I’ve always considered “Private Practice” to be a guilty pleasure show, a soapy indulgence that occasionally tugs heartstrings but mostly features a lot of bed hopping. So why do I so often feel let down when the show aims to be more than that?
Take Thursday night’s two hour “life changing” episode (to quote ABC’s promo). Amelia (Caterina Scorsone) has been on a slow, ugly descent to the bottom of her drug addiction, and the evening’s episode was to be devoted to her intervention and subsequent dive into rehab. The episode started out with promise — a cryptic, beautifully shot flashback followed by Amelia bouncing into the office, brightly trying to convince her co-workers she’s clean and sober. Scorsone turns in a nuanced and pitch perfect performance, which is what we get, really, from all of the cast.
And for much of this “very special” episode, great acting from all of the cast is paired with some pretty stellar cinematography, most of it built around Amelia’s character to reflect her shaky, warped state of mind. Once the intervention begins and Scorsone begins tearing up the scenery, her pale and wild-eyed Amelia spewing insults at her shell-shocked friends, it seems like “Private Practice” is going to take a serious subject — addiction — and give it the rigorous prime time treatment it deserves. When Amelia snarls,”Not even Rosemary’s baby would want to live among the tumbleweeds in your uterus,” to Addison, it seems pretty clear that Amelia’s intent on not just self-destructing but on taking her friends down with her as well — and her piercing words should ricochet through the rest of the cast for a long, long time. Not that they do, but they should.
Part of the episode could have been cut together from past episodes of the gritty reality show “Intervention.” We see Amelia snort drugs in front of her friends in an attempt to scare them off, and the delicate dance required to convince her to accept help has the requisite one step forward, two steps back rhythm. But I guess it was decided that committing too much time to Amelia and her troubles would be boring or aggravate the rest of the ensemble cast or something, because just as things are getting interesting, ridiculous plot points are tossed in to move things along and allow us to get back to Addison’s all-important attempts to get pregnant, Cooper’s struggle to connect with his newly discovered son and Violet and Pete’s craptastic marriage. God forbid we actually pick a storyline and dig a little deeper into it.
To speed up Amelia’s journey to rehab, she discovers that her boyfriend Ryan is actually ready to get clean and sober. They’re going to rehab! Right after one last ride on the Oxycontin Express! And then he dies of an overdose. Oh, the irony! Waah-waah. Now she’s ready to get clean! Right after she takes her father’s watch off the dead body! The storyline surrounding the watch, though it starts beautifully, is ultimately ploddingly obvious, right down to the final flashback of a little girl dropping two pennies to the ground. The slow-mo shot is one we’ve seen in every B-movie and PSA of the last thirty years that involves a tragic death. Given how solid much of the first hour of this episode was, I would have hoped that someone would have left the cliche sledgehammer at home.
Oh, and just to make it clear why Jake (Benjamin Bratt) gives a crap about Amelia’s recovery, he decides to take a box of crullers out to a cemetary and vomit a pile of exposition onto a headstone (Well, Lily, I visit your daughter often. I still don’t like your husband. I know you used to eat crullers when you were trying to get clean. I have now established my character as someone who cares about drug addicts and is deep and sensitive, so I may leave.). There are few things sadder than having to watch Benjamin Bratt give a bad film school dissertation to a headstone, but there it is.
We don’t abandon Amelia’s storyline completely, but it is put on fast forward. She whizzes through 41 days of rehab in what is, by the second hour, nothing more than a B storyline. She befriends an 18-year-old roommate, she comes to terms with Ryan’s death, she asks her co-workers for forgiveness, she goes to Thanksgiving dinner, the end. By the second hour, most of the creative cinematography has also been scrapped, and we’re back to the usual interiors, helicopter shots of the Santa Monica/Malibu shoreline and business as usual.
For the most part, I enjoy business as usual. While I’d rather treat myself with a tool kit that have any of these narcissistic drama-queen doctors care for me, they’re still engaging. It’s only when the show reaches outside of its formula (and promises to deliver “life changing” drama — I mean, come on) that the goofier, soap opera aspects of the continuing storylines show their weaknesses. But kudos to Scorsone for, at least for a little while, commanding a crowded floor.