Monday, 26 September 2011

Review: A GIFTED MAN, 1.1 - "Pilot"

Monday, 26 September 2011
written by Susannah Grant; directed by Jonathan Demme
starring Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Ehle, Julie Benz, Margo Martindale & Pablo Schreiber

Like Person Of Interest, A Gifted Man is another genre show by stealth for CBS. It's also one of those shows you suspect would have made a better tear-jerking movie than a television show, as the premise doesn't seem to justify too many return trips.

New York neurosurgeon Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson) is the narcissistic golden boy at a chic surgery, currently treating a tennis ace's potential aneurysm on the eve of a Grand Slam tournament. One night, Michael's visited by ex-wife Anna Paul (Jennifer Ehle), a fellow surgeon he hasn't seen for ten years, but was a positive influence on him during their marriage. The twist is that Michael discovers Anna was killed in a recent traffic accident, leading him to theorize she was just a hallucination resulting from a possible brain tumour. A not unreasonably hypothesis dismissed by his sister Christina (Julie Benz), a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son Milo (Liam Aiken), who staunchly believes in the afterlife and is convinced Anna's ghost has returned to help her brother with something.

It's a decent pilot, helped by good direction by Jonathan Demme (The Silence Of The Lambs), and the idea of a self-absorbed surgeon being improved by reconnecting with his dead wife has merit. I'm just not sure the concept's malleable enough to fuel a TV series, as this idea will surely grow stale fairly quickly. And given Michael's heartfelt affection for Anna, which is shared by his sister, it's a weird romantic situation that's not going to go anywhere. Anna's dead and she isn't coming back (or if she does that'll be a shark-jumping moment), but Michael's so attached to his ex that giving him other love interests isn't going to be easy. The problem with A Gifted Man is the same problem a TV version of Ghost would have. It has a good idea, but one that appears ill-suited to the demands of network television that, ideally, want around a hundred episodes over four years.

But for awhile it may work, maybe even a whole season, as egotistical Michael follows beaming Anna's instructions from beyond the grave and has his eyes opened to her charitable work, which in turn helps him become a better person. While Michael's paid a fortune to help the country's elite with their neurological problems, in this pilot Anna makes him aware of the disadvantaged people who can't afford his specialist service. A situation neatly shown by comparing the concerns of a rich tennis player and a poor boy who just wants to play football with his friends.

I really like Patrick Wilson (the Will Arnett of straight drama) and it makes sense he'd try his luck as a TV leading man, having had difficulty breaking through in movies. Wilson gives a balanced performance that's very charismatic, and perhaps the biggest reason to consider watching more of this show. The supporting players are also surprisingly good, too: Benz plays frazzled sister Christina very well; Pablo Schreiber is amusing as Christina's shaman boyfriend Anton; Jennifer Ehle is emotive and likeable as ethereal Anna; and veteran character actress Margo Martindale's good value as Michael's assistant Rita—fresh off an Emmy win for her performance in Justified, back playing a second tier role that will hopefully improve and deepen.

Overall, A Gifted Man was a pleasant surprise because it's a well-made pilot with good performances and heart, but I can't say I'm keen to make this a fixture of my schedule. I'll be very surprised if the writers manage to turn this concept into a successful series. An episodic medical drama where the lead doctor's encouraged to become a better person by his dead ex-wife? How long can you keep a drama going with that as a basis? By the end of this first episode it already felt like Michael had learned his lesson about ignoring the plight of the city's deprived, and he believes Anna's a spirit from the other side, so where do we go from here? Constant episodes where Anna inspires Michael to do pro bono work in her stead? Are you intrigued enough to find out?

23 September 2011 / CBS