A Rough Start For ‘Off the Map’

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Shonda Rhimes, the creative mastermind behind ABC mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, has potentially hit a wrong note as one of the executive producers of the alphabet network’s newest doctor drama, “Off the Map.”

Two out of Three Ain’t Bad?

Shonda Rhimes, the creative mastermind behind ABC mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, has potentially hit a wrong note as one of the executive producers of the alphabet network’s newest doctor drama, “Off the Map.”

While OTM is indeed another medical sudser, don’t be fooled into thinking this freshman offering is on the same level as its two older cousins. ‘Grey’s in the Tropics’ or ‘Private Practice, Jungle-Style’ this is NOT; at least not judging from Episode One. In the pilot, viewers meet a trio of young, beautiful, and conflicted doctors who have all landed in the South American jungle to practice medicine at a local, bare-bones clinic.  Of course, all three are carrying not only their suitcases but also the requisite emotional baggage they’ve all come to the tropics to escape.

Unfortunately,  instead of allowing each sad history to organically unfold over the course of several episodes, or even an entire season,  viewers were subjected to some heavy-handed writing that hammered us over the head with each tale of woe, all at once.  Clumsy writing like this made this all-important first episode clunk along a little (okay, a lot) painfully and relied on too many over-used plot devices to explain each character’s motivation to land in the jungle.

Speaking of contrivances, the three newbie docs are conveniently balanced out by three veteran staffers of the quaint jungle clinic. Thankfully, the entire history of the older threesome wasn’t revealed in the first hour, but they too were marred with a few glitches.  Most glaring was the in-and-out New Zealand accent of Dr. Ben Keeton (Martin Henderson).  Trying to decide if he was supposed to be an American or a New Zealander (or both?) was incredibly distracting and I missed the point of several of his scenes while deciphering the nationality/accent puzzle.

Finally, the required “Patient of the Week” case was downright ridiculous enough to cause genuine, but unintentional, laughter.  The coconut-can-be-used-as-a-plasma-substitute-in-a-pinch hoakiness was bad enough;  but the laugh-out-loud absurdity of two doctors, sitting in a boat, rowing a critical patient  across some magical lake so he can spread his dead wife’s ashes was just too much cheesiness for any show to handle.  It was indeed comical, but unfortunately, I don’t think that was the creative team’s intent.

Were there strengths to this pilot? Sure there were. The acting was uniformly good, particularly given the weakness of the script. In particular, is Zach Gilford, best known as Matt Seracen in Friday Night Lights, as repentant party boy Dr. Fuller. Gilford is a charismatic actor who could shine in this role, given the chance. And he and Mamie Gummer (Dr. Mina Minard) shared a genuinely funny scene together and a little more of this on-purpose humor would be welcome amid all the clichés. Valerie Cruz (Zee) was also sarcastically charming and bright in her too-brief scenes and I can only hope we see more of her in episodes to come.

The scenery — Hawaii, standing in for the South American jungle — is simply breath-taking and provides an interesting backdrop. I do, however, hope they stop portraying the South American locals as ignorant and backward folk who cannot possibly take care of themselves without the good doctors’ interventions.

But pilot episodes often try to do too much to grab the viewers and perhaps that was part of the problem with the premiere of Off the Map.  And with that said, I’m willing to give it a few more episodes to iron out some of the wrinkles. After all, Shonda Rhimes name on the credits warrants that much.


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