The Mob Doctor debuts tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Erik Adams: The protagonist of The Mob Doctor, Dr. Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) is the heir to a few of the possessions Dr. Gregory House left behind last May: House’s night within Fox’s weekly rotation, for starters, but also his diagnostic case files and his defining essence as an ethics-bound professional nonetheless acquainted with moral gray areas. And each character has their little secrets, too. House’s is hidden away in prescription bottles, but Grace’s is stated right in the title of her show. The surgical resident is The Mob Doctor—the doctor for the mob, as well as a mobster-connected (and mobster-indebted) physician. And the things Grace’s underworld associates ask her to do are far more sinister than the wildest impulses of her Monday-night predecessor.
And yet within the first hour of The Mob Doctor, Grace lacks one element that makes House and the other TV antiheroes that came before him and after him such an intoxicating and fascinating onscreen presence: acidity. If The Mob Doctor’s pilot is a job interview, then Grace’s answer to the “greatest weakness” question is the old “I care too much” standby. She’s a character who stands out from all the corruption in both spheres of her life by sticking firmly by her “first, do no harm” guns. That makes her an outlier in a field saturated with morally compromised heroes, but it also makes her a dull personality on which to hang a drama informed by two typically explosive television genres. Try as Spiro might—and she does, in a series of silent sequences that strain to show how much this is all weighing on Grace—her character comes off as muted against noisy scenes of operating-room crisis and organized-crime violence.
But with a premise as goofy and bipolar as The Mob Doctor’s, elements of the show were bound to feel watered down. While the material involving Grace’s unique situation—performing medical favors for a Chicago crime boss (Michael Rappaport) in order to work off a gambling debt incurred by her brother (Jesse Lee Soffer)—provides the most moment-to-moment thrills, the action at Roosevelt Medical Center plays like a second thought. Despite this, the characters walking the halls of Roosevelt—which include Grace’s mentor (Zeljko Ivanek), stink-eye-armed sparring partner (Jaime Lee Kirchner), and boyfriend (Zach Gilford)—are more fleshed-out than their gangster counterparts, who are all cardboard cutouts, save for fallen kingpin Constantine Alexander (William Forsythe). If, as implied by the pilot, the relationship between Grace and Constantine is to be the spine of the series, then the realm Constantine inhabits requires colorful supporting players worthy of its high-stakes plots.
With regard to the warmed-over hospital storylines, it’s telling that Kirchner’s character refers to her patients as “cases.” The Mob Doctor’s characters wear lab coats and have conversations about platelets, but Grace’s legitimate profession could have just as easily been that of a police officer or an attorney. That mutated strand of the series’ DNA helps the two sides of The Mob Doctor jibe with one another, but it isn’t until a bad call from a superior leads to a patient’s death that any of the character dynamics within Roosevelt feel distinct to the setting. Of course, that’s another trait inherited from House, which made a name for itself by existing in the Venn diagram overlap between TV doctors and TV detectives; it could also be a symptom of the extended history The Mob Doctor’s co-creators, Josh Berman (CSI, Bones) and Rob Wright (Law & Order, Crossing Jordan), have with cops and robbers (and lawyers and agents) on TV. In The Mob Doctor’s attempt at genre crossbreeding, the most potent thematic elements involve institutional corruption, but that theme only serves to underline Grace’s dull crusader streak. Beyond that characteristic's lack of a hook, it’s a wobbly stance to take, seeing as she’s WILLINGLY DOING FAVORS FOR THE MOB.
There is, however, an intriguing thread involving power running throughout the pilot: how the powerless strive to achieve it, and when they do, how it destroys them. That would have a greater impact if Forsythe didn’t have to brush off his copy of Bartlett’s to illustrate the fact through the words of John Dalberg-Acton—but this is a show called The Mob Doctor, so obviousness is to be expected. Still, during Constantine’s “absolute power” spiel, he hits upon the idea that Grace Devlin, South Side girl done good, only got into medicine because she likes to be in control. As it stands, she’s using that control for the purposes of good (even when going against the wishes of her superiors or bending the expectations of the doctor-patient relationship), but that’s not to say there isn’t a chance for moral rot to creep in down the line. It’s in that thought, and the relationship that inspires it, that The Mob Doctor shows any hope of developing beyond the procedural doldrums and genre stew of its pilot. Otherwise, it’ll only be worth remembering as “that show where P.J. from My Boys was the mob doctor (and also Matt Saracen was there).”
Ryan McGee: Here’s how I made it through the pilot for The Mob Doctor: I pretended this was a stealth spin-off of both My Boys and Friday Night Lights, in which P.J. and Saracen came together after the mob killed all their loved ones. Rather than pursue previous passions, they fell into each other’s arms, took up medicine, and tried to run away from the fate life dealt them. That’s an insane idea, to be sure. But I’ll take insanity over the by-the-numbers execution of the pilot.
Building a show around a “When will the protagonist get caught?” tension is a perfectly fine thing to do. Mad Men and Breaking Bad built this into their DNA, and no one seems to mind. But it’s a tricky balancing act for the writers of a show to put its characters into the crosshairs of two different worlds without portraying the people in one of those worlds as extremely stupid. In the pilot alone, Grace disappears from the hospital roughly a half-dozen times under suspicious circumstances. The fact that no one around her seems to think this is weird robs her mob-related exploits of much-needed drama.
Moreover, The Mob Doctor botches the reason for Devlin’s involvement with the mob in the first place. In hour-long dramas, there’s a long, rich tradition of male antiheroes who do despicable things for understandable reasons. We may not agree with those decisions, but they are recognizable as part of the human spectrum. Devlin doesn’t start working with the Chicago mob out of self-delusion, self-aggrandizement, or even a misguided attempt to do right via the wrong methods. Instead, the show makes her involvement essentially involuntary, robbing both the show and its audience of a potentially complex female lead. If part of this underground life actually excited her, even if (or especially if, depending on your personal preference) said excitement were against her will, then we’d have some room to explore over the course of multiple seasons.
There’s nothing to say that Grace can’t be complex and nuanced down the line. But there’s little here in this initial hour that suggests such a plan is even part of this show’s overall narrative. The Mob Doctor is one of the most on-the-nose titles of the fall TV lineup and the most misleading. In promising the best of medical procedurals and crime-based long-form narrative, the show in fact provides little evidence of either in its initial installment. Given the likeability of the cast, that’s a shame. But there’s a good chance this will be either DOA or sleeping with the fishes before long.