ninny.

Taking a page from Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love, where Alec Baldwin plays an aged version of Jesse Eisenberg’s romantically besieged, bumbling ex-pat, A Young Doctor’s Notebook doesn’t explain its surreal two-dudes-one-character logic, nor does it bother making Hamm and Radcliffe resemble one another—no Looper-style makeup is employed, and the substantial height gap between the actors is played for laughs, although it could be seen as a comment on the way we look back on our former selves as an insignificant snippet of what we have become.

Hamm doesn’t put on an accent so much as he feebly pokes one with a stick every once and a while, but the different voices and obvious discrepancy in appearance don’t matter (plus, his comedic timing remains spot on). A Young Doctor’s Notebook isn’t asking its audience to pretend the actors look alike because they’re not meant to be the same person in two different time periods; Radcliffe’s young doctor is the subjective memory of the older doctor.

The dingy hospital is decorated with self-portraits of the hirsute good doctor Leopoldovich, whose grave face contains all the gravitas Radcliffe’s preposterously smooth mug lacks. But perhaps the nurse’s glowing intimation that the doctor painted the portraits himself speaks to the show’s theme, that the ideas of ourselves we set out to preserve are rarely accurate; like John Ashbery’s poem “Self-Portrait In A Convex Mirror,” both the paintings and the doctor’s sojourn into memory are inherently warped, vain attempts to capture the slippery truth of selfhood. In conjuring memories of his younger self, the older doctor is changing them. Or maybe this is going to turn out to be a more straightforward time travel story and I'm reading it wrong. 

If that makes it sound like A Young Doctor’s Notebook is a reverent, stodgy affair, it’s not. The show slides from deadpan humor (a scene where the feldsher can’t take a hint about leaving the young doctor’s bedroom is especially entertaining) to farcical, and the episode contains some great bits of physical comedy, particularly from the hapless Radcliffe. Toward the end of the episode, Radcliffe gets puffed up by his first successful delivery to perform another procedure he’s unfamiliar with, and things go awry in an outlandishly gruesome, slapstick sequence.

This is a short series, with only four episodes in the first season, although success in the U.K. means a second series is already confirmed. With two major stars and a solid supporting cast, A Young Doctor’s Notebook could help put Ovation on the map, in spite of its brief running time. But the ambiguity of the older doctor’s presence in the primary 1917 narrative may be too much for some viewers, as could the comedic sensibility, which veers between wry and slapdash. And although the characters are entertaining, after the first episode, the only one fleshed out enough to feel vaguely worth investing in is the doctor—and even so, I’d like to see the show delve into why Hamm’s iteration is visiting his younger self.  

Though I have some reservations, I’m already enthusiastic about this show. Its commitment to weirdness will certainly alienate viewers expecting a more conventional period piece, but that's the charm: It veers confidently into absurd dark humor, a sardonic farce hidden inside a prestige drama. 

Stray observations: 

  • When Hamm first appears in Radcliffe’s room, he says “Did I really used to look like that?” Wink any harder at the audience and your meta-dialogue eyelid will fall off.
  • Obstetrics seem to have progressed in a heartening manner since pre-revolutionary rural Russian times.
  • For that delightfully freaky pocket of the Internet crafting Harry Potter/Don Draper slash fiction, I can’t imagine how exciting this casting must be.

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