Emily Owens, M.D. debuts tonight on The CW at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Brandon Nowalk: Emily Owens, M.D. wants to be the Mean Girls version of a hospital soap but plays more like the Mean Girls 2 version. It’s so exhausting getting through these routine hospital plots that I’m falling asleep just writing about it. It’s Emily’s first day as a doctor, Emily gets arbitrarily picked on by a senior, Emily goes the extra mile for a patient. Not only has all of this been done by the likes of Grey’s Anatomy—the show Emily Owens’ copied off of in school—but it’s all been done by the hospital comedies making fun of those shows. It’s like Childrens Hospital never existed, which isn’t really defensible for a network that gets comparable ratings.
The premise is that a hospital is just like high school. You can tell because one peer gives Emily a tour that fast-forwards from clique to clique like the Mean Girls cafeteria: the jocks, the religious, even the plastics. How does she know all this already? “I’m the principal’s kid a.k.a. the chief-of-staff’s daughter.” Not even Revolution worked this hard to establish its premise. The thing is, once all the high-school exposition is over and the medical drama begins, the high-school conceit fades away. The freshmen have all heard rumors about how cutthroat the hospital is, but the only cutthroat is a new doctor, Emily’s high-school rival Cassandra. People are catty, cliques are exclusive, and co-workers develop crushes, but how is that different from any other social environment?
Parse the show even a little and it’s clear that Emily and Cassandra are the only ones still stuck in high school, and Cassandra at least has plausible deniability, or would if not for her outlandishly bitchy smile. Emily, on the other hand, narrates every awkward social encounter like she’s Kaspar Hauser released into public for the first time. She’s so nervous that she has to talk herself through her first conversation with an old friend. The comedy—rare but I chuckled—is sometimes effectively observational, as if an anthropologist studied a high school for years. Too bad the characters are grown women and men. Presumably the show will follow Emily’s coming-of-age, but for now, the central conceit of Emily Owens, M.D. depends on infantilizing its heroine. Talk about tired ideas.
Now, Emily’s a competent doctor. At least, she’s doing everything that J.D. would do on Scrubs right down to the neurotic voiceover. The difference is that J.D. is a heightened character on a show full of cartoonish daydreams. Emily Owens, M.D. is so low-key that the only daydreams are close-ups of Aquaman’s jaw. Which is to say Emily’s dysfunction—considering the advice of a 12-year-old, getting flustered around her crush, peeing her pants every time she’s asked to have a normal human interaction—isn’t always a comic exaggeration. Sometimes it’s a grown, educated woman acting like a child. Casting Mamie Gummer, whose character on The Good Wife is nothing but charming naïveté, is just overkill. That her foils are a schoolgirl who insults her, the aforementioned 12-year-old, and the high-school version of Cassandra says it all. Emily Owens, M.D. makes The Mindy Project look aspirational by comparison.
The Denver setting is both blessing and curse. I can count on no hands how many other shows are set in Denver—though Colorado as a whole has a few—so at the very least, Denver Memorial has a unique look. There’s snow on the ground, evergreens all around, and so much sun that people glow. Unfortunately, the upscale spa vibe neuters any threat of serious work. It’s a place of high achievement where life-or-death decisions are everyday, and it looks like a magazine spread for the latest line of knitwear. Which really undercuts Emily’s struggle to pass for professional.
At the very least, Emily Owens, M.D. has a relatively graceful way with diversity, with a colorful cast of beautiful faces. It’s odd to see a CW show that insists on swaddling its male leads in all those unnecessary layers, but Emily Owens, M.D. has an elementary-school approach to its romance so far. One girl even makes Emily find out if another girl likes her, so maybe I jumped the gun on declaring the high-school premise null and void. With a welcome mixture of skin colors and a coming-out episode down the line, diversity might be the show’s biggest success. But its treatment of professional women doesn’t give much cause for hope.
Carrie Raisler: You know how some people retroactively hate Pearl Jam because of the horrible knockoffs they spawned, like Creed? I’m starting to feel that way about Grey’s Anatomy. The existence of “female as general disaster” on television isn’t new, but Grey’s Anatomy deconstructed it in a way that people responded to and then networks subsequently attempted to duplicate with increasingly terrible results. Emily Owens, M.D. is the latest in a long line of said disasters, but the biggest disaster here is not the somewhat tired premise as much as the title character that premise revolves around.
We want our characters to have flaws. Flaws are interesting, flaws lead to tension, flaws give viewers something to latch on to. What this show has instead of a character with compelling flaws is a grown woman in her upper 20s who goes into a tailspin at the first sign of emotional challenge and who lives her entire life as if she’s in some weird adolescent stasis. Emily Owens isn’t a character with flaws; she’s one giant flaw in search of an actual character. The worst thing isn’t that Emily is an annoying, weak character, however: It’s that everything about her is presented as something we’re supposed to find endearing, instead of something we want to run screaming away from like she’s some sort of insecure twee monster.
This is unfortunate, because a show like this seems like the obvious next step for The CW, which is going through a maybe-successful transition from solely teen-focused programming to more young-adult fare. The Tuesday night pairing of Hart Of Dixie and Emily Owens, M.D. could have been a night of slightly neurotic but charming female doctors. Instead, it’s half charming and half run-for-your-life-dear-God-save-yourselves.