Off The Map debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Look. Grey’s Anatomy was never the best show on television. It was frequently incredibly, incredibly dumb (remember that prom in the hospital), and it was often way too fond of giant, outsized melodrama that didn’t make a lot of sense. Also, there was a time there when Izzie was having sex with a figment of her imagination or a ghost or something, and it was one of the most ridiculous things in television history. But when Grey’s Anatomy was good, it was really, really good. It was a ton of fun, burning through plotlines as quickly as any show out there, and most of those plotlines were fun to take in. Remember the train wreck that sent a pole through Monica Keena’s midsection? Remember when Meredith found out her boyfriend was married to the generally agreeable Addison? Remember the heightened insanity of the Super Bowl episode, the way Coach Taylor exploded to save us from our sins? Yeah, yeah, yeah, it got pretty bad, pretty fast, and though I’m told this season is good, I can’t bring myself to check back in. But anyone saying Grey’s Anatomy was bad the whole way through is lying to themselves.
That’s the thing, though. Part of the problem with saying Grey’s Anatomy was good is allowing yourself to admit that something in a pretty well unliked television genre—the soapy melodrama in a workplace—can be at least entertaining, if not genuinely good. The soap has always been considered a lesser genre, even in primetime, where very entertaining examples of the genre have found brief, critical respect here and there. So Grey’s ran into that, and it also ran into Shonda Rhimes’ perpetual inability to rein her own characters in when she decided they wanted to head in a certain direction, leading to things like that unfortunate Isaiah Washington scandal.
But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that a show like Grey’s Anatomy, a workplace soap, can be good, can be entertaining, can be something worth watching and shouldn’t be written off automatically, just for the genre it belongs to. Lots and lots of critics are writing off Off The Map for these very reasons, and while I’m not ready to stand up as a critical champion of the show, I’m also not ready to say that it’s God awful. It’s a pleasantly mediocre little show where a bunch of attractive people stand around in attractive locations. If you’re someone who enjoys shows like this, you’ll probably enjoy Off The Map. If you’re someone who doesn’t, well, there’s no reason you’d check it out in the first place, is there?
The biggest problem with Off The Map, aside from the fact that it is rather literally Grey’s Anatomy relocated to the tropics (with a spare dose of Burn Notice, of all things, for good measure), is the fact that there’s no character hierarchy. There’s little to no sense of which characters are supposed to be important and which are supposed to be secondary, outside of a few very obvious ones. The pilot begins with one set of characters, then leaps to another set of characters, then leaps to other stuff, then tries to set up at least a workplace hierarchy before declaring that in the jungle, rules pretty much don’t matter. The show tries to be an ensemble piece, but Grey’s was always helped by having a character clearly in the lead, no matter how insufferable that character could be (and she could be pretty insufferable). Here, it sure SEEMS like Caroline Dhavernas’ Lily is supposed to be the lead, but it’s not immediately clear. She’s the one with the tortured backstory, but she’s also the one least well-served by the pilot, which splits up roughly into three stories, all featuring one rookie doctor out in the middle of nowhere and at least one veteran doctor who’s been in the middle of nowhere for a while.
The plot, such as it is, is about three doctors from the United States arriving in a fictional South American country, where they’ve come to bolster their resumés for a variety of reasons I won’t give away here. Anyway, they begin working with the veteran doctors at the jungle clinic, and they quickly learn that medicine in the middle of nowhere is often improvised. Here’s where the Burn Notice element comes in, as the vets start improvising IV drips from coconuts and ripping off leaves from plants that could work as antihistamines. It’s all very charming and low-rent for most of the runtime, even as it’s sort of silly and seems like creator Jenna Bans forgot to develop a voice of her own while learning at the feet of Rhimes (who produces but did not come up with the concept).
Still, as mentioned, the actors are a lot of fun. Zach Gilford plays Tommy, the spoiled kid who came here for reasons that become clear as the pilot goes on, and while the episodes I saw (two in number) don’t give him anything like the complexity of the emotions he played as Matt Saracen on Friday Night Lights to play, he’s still an affable screen presence (even if it’s harder than it should be to see the various sexy women on the show jumping his bones, for some reason). Mamie Gummer plays Mina, perhaps the character who’s least well-served by the script, and she plays her as an uptight woman who can’t learn to see what’s right in front of her. Of the central trio, Gummer is the one who seems the most ill at ease with the Rhimes/Bans dialogue, often delivering it stiffly. And then there’s Dhavernas, who gets roped into saving a guy out in the middle of a zip line, then tries to help him carry out the mission he came to the jungle to carry out. Dhavernas is an effortlessly charismatic actress, but she’s not helped by the fact that her character is rather bland, entirely consisting of wide-eyed optimism and a dark secret.
The older doctors fare no better. Martin Henderson is essentially there to be man candy. Valerie Cruz is there to yell at everyone. Rachelle LeFevre is there to start love triangles and be sassy. Jason George is there to be understanding and smoldering. Every scene featuring these characters hanging out and talking shop—and there are a lot of them—falls flat because they’re mostly just there to be foils of various kinds for the younger characters. And without a clear lead, the series flails about in trying to suggest which characters are going to start bed-hopping imminently, which is something that this show needs to survive.
Ultimately, it’s hard to recommend Off The Map, which does some things right (the locations are gorgeous, and the cast members are purty) and does other things atrociously. The problem is likely that Rhimes, for all of her faults, has the courage of her batshit insanity. She’s willing to push her characters and her ideas to the brink, in a way that it doesn’t seem Bans is willing to do. Grey’s Anatomy wasn’t the crazy, lovable Grey’s Anatomy from the first, but even that pilot was crammed full of incident, of moments where you could sense Rhimes saying, “Fuck it!” and just GOING for it. There’s nothing like that in Off The Map, which leaves it a perfectly mediocre diversion that’s nonetheless somehow disappointing.