Do No Harm debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is a story of its time, in a way that’s easy to forget. Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous novella (penned, it must be mentioned, in a feverish rush after the little people of his dreams fed him the plot—if you were Freud, you’d be writing all of this down and then underlining it) has all the signifiers we remember: the hokey science, the moral hypocrisy, the mounting terror of a secret life becoming less secret with each passing moment. But the key to understanding the story’s power comes from grasping the Victorian mindset which drove it, a mindset which separated the “good” and “evil” sides of one’s personality without regard to psychological subtlety or equivocation. These days, our culture operates on the assumption that our more venal impulses (lust, greed, hate, whatever makes people talk during movies) are inexorably linked to our so-called better natures—the bad stuff isn’t alien to our souls, it’s biological, and making some kind of peace with it is the only way to be sane. For the Victorians, the baser nature was a devil to be battled and constrained, and Dr. Jekyll’s attempt at better living through chemistry was a have cake and eat too kind of solution which doomed him because it broke a cardinal law of his time. He let the bad man out, and worse, he took pleasure in his badness, all in a manner designed to let him slip free of any responsibility or blame. The greatest horror in the book comes not from Hyde’s cruelty, but from the connection between his actions and the supposedly saintly doctor, the suggestion that both conditions could be possible in the same man; a link which we take for granted was beyond terrifying to a culture which prided itself on decorous restraint.
There are plenty of weird bits in the ridiculous, hamfisted, clunky, gloriously stupid pilot for Do No Harm, but what could be the weirdest is the way it takes on the Jekyll and Hyde concept by making the conflict so black and white it would fit into a Victorian nursery, provided the kids could deal with a few shots of ladies in their underwear. (Note: they probably couldn’t.) The premise: Dr. Jason Cole (Steve Pasqule) is a noble, noble man. He performs surgery in a brightly lit hospital, saving lives and delivering pep-talks with equal aplomb, while he flirts with the staff’s other Hot Doctor, neurologist Lena Solis (Alana De La Garza), makes life hell for his assistant, and chats with hospital boss Dr. Vanessa Young (Phylicia Rashad, who could do this kind of role in her sleep). But Dr. Cole has a secret. A secret which sets him apart from the square-jawed heroic doctors on every other show about square-jawed heroic doctors. Every night at 8:25 on the dot, Dr. Cole becomes the vile, monstrous, kind of douchebaggy Ian Price. And Ian Price he shall remain for the next twelve hours. When the pilot opens, Cole has been keeping his alter in check via sedative for years, but suddenly, the sedative stops working. One second, Cole’s sitting next to his bed having a panic attack: the next, he’s waking up in that same bed, surrounded by the aforementioned half-naked ladies.
Credit where it’s due: the transition is a sharp one. But right off we’ve got one of the series’ big problems. It wants the battle between Cole and Price to be the Jekyll and Hyde struggle for moral supremacy but without any of Jekyll’s icky culpability. (There’s no explanation in the pilot for the condition, so maybe down the road, we’ll find this has something to do with bad potions or gamma rays.) While that makes the situation more good guy vs. bad guy, it also leads to a more immediate and obvious threat. Cole isn’t using an alter-ego to indulge his vile yearnings, he’s a hostage to an apparent uncontrollable entity that has use of his body every night. The pilot goes to great lengths to establish how dangerous Price is, how frightened Cole is at the thought he’ll get loose, which generates a lot of cheap, but effective, suspense. The world of the show is all stereotypes and shallow medical drama cliches, but there’s an immediate danger to the hero, and a literal countdown for him in every scene where he’s awake before the next attack. It’s all arbitrary as hell, but it works on a visceral level that makes this first hour (and much of the second) pretty watchable stuff.
But the show is still laughable for all the wrong reasons, and that’s the problem we’re introduced to in the first big Price reveal, and every subsequent one thereafter. As a good guy, Pasqule is blandly passable. As a villain, he’s... slightly sarcastic. There’s a definite frat-boy nastiness to some of his line deliveries, and he’s capable of getting violent when the script calls for it, but he’s neither monstrous nor ever really convincingly different from his good guy self. All day, we hear Freddy Kruger is going to kill us in our dreams, only when night comes, Bradley Cooper shows up and tells us we’re fat and then steals our wallet. One of the big appeals of this particular kind of werewolf narrative is getting to root for the hero, but also getting to enjoy the insanity and violence when his dark side lets loose. But once it becomes obvious that the writers idea of “evil” is just being kind of sleazy and having lots of sex, the whole thing falls apart. There are even signs in the second episode of the arrangement losing what little edge it initially has and turning into some sort of weird manic pixie dream alternate personality drama, like Cole and Price will end up learning valuable life lessons from each other. Which, okay, if that’s how they want to swing it, sure, but both episodes show Price’s Axe body-spray assholery extends to threatening, and perhaps even abusing, women, and it’s a rare moment of legitimate darkness in the middle of a lot of nonsense that doesn’t work at all.
Of course, Ian Price can’t actually do any serious damage, because if he did, the show would become unsustainable; as soon as Price commits a murder or a rape, Cole’s refusal to contact any authorities or warn nearly anyone around him of the danger makes him an accessory, and means that he either has to turn himself in at once, or become an anti-hero, neither of which option really works for the kind of show NBC is pushing. So we have a boogeyman who will always pull back, or be pulled back, before he does anything too despicable on screen; it’s like sharing your body with Cobra Commander.
Really, almost none of this works. It’s unfair to focus on Pasqule’s performance, given the script is littered with half-baked cliches and plot twists which would be insulting if they were so gleefully, deeply moronic. There’s a thread in the pilot about an abused woman which plays out almost exactly like you’d predict it would, only that prediction makes no sense at all, requiring as it does for the show to exist in a place without actual consequences to actions or anything approaching realistic psychology. There is also a plot about a man with a medical condition which was almost certainly drawn from the most cursory of Wikipedia entry studies. The mash-up between “laughable horror thriller” and “laughable hospital soap” is ungainly to say the least; while it makes passable character sense that a man who knows he’s capable of (snicker) awfulness would want to become a doctor to pay back some good to the world, it still mostly seems like yet another way to give yet another damn show about doctors some kind of hook. (We’ve had “doctors with ghosts” and “doctors with vampires” already, right?) The acting is passable, except when it isn’t. Dialogue is laden with cliche when it isn’t already bogged down by exposition, and the more you think about any of this, the less it makes sense. How could Cole possibly survive with Ian running around when he’s supposed to be sleeping? How can you be a full-time doctor and only be awake 12 hours each day?
This is where the grading gets tricky, because while this is not in any way a good show, if you have any interest in junk TV, I’d recommend it. It’s mesmerizing in its badness, and never, ever boring. There’s actually a good spine for a series buried here somewhere (one the British pulled off a bit better with Jekyll, another wickedly energetic show that managed to skirt the goofiness/fun line with more grace), which makes it easier to enjoy the inadvertent hilarity, and while I can’t imagine the writers being able to maintain this pace and energy for very long, the second episode shows no serious sign of flagging. If you’re interested in a serious examination of hypocrisy, moral confusion, alienation, and mad science, head to the library. But if you want some unexpected snickers and a lot of hacky PG thrills, Do No Harm will provide. At the very least, you’ll want to check out the pilot. That last line is killer.