Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Gifted Man: A Truly Gifted Show

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on October 19, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page

Jennifer Ehle and Patrick Wilson star in A Gifted Man

Barely four weeks into the new fall TV season, and we’ve already seen our first causalities: NBC’s neither sexy nor smart The Playboy Club, ABC’s dead-on-arrival Charlie’s Angels remake, and NBC’s workplace comedy Free Agents, have all been cancelled. (Perhaps I was alone in this, but I was rather charmed by Hank Azaria and Free Agentsand I regret that it wasn’t given more time to mature). In the end, however, I expect the 2011 fall TV season will likely be remembered for highly anticipated and expensive disappointments like Terra Nova, and impressively original cable fare like Homeland. (AboutTerra Nova, perhaps the less said the better, but Homeland deserves a special mention, and not only for the compelling case that Susan Green recently made on this blog. Showtime’s Homeland marks the return of Damian Lewis to television, last seen when NBC’s brilliant but short-lived series Life came to an untimely end in 2009. Lewis’ talent to portray quietly dangerous men with unfathomable internal lives is on full display in Homeland, and his presence alone would make the series worth your time!) 

But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to wade through CGI Brachiosaurs and 60s-era stewardesses to find great television. Every once in a while, good TV can play by established rules, and still bring something refreshingly new, smart, and entertaining to the small screen. This season that show is CBS’s A Gifted Man, and hopefully it hasn’t gone unnoticed. A Gifted Man is a medical drama with a twist, and so far it seems to be doing almost everything right.

Director Joanthan Demme
A Gifted Man tells the story of Dr. Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson), a talented, but self-absorbed, neurosurgeon with a high-end Manhattan practice but no bedside manner, whose calculated life is called into doubt when he begins to be visited by the ghost of his recently-deceased ex-wife, Anna (Jennifer Ehle). The series is co-produced by director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs,The Manchurian Candidate) and screenwriter Susannah Grant (most famous for her Oscar-award winning screenplay for Erin Brockovitch in 2000). Demme in fact directed the show’s pilot episode. A Gifted Man airs on CBS in a thankless timeslot: Fridays at 8pm. While CBS has had better than average success with this slot (held by Ghost Whisperer for 5 seasons, and last year by the final season of Medium), it hasn’t generally done so by appealing to the highest common denominator. With A Gifted Man, this finally seems to be the case.

The show is built around two great actors, neither of whom has spent much time on the small screen. Patrick Wilson (WatchmenLittle Children) exudes charisma and competence, and his Michael Holt is so sincere and confident in his self-absorption that it is almost impossible to fault him for it. Wilson is capable of portraying not only Michael’s achievement, but also what it has cost him. (As he says to the young tennis star in the first episode, “Being the best at tennis, surgery, whatever – it can’t be part of your life, it has to be instead of it. I get that.”) Jennifer Ehle, largely a newcomer to American TV and most famous for her role as Lizzie Bennet in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice in 1995, is absolutely refreshing as the late Doctor Anna Paul – though her uncanny resemblance to Meryl Streep can sometimes be a little distracting! Ehle is incredibly likeable and brings a wry charm to the role: her Anna seems genuinely as surprised and disturbed by the turn of events as Michael. Michael and Anna’s scenes have a comfortable tone, fully consistent with the playfulness and intermittent intimacy of two long-separated exes.

Margo Martindale on Justified
In addition to Wilson and Ehle, A Gifted Man has also snagged Margo Martindale, fresh off her Emmy-winning performance as Mags Bennet, the matriarch of a backwoods Kentucky crime family on the second season of Justified. Martindale does a lot in these early episodes with what could have been a thankless role as Rita, Dr Holt’s administrative assistant. I’m looking forward to a greater role for Rita in later stories. No doubt the actress can take it on, even though in these early episodes, she seems primarily be serving a balancing role to Anna’s influence on Michael (like a Type-A devil on one shoulder to Anna’s angel on the other). But as Anna’s role becomes more complicated, I have hope that Rita’s will develop as well. The show has a deep well of talent with Martindale, and it would be a real tragedy if they didn’t exploit it!

Its timeslot notwithstandingA Gifted Man isn’t your usual CBS ghost story. The supernatural element – which no doubt will develop over the course of this first season – is still currently playing second fiddle to a compelling medical drama and its well-developed characters. In the end, it is a story about relationships – the ones between Michael and his patients, and the developing one between Michael and Anna. PerhapsA Gifted Man will be a disappointment to any Ghost Whisperer or Medium fans who tune in. The supernatural elements are downplayed in favour of character and dialogue. (In fact, even after four episodes, it is still possible, if thematically unlikely, that Michael is in fact suffering from hallucinations instead of visitations – a fact which hasn’t escaped him either.) Ten minutes into the pilot episode and you’ll be cured once and for all of any notion that the show is “House meets Ghost Whisperer”. The show’s decidedly adult sensibility means that there will be no words scrawled on bathroom mirrors, none of the urgent, frenzied tone of many Hollywood ghost stories that suggests that our characters’ hearts might simply burst at any moment. The supernatural elements of A Gifted Man are more Truly, Madly, Deeply and less Ghost. Ghost-Anna’s impact on the world is limited to her conversations with Michael.She too is a victim of circumstance, with no control or agency over her current fate, or even when she appears and disappears. Aside from being invisible and immaterial, her character basically plays by the same rules as any mortal one. She doesn’t know the future, and her knowledge of the past is limited to what she could have known in life. What makes the show often so original is that it is as much her story, as it is Michael’s.

One of my concerns, coming out of the pilot episode, was that the haunting becomes a metaphor for their failed marriage, and for marriage in general. If so, my fear was that the show would develop a dark symbolic structure to it that would have been irredeemable: a message like “the best wife is a dead wife,” one who lives solely for the betterment of her man, along with the implication that a good woman ceases to exist when the husband leaves the room! But even early on it is clear that Anna is there for herself. She has unfinished business in the world and people to help. Michael is her sole contact to the world, but she doesn’t exist solely a prop for Michael’s inevitable redemption.

There may be many different reasons why you haven’t watched A Gifted Man – perhaps you don’t like ghost stories, perhaps you’ve lost faith in broadcast television, or perhaps you aren’t normally at home on Friday nights. But whatever the reason may be, make sure find the time to check it out. In a new season that already had its share of disappointments, A Gifted Man is sure to be a pleasant, and highly entertaining, surprise.