The Mob Doctor - "Turf War"

The Mob Doctor - "Turf War"

FOX aired the seventh episode of The Mob Doctor tonight, and if that doesn’t tell you the state of television at the end of 2012, I’m not sure what else could. The ratings for the show have been abysmal, which is only slightly worse than the actual quality of the program. If you’ve watched every episode of this show, welcome to the club! There’s cake and punch for the 15 of us. And yet it saunters on, because networks are trying to figure out how to monetize existing shows in a world where overnight ratings are combined with DVR and On Demand statistics that produce murky metrics no one short of John Nash can currently parse. There’s no guarantee that FOX could do any better in this time slot, and so Matt Saracen will continue to suffer for the foreseeable future.

The Mob Doctor has been a classic example of show-by-committee, seemingly created out of a need for a House-like replacement for FOX while simultaneously trying to craft a serialized story about the Chicago mob. What unfolded for the first five weeks was a series of scenes that often bore little to no resemblance to one another, almost as if several programs were trying to compete for air-time in between commercial breaks. Sadly, none of these separate programs are terribly interesting in and of themselves. On one side, you have Constantine (William Forsythe) struggling to regain his criminal empire after deposing of rival Moretti (Michael Rappaport). Constantine’s rise depends on the distribution of video poker machines throughout the city, which requires the greasing of many wheels and the shakedowns of many scumbags. On other side, you have actors such as Zach Gilford, Željko Ivanek, and Shohreh Aghdashloo stranded in a rote medical procedural that only tangentially, if ever, connects with Constantine’s storylines. It’s a baffling waste of serious acting talent, and easily the most unfortunate part of the show to date.

At the center of these two worlds, ostensibly forming the bridge between them, lies the titular figure. Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) owed a debt to Moretti thanks to taking over the one created by her brother’s ne’er-do-well lifestyle. But now she owes that debt to longtime family friend Constantine after the latter apparently killed the former in the pilot. Grace has straddled the line between the medical world and the underworld each week, but with about 98 percent less tension than you would think might arise when a surgeon has to hide her criminal activities inside a surgical theatre. A show like Breaking Bad demonstrates how to milk tension from someone living two lives simultaneously. The Mob Doctor instead almost instantly removed the one person in the hospital asking too many questions about Grace’s constant absences because it became too difficult to avoid asking sane questions on a weekly basis.

That’s too bad, because if there’s one opportunity that still exists within the world of this show, it’s that Grace gets to be every bit as complex as the male antiheroes that have dominated the past decade of television. Excruciatingly repetitive flashbacks bookend each episode, trying to give context to Grace’s lifelong relationship to both Constantine and the mob world in general. (One of her exes, Franco, was her former boyfriend and potential husband before he fled the city to avoid arrest or murder for his activities.) But what the show provides in half-handed backstory does not make up for the almost complete lack of psychological depth for Grace. What motivates her to be a doctor? Why entertain a life with the mob at all? Now that she’s enmeshed, is she trying to keep her soul clean? Does she think she can outsmart Constantine over the long haul? Does she secretly enjoy the thrill of rulebreaking? There are plenty of places for the show to theoretically go. The fact that both her brother and mother seem okay with Constantine’s maneuvers gives her a chance to rebel privately if not professionally. But she doesn’t even do that. Rather than provide a bridge between the two worlds, Grace has by and large operated outside of both. She is beholden to neither, but she belongs to neither. She floats in the ether as the show tries to make up its mind.

To be fair, last week’s episode, “Complications,” was a marked improvement over all that came before. Constantine finally showed some hints as to the charisma that landed him so many loyal employees. (There’s “underplaying”, and then there’s “whatever the hell William Forsythe has been doing all season”. It’s like there was a bomb strapped to a bus, and it would only go off if Constantine spoke above a whisper.) The slowly-gestating Moretti revenge plot kicked into high gear. Grace got exposed to actual danger, which in turn complicated her relationship with Franco, who found himself now the target of Constantine by episode’s end. But most importantly, it backed Grace into a true corner at work, as her kidnapping left her seemingly unable to explain why she missed an important presentation at the hospital. For a show that had been spinning its wheel for five episodes, the series suddenly found some decent traction and seemed like a show that might hold some interest over the long haul.

“Turf War,” by contrast, is more interested in the illusion of change, rather than anything truly meaningful. Barely anyone at the hospital seems to bat at eye when Grace returns after a three-day absence, which basically defuses any tension that “Complications” invited. If a mysterious 72-hour “illness” doesn’t raise any red flags about Grace’s off-duty activity, why keep her in a place dramatically designed to provide tension on a weekly basis? Hell, she even walks around noticeably limping despite the painkillers delivered to her home by the ever-helpful (and never questioning) Rosa. By episode’s end, Rosa is in on Grace’s double life, and I assume we’re meant to retroactively assume her “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has derived from a secret fascination with the mob rather than lazy storytelling. But Rosa is symptomatic of the entire medical aspect of The Mob Doctor, which feels, in biological terms, like a vestigial organ. It’s present, but not really necessary in any capacity.

Tonight’s Franco reveal was another aspect of the show that felt like change, but really seems like the show checking off a narrative box in an effort to extend its story. To be fair, unlike Rosa’s reveal, this one actually makes some sense upon looking back at past episodes. Instead of simply looking at Franco’s affections for Grace as coming from a mobster with a heart of gold, we now see them coming from a man who is “in too deep” (a phrase that, I shit you not, an actor actually had to say on television in 2012) but having as many secrets about his true identity as Grace herself. Why isn’t this really change? Because while we know Franco’s true purpose, no one else meaningful on the show does. It’ll basically be business as usual from this point onwards, mechanically speaking. If the show couldn’t be bothered to make Grace’s absence from the hospital resonate, why would Agent York’s threat to pull Franco out of Chicago instill fear in anyone watching?

As for Grace, she finds herself tonight becoming more adept at manipulating both the hospital and law enforcement, prompting Constantine to say, “You’re a real natural at this, you know?” Switching the bullet of a hit-and-run shooting with one from her own leg is a pretty nifty switcheroo, but it’s also one that felt like careful plotting rather than logical character work. As strong as Spiro was on the late, fairly great My Boys, it’s still unclear if she or the writing is the problem when it comes to Grace’s moral conundrums. The show does give her a slight smirk as she inserts a misleading bullet into a corpse, but that’s the first hint all season that she’s any type of true criminal mastermind. The show underlines her actions with lines such as Constantine’s in order to tell us how to feel about her at any given point. The show wants to have the pacing of a cable drama, but over the course a network-length season. There’s a reason this type of scenario almost never works out, as long-term needs often outweigh the type of taut pacing such an arc as Grace’s necessitates. Her varied reactions to complicated scenarios don’t suggest a complex character so much as a show unsure of where it wants to take its lead character.

That, of course, assumes there’s an arc at all in place for Grace. The first seven episodes as a whole saw the rise and fall of this phase of gang warfare, pushed Grace’s family deeper into the Chicago underground, gained Grace an ally inside the hospital, and revealed a government mole surveying the entire proceedings. That sounds, on paper, like a lot. So why has this show felt as empty as the cardboard boxes in Constantine’s warehouse? Primarily, this has to do with the show achieving these milestones on a whiteboard in a writer’s room and fitting characters to an established story, rather than letting the characters define that story through their actions. Grace very well might be a “natural”, and it would be intriguing to see her follow a Walter White-esque path toward manipulating both sides of her life toward her own ends.

It’s the most obvious path for the show to take, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong one, either. It’s all about the execution, and the execution has to reconfigure the show around Grace’s grey areas first and foremost. Every moment that the show shifts towards the machinations of video poker distribution or a medical emergency involving someone who isn’t involved directly with Grace’s mob work deflates, distracts, and dilutes the show’s primary potency. This show is called The Mob Doctor, not The Mob And Also Doctors. Sometimes, a sprawling canvas provides scope. This is not one of those times.

There’s a need for the complicated figure Constantine gazes upon at the end of tonight’s episode. It’s time for us to start seeing her from the comforts of our own couches.

Stray observations:

  • We’re seven weeks in, and Željko Ivanek is still a nominally good guy. Can this last? Why is it so upsetting to see him play a character that isn’t creepy and/or evil?
  • At one point tonight, Brett says, “I can’t be an afterthought.” And yet, that’s exactly what Zach Gilford’s character is at this point. At least Franco and Grace have a touch of chemistry, which is infinitely more than anything she’s shown with Brett.
  • Lord, let this be the end of Rappaport’s run on the show. He’s unintentionally hysterical every time he pops up on screen. Sadly, I’ll imagine Moretti and his “It’s-a me, Mario!” accent will pop up in prison orange sooner rather than later.
  • At one point, Constantine delivered six deep-dish pieces to Grace’s house while she recovered. In related news, I’m freakin’ starving.

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