Tuesday, July 8, 2008

What I Learned from the "Doogie Howser" Pilot

...that the world is unfair.

Due to complications with getting my satellite set up in my new residence after recently moving, I've been relying on web sites like Hulu to provide me with interim viewing pleasure. (I didn't intend for that to sound kinky, but I don't mind that it did.) I was delighted to discover Doogie Howser, M.D. seasons 1 and 2 available there. Doogie Howser was a show that people of my generation grew up watching and tend to remember fondly. So I cued up episode one and started watching.

Right off the bat, I was struck with disappointment.
The premise-establishing tease was too obvious. See, he's learning how to drive -- ergo, he's 16 -- and he happens upon a medical emergency... all the better to establish his doctoritudism. The execution of this scene is so by-the-book. Literally by the book; as in, pick up any book on TV writing, and they'll tell you that the first scene of your pilot needs to be instantly engaging (shouldn't every piece of entertainment?) and establish premise, character, or ideally both. But what the books maybe don't emphasize quite so much is subtlety. The audience shouldn't be aware that they're essentially seeing the entire series in a nutshell. You don't need to be well studied in the art of screenwriting to realize that the opening scene of Doogie Howser is batting you over the head with its premise. But just in case you didn't get it, the scene ends with the mom saying, "That's my son... the doctor." Really? Why didn't they just go ahead and have her say, "That's my son, the teenage doctor"? Or how about, "That's my 16-year-old son, Douglas 'Doogie' Howser, M.D."?
I'm too young to remember what the original marketing was like for Doogie Howser before it premiered, but I'm guessing it was focused on: hey, here's a teenager who's a doctor. To make up an arbitrary number, I'd estimate that roughly 95% of the audience tuning into the series on its debut night were probably going into it knowing that they were watching a show that was about, hey, a teenager who's a doctor. The point being, maybe the opening scene didn't have to loudly proclaim, hey, here's a teenager who's a doctor.
Compare this with, for example, the opening scene of a show I love that isn't nearly as popular as it ought to be, 30 Rock. 30 Rock began with Tina Fey's Liz Lemon in line at a hot dog stand. Another customer cuts in line, riling Liz's sense of moral outrage. To her bewilderment, no one else in line seems to care. To teach them all a lesson, Liz buys out every hot dog at the stand.
Without raising the audience's awareness, this scene efficiently and amusingly tells you everything you need to know about Liz Lemon. She's the type of person who overreacts to small injustices, and will take disproportionate measures at personal financial loss to satisfy her own sense of justice. (The scene also tells you a little bit about Liz's compulsive eating habits, a character trait which is never too explicit throughout the series, but is nonetheless a consistent presence.)
And you know what that scene doesn't do? It doesn't loudly proclaim, hey, this is a behind-the-scenes look at a TV sketch comedy show. You know why they didn't need to establish that premise? Because the marketing for the show before it debuted was all about, hey, this is a behind-the-scenes look at a TV sketch comedy show. In fact, I'd arbitrarily estimate that roughly 95% of the people tuning into the debut night of the series knew that they were watching a TV show that was about, hey, behind the scenes at a sketch comedy show.
The Doogie Howser pilot goes on to mostly be about Doogie seeking respect. A fine theme. As you might guess, it's tough for a 16-year-old genius medical doctor to get respect from his adult contemporaries. So there's a mean old doctor who complains about having a kid around, there's a mean old patient who complains about having a kid working on him, there's his dad - also a doctor - who treats his son more like a son than a colleague (God forbid!), and there's his fellow doctors emasculating him. In the latter case, their excuse is that he's such an awesome doctor, they forget that he's a minor and that it's completely inappropriate to approach him sexually, untie his scrubs and drop his pants. But hey, those were simpler times.
Beyond the legal ramifications of the sexual prank on Doogie, the problem, story-wise, is that we have absolutely zero sense of these characters. They're nothing more than Female Nurse Buddy and Male Doctor Buddy. We only know that they're Doogie's friends because they specifically say that they're his friends. We have no sense of the nature of their friendships, so we have no sense of how, exactly, we should perceive this prank, nor can we contrast our perspective on it with how Doogie is reacting to it.
Then there's the completely tacked-on story of the young cancer-stricken kid to whom Doogie makes the promise that everything will be fine. Predictably, the kid ends up dying. It's a cheap, unearned emotional moment. There was nothing else in the episode striking an emotional chord and, this being a medical show, it's easy to just throw in a child -- innocent, not deserving of this unfortunate lot in life -- whom we will automatically feel sorry for and become sad when he dies. Now the thing is, it's a pretty good idea to contrast Doogie's birthday -- a life-affirming event -- against the death of a young child -- the first patient Doogie has ever lost. Could have been excellent if that had been the focus of the episode, instead of just a lazy cry device.
Instead, we follow Doogie to the homecoming dance, where we meet his eternal pine, Wanda. Wouldn't you know it, his pager goes off just when he's in the middle of making out with Wanda. How will Doogie balance his adult responsibilities with his teenage experience curve? Keep tuning in to find out.
Basically, they took an interesting premise and gave it the most obvious treatment imaginable. Now, perhaps this is due to over-meddling from network and production company executives. After all, the makers of this show are two titans of American television - Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. Even though their careers were twenty years younger back then, these dudes still knew how to tell a story. They had to be aware of all the unchallenging elements in the Doogie Howser pilot.
So, why does it bother me so much? Two reasons.
One, because to my memory, Doogie Howser went on to be a much better show than this. When I have time, I'll have to continue on with the series in Hulu's archives. Perhaps, with the perspective of time, I'll discover that the show really wasn't as good as I remember it being. But I'm pretty sure it was good. It's always amazing to see how much a show can grow from a lackadaisical pilot. (I'm looking at you, Seinfeld.) So few shows are given that chance these days.
But more importantly, reason two: I would NEVER be able to sell that script. Or even win a contest with it. For the reason stated above, and probably for many other bullshit reasons that only make sense to studio readers, I'd never get that script through to anyone who would be willing to produce it. Yet it somehow went to series.
If there's one thing I've heard over and over again from the pros, it's that Hollywood is not a meritocracy. You don't necessarily get ahead just because you're good at what you do. It's not even "who you know." It's who you have access to, and who would be willing to put their reputation on the line for you.
Jane Espenson, a writer who's worked on such critically acclaimed series such as Buffy and Battlestar Galactica, says it all the time - in order to win a writing contest, you have to be better than the best show you've ever seen on TV. The ironic implication of that is, you can go ahead and loosen your standards once you've gotten your foot in the door.
Assuming my memory is correct, and that Doogie got better as the series progressed, then the fact of the matter is this show should be held up as the standard of how a TV series should develop. A show should get better as it goes along, seeing as how the makers will learn what works best for the show they're making, and have more opportunities to implement what they've learned. (Isn't that how everything in life should be?) Unfortunately, most shows get cancelled before they have that chance.
Here's to more shows having the opportunity to grow and get better!