The idea that we carry the scars of high school into our adult lives is a familiar theme of 21st century television. On “The Office,” Michael Scott was a man who never quite evolved past his lonely adolescent years, and “Grey’s Anatomy” often draws parallels between life at the hospital and life in high school. (The characters even once had to go to prom together.)
The CW’s new “Emily Owens, M.D.” (it premieres tomorrow night at 9) takes that subtext and makes it into text – bold, 48-point font, underlined and highlighted text. Not only does one character tell surgical intern Emily (Mamie Gummer), “Hospital’s totally like high school,” not only is the hospital situated directly across the street from an actual high school (one of its students even calls Emily a loser in the opening scene), but Emily’s high school nemesis Cassandra (Aja Naomi King) winds up as her new co-worker. We even get the scene familiar from every teen comedy ever made where a hospital veteran gives Emily an anthropological breakdown of all the cliques, putting them in high school terms: jocks are orthopedists, mean girls go into plastic surgery, geeks like neurology, etc.
Over-emphasizing your theme to make sure the audience gets it can be annoying, but it’s not a fatal sin. The problem isn’t just that “Emily Owens” the show is overflowing with references to its theme, but that Emily Owens the character drowns in the theme.
Producers Jennie Snyder Urman and Dan Jinks want you to sympathize with Emily because she was a teenage dork whose first chance to blossom as an adult is ruined by constant reminders of her own dorkiness. (Cassandra teaches the rest of the staff about Emily’s humiliating old nickname, for instance.) But she’s so consumed by these memories, and the show so fixated on the high school/hospital parallels, that she quickly ceases to be sympathetic and just becomes irritating – an overgrown child seemingly incapable of navigating the adult world.
On “The Office,” at least, that persona was mostly played for laughs. “Emily Owens” is going for a drama/comedy mix (like its lead-in, “Hart of Dixie”), but the jokes aren’t remotely funny enough to compensate for how Emily’s adolescent neuroses cripple any attempt to take her or the dramatic moments seriously.
Emily is the latest representative of the clichéd female protagonist who’s great at her professional life and a mess at the personal one. The producers want it to feel reassuring when Emily comes out of a daydream about handsome intern Will (Justin Hartley from “Smallville”) to give the right answer to an attending’s question, or to see Emily get over hear fears and successfully run a code when a young patient flatlines. Instead, it feels like they’ve swapped in a doppleganger (say, Mamie Gummer’s younger sister Grace) for those scenes, just so we won’t completely hate the real thing.
Late in the premiere, Emily whines to friendly attending surgeon Micah (Michael Rady) about all the humiliations she’s suffered on her first shift. He responds with a steaming hot cup of perspective in the form of several patients who have had far worse days than hers.
“You must think I’m incredibly self-absorbed,” Emily says, embarrassed.
“No, just human,” Micah tells her – even though it’s a rare moment of total clarity for Emily that he’s denying.
Gummer’s been a sharp performer in smaller roles the last few years – as a rival lawyer on “The Good Wife,” as a much less neurotic doctor on “Off the Map” – but she can’t do much with her first real TV vehicle. Every time Emily is allowed to be competent, or even occasionally good at interpersonal dynamics, she’s immediately undercut by something juvenile like getting into a staring contest with Cassandra.
Adult life may be like high school some of the time, but it isn’t all of the time – and a show suggesting that it is becomes just as difficult to endure as some of the worse memories of high school itself.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org