Emily Owens M.D. (CW, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.) is the latest in a seemingly endless parade of TV shows and movies convinced that high school is the most developmentally important part of anyone’s life and that high school itself is a useful metaphor for understanding the world. I don’t believe either of those things, so I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything that happened to Emily (Mamie Gummer), a young surgical intern at a Denver hospital who’s at the center of every scene and narrates the show in voice-over.
Emily is an attractive, young, blonde white woman from a middle-class background who finished medical school and is starting her career as a doctor, but on her first day of work, she’s not thinking, Wow, all those years of toil finally paid off; I better work hard, listen well, and stay focused because this is important. She’s thinking that she still feels like an awkward teenager inside and worrying that she’ll never overcome her anxieties and become a “kick-ass” adult.
The rest of the day validates Emily’s worst fears. A snotty teenage girl who attends the high school right across the street from the hospital (subtle!) calls Emily a loser. A co-worker compares the hospital’s cliques to high-school cliques. Emily crushes on a good-looking intern named Will (Smallville’s Justin Hartley) and feels like a tongue-tied girl whenever he’s near. She learns that her high-school nemesis Cassandra (Aja Naomi King) is working there, too. Cassandra reveals Emily’s embarrassing high-school nickname to co-workers because, evidently, she’s never gotten over high school, either.
Can anyone relate to any of this?
The plot has a few moments designed to reassure us that Emily is a competent grown-up who’s good at her job, but for the most part, she comes off as a bland, clueless, simpering person who doesn’t realize how accomplished (and privileged) she is. The show’s slow pace and milquetoast, good-enough-for-TV direction lets us luxuriate in her boringness. “You must think I'm incredibly self-absorbed,” she tells a co-worker, the attending surgeon Micah (Michael Rady). “No, just human,” he replies. Thanks for the special pleading, show.
The women of Grey’s Anatomy and the title character of The Mindy Project get grief for being female doctors with chaotic personal lives and deep neuroses, but at least their heroines are dynamic and funny and lustful and weird, and the writers don’t spend every other minute patting themselves on the back for belaboring a specious premise.
The second episode, which airs next week, is better than the pilot. It pretty much forgets about the high-school-equals-life business and just watches Emily get to know her co-workers and do her job. It’s not brilliant, but it has its moments. The best is a bit where Emily has to tell an elderly man that his heart is failing and that he’s too old and sick to qualify for a transplant. Delivering bad news is part of being a doctor, and I liked watching an inexperienced person do it for the first time, trying to project compassion without seeming phony. If every scene in Emily Owens M.D. were as intriguing as that one, I might want to follow Emily around each week and watch her learn and mature. As is, I want to jump in the TV and tell her to stand up straight and quit whining.