I have been anticipating the debut of Shonda Rhimes’s new ABC series Off The Map. Anticipating it like a trip to the dentist. Where I know that there will be drills involved. And Novocaine.
From that I’m sure you can guess that my anticipation was mostly negative. Don’t get me wrong, It’s not that I don’t think that Shonda can’t carry three series. I’m not sure that she can, largely because I’m not sure that anyone who doesn’t have a factory behind him (or her) like Jerry Bruckheimer can pull off three series at a time. However I’m willing to give her the opportunity to try. No, my problem is that when I first heard the concept I thought that it was something that was a bit distasteful for some reason. The more trailers for this series that I saw the more convinced I was that I wasn’t going to like this. Maybe it was the scene with the one of the two female doctors claiming that they “objectifying one of the greatest humanitarians of our time.” Somehow it just didn’t feel “right” somehow. Maybe it just came across as a trifle self-important? Or maybe just silly? Whatever it was, I came into this show predisposed to dislike it. What I wasn’t expecting to find something that felt, to me at least, more than a little familiar. Yeah, as I say in the title, this feels more than a little like Grey’s of the jungle.
The premiere episode opens with the three senior staff at a clinic “somewhere in South America” (but actually Hawaii for reasons I’ll get into later) watching local life guards struggling to rescue a swimmer and talking about a group of new doctors who will be arriving soon. They are Ben Keaton (Martin Henderson), Otis Cole (Jason Winston George), and Zitajalehrena – call her “Zee” – Alvarez (Valerie Cruz). Zee seems pissed about having another bunch of gringo doctors coming in to pad their résumés, but Ben and Otis seem more interested in the rescue, as if waiting for an excuse to dive off the cliff and lend a hand. And sure enough it happens. First Ben dives in then, after giving Zee his stethoscope so does Otis. And that ends the teaser scene, which I only really mention because it introduces us to the senior staff and because it is mirrored – minus the rescue – by a scene at the end of the episode with the three younger doctors.
The episode really begins with the arrival of an aged wreck of a car, conveniently labelled “jungle taxi” carrying Dr. Lily Brenner (Montreal based actress Carolyn Dhavernas), one of what Otis and Ben refer to as “the new shipment.” The driver’s reaction when he finds out that she’s going to be working at the clinic is to hand her his card and tell her that when she’s ready to go back to call him. She insists that she’s here to stay but as if on cue another young woman comes running out of the clinic building in a fury and demands that the driver take her to the airport. Inside Lily meets the rest of the “new shipment.” They give each other their names and their specialties. Besides Lily (Trauma) they are Mina Minard (Infectious Diseases) played by Mamie Gummer who is Meryl Streep’s daughter), and Tommy Fuller (Plastic Surgery) played by Zach Gifford, who most of us know as Matt Saracen from the TV version of Friday Night Lights. The three are quickly put to work by Ben and Otis. Because Otis heard Tommy say something that he didn’t like, he is given a house call, which Otis means as a punishment but which Tommy thinks is some sort of honour. Because Lily has brought her own portable trauma kit to the clinic she goes with Ben on an emergency call. This leaves Mina at the clinic with Otis and Zee to deal with patients at the clinic.
Lily’s emergency is Ed, an older man (played by Michael McKean) who slammed into some trees while riding a zip line over the jungle. The immediate problem is that he’s dangling in the middle of the zip line run since part of his arm has become stuck in the braking mechanism of the line. And because the zip line can “probably” hold the weight of two people at most, Lily has to go out on Ed’s line to attend to him – because she’s lighter than Ben – while Ben supervises her on the other zip line. Although the braking mechanism on Lily’s zip line malfunctions and doesn’t slow her down so that she crashes into Ed, she manages to calm down his panic and carefully cuts away the part of his arm that is jamming his braking mechanism. After they get him back on solid ground they take him back to the clinic. They determine that he has internal bleeding and probably a ruptured spleen. While waiting for Ed to stabilize Lily develops a bond with him, particularly after hearing the story of why he was in South America. Ed and his wife had come down to the region on their honeymoon many years ago and promised to come back. The everyday stresses of living prevented that, and then Ed’s wife died of just before they were to come down again. He’s there not just for his own memories but to scatter his wife’s ashes in Lago de Luz, a lake where bio-luminescent algae light up the lake when they’re disturbed. Lily it seems had lost someone too, her fiancé, which led her to quitting her residency program. Lily is there when they perform Ed’s surgery. A crisis arises when they discover that he is bleeding out and losing more blood than expected. They don’t have enough of his blood type or of Type O blood. Ben dashes out of the clinic taking Lily with him. He’s looking for green coconuts. According to Ben, green coconut milk has the same electrolyte balance as blood and was used as a blood replacement during World War II. Ben states that he has the most experience with coconut transfusions, which sound great to Lily…until she finds out that that means he’s done it once. The surgery is successful but when they prepare to evacuate Ed to the city, Lily begs and demands that they take Ed to Lago de Luz so that he can scatter his wife’s ashes in the water.
Tommy’s house call involves a long trek through the jungle led by thirteen year-old Charlie, who is also to serve as a translator for Tommy. Tommy is following up on a woman who Otis was treating for Tuberculosis. He had given her medication but after Otis left her husband decided that the drugs were making her sicker and stopped giving them to her. Tommy discovers that she has died. He wants to treat the man’s children, one of whom is coughing up blood, but the man refuses to allow it. Instead Tommy writes up a note that says that the man is refusing treatment AMA – Against Medical Advice – and goes back to the clinic. Otis explodes over this and reveals that he, Ben and Zee know all about Tommy and the others. In Tommy’s case this means that they know that while he is smart enough he’s always just slid by and devoted most of his time to drinking and strippers. Otis orders him to go back and “be a doctor,” or don’t come back. Fired as much by a desire to prove Otis wrong as anything else, Tommy and Charlie trek back to the husband’s shack and makes an impassioned plea to the husband – entirely in English (and without Charlie seeming to translate) in which he explains that his expulsion from the residency program he was in (as a result of the drinking and strippers) so disappointed his family that they tried to intervene. When they did he told them to get out of his life, and they did and now he’s lost his family. Tommy insists that if he treat the children the man will lose his family as well. The man lets Tommy treat the kids.
Mina’s story is the simplest. Her first clinic case is a man who is suffering from joint pain. She immediately thinks that it’s haemorrhagic fever because they are in one of the hot spots for infectious diseases. Otis tells her to treat it with an analgesic. She insists it could be an infectious disease but he response that it could be tennis elbow. When she asks how her patient could get tennis elbow, Otis responds “from playing tennis.” She backs down and treats the patient as Otis directs. Her next patient is an old woman who has trouble breathing. Mina immediately diagnoses her illness as a cold and tries to make it clear that there is nothing that a doctor can do for a cold. The woman keeps hanging around the clinic while Mina tries to get her to go home. Finally the woman collapses to the ground. Immediately Mina calls for epinephrine, and after this revives the old woman, Mina goes off to try, unsuccessfully, to find an corticosteroid to treat the woman’s asthma. In the dispensary she meets Lily who commiserates with her about the initial missed diagnosis, saying that “when you hear hoofbeats think horses not zebras.” Mina then explains that she was bounced from her residency program when she started working “at County Emergency” in addition to her regular shifts at her own hospital. While working at County for her third straight day without sleep she treated a boy for flu without tests because there were about twenty cases of flu coming through the ER every day. The boy died of bacterial meningitis and the death could have been prevented if she’d run a simple lumbar puncture. Because she was unable to find any steroids in the dispensary Mina, who is asthmatic, gave one of her inhalers to the old woman. A day later the old woman returns with her daughter (who speaks English) who explains that for the first time every her mother has been able to take a deep breath. The old woman gives Mina a chicken in return.
The episode ends with mysterious figure approaching Ben’s office. It’s Dr. Ryan Clark, the young doctor who took Lily’s cab from the clinic. Ben was expecting her back and asked how far she got this time. She made it all the way to the airport. It’s revealed that Ryan is sleeping with Ben, sometimes, but there is – or was – someone in his life before Ryan. Ryan reminds Ben that she isn’t coming back. The final scene is of the young doctors at the same cliff that the older doctors had been standing on at the beginning of the episode. One by one each of them leaps into the sea.
After watching this show, and thinking about it as I have been writing this, my overwhelming feeling is one of disappointment. This show could have been more than it was. The acting talent is there, particularly in the actors playing the young doctors, while some of the “older” actors (who really aren’t that much older than the “kids”: the oldest of the three, Jason George, is six years older than Caroline Dhavernas and nine years older than Gummer) have solid filmographies.
No, I think the problem lies with the concept. For most of the pilot episode at least I was thinking of just how much the characters on this show reminded me of some of the characters on Grey’s Anatomy. Ben is pretty much Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd, while Otis reminds me a lot of Dr. Webber (The Chief), which kind of leaves Zita as Bailey. The similarity is also there with the young doctors: Lily is definitely Meredith, while Tommy is Karev and Mina is…well Mina has a lot of Christina in her and maybe a bit of Izzy. I mean these comparisons aren’t exact, and future episodes may erase the comparisons and make the characters stand on their own, but as it stands the similarities in everything but setting seem rather obvious.
There are aspects of this show that strain credibility to the breaking point as far as I’m concerned. And I’m not talking about the whole “green coconut milk is as good as a blood transfusion” thing (though that is in the mix). The biggest problem for me is that none of the “new shipment” appear to be able to speak Spanish! Ben and Otis are hiring doctors to work in a clinic in Latin America who are treating people who often speak only Spanish, and yet Spanish doesn’t seem to be deemed an asset by them in hiring staff. We saw the problems that Mina had in communicating with the old woman; had she been able to ask the right questions and get an explanation from the woman it would have been easier for her to make proper diagnosis. Similarly Tommy had difficulty explaining to the husband who took his wife off of the medication that Otis had prescribed that the medicine was need for his children, even with Charlie available as a translator. And yet when he returned to the man’s hut the second time he had no trouble getting his point across – in English without Charlie translating – so effectively that the man eventually gave him permission to treat his children.
And speaking of Tommy’s case I had a lot of problems with Otis’s reaction when Tommy returns to the clinic the first time. He seems to blame Tommy for not forcing the man to let him treat the children, but Otis wasn’t able to get the man to keep up the treatment of the wife that he himself prescribed. In North America this sort of case would have at least had follow-up care from a nurse to make sure that the treatment regimen was being followed. Here follow-up consisted of sending a young doctor newly arrived at the clinic with no prior knowledge of the case out to check up on things a week or two after the initial visit and treatment. And then blaming the young doctor for not being able to get the patient’s husband to allow his children the treatment that the husband withheld from his wife.
And I guess all of this brings me to the part of this show that loses me. I know that for Tommy, Mina, and Lily – and probably Ben, and maybe even Otis – working at the clinic represents a second chance (and probably redemption, though we don’t really know enough about Lily’s story to know if she has anything to seek redemption for) in an exotic location. A lot of good fiction has been written about people seeking a second chance and redemption in an exotic location. It’s not uncommon in real life either. Robert Louis Stevenson sought a second chance in an exotic location, as did Gaughan. Where this idea falls apart for me is that I don’t really believe in these characters. If Ben is supposed to be “one of the greatest humanitarians of our time,” why are these doctors the “best” candidates to work in this clinic. In other words, why are they getting the chance to have this particular second chance? Surely there would be applications from people who haven’t quit their residency program or have been forced out because they were slackers or because of overworking themselves or missing diagnosis. Surely there would have been applications from people who speak at least enough words of Spanish to get information from their patients. Indeed you would think that more than one of the doctors working at this clinic would be from this South American country that bears a striking resemblance to Hawaii. And yet the clinic is largely run by Americans (Ben and Otis) and is staffed with young residents who are all Americans. My willing suspension of disbelief really falls apart on this point.
It’s a fact that I didn’t expect much from Off The Map. I was hoping that I was wrong about the show but I don’t think I was. Even though I am basing my opinion on just the pilot, and it is entirely possible that the show could improve, I don’t expect it to improve so much that I would be able to buy into the premise of the show. I may keep watching it for a while – my mother sort of likes it, and I can catch this and another show that is on in the same time slot thanks to time-shifting – but how long that will last is anyone’s guess. For those of you who don’t have this option, there’s at least one better show on in the third hour of Wednesday nights. Give Off The Map a pass this week and watch Blue Bloods instead.