We live in an era of artisanal TV: The ongoing explosion of platforms, networks and outlets means we are blessed to have an enormous array of small-batch perfectionists creating something for almost every taste and inclination.
In the half-hour arena, viewers are especially spoiled for choice. Given that shorter shows generally cost less money and have fewer expectations riding on them, more chances can be taken with form, theme and content in 30-minute realm. When this adventurousness collides with the rising popularity of short-form series, you wind up with something like the endearing oddity "A Young Doctor's Notebook" (10 p.m. ET Tuesday, Ovation). This British import is weird, slight and lovingly made, and perhaps most importantly, it's smart enough not to overstay its welcome.
The second season of "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is, like the first go-round, only four episodes long, which means that you could view both seasons as a connected set of absurdist, melancholy films. We keep dumping half-hour shows into the category called "comedy," and "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is underpinned by elements of slapstick, farce and droll humor, but it's also more claustrophobic and more theatrical than most other programs in that category. "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is an original, and I love it for that.
Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm, both clearly having a great time with a gig that must only demand a few weeks of their time each year, play the same role: Radcliffe plays a young physician who arrives at a remote Russian hospital during World War 1, and Hamm plays the same character a few decades later. The older doctor and younger doctor interact and argue constantly, though only young "Nika" can see his older counterpart. The series is based on the self-deprecating, self-lacerating stories of Mikhail Bulgakov, and I know what you're thinking -- another show based on the works of a classic Russian writer! Oy, isn't that trend played out yet?
If only more shows had fun with this kind of literary absurdity and tragic frivolity. Truth be told, "A Young Doctor's Notebook" does bear a few passing similarities to "The Knick," though the Ovation show's drug-addicted doctor and matter-of-fact displays of guts pre-date those of the Showtime drama. If you watch "The Knick" and "A Young Doctor's Notebook," you'd be forgiven for thinking that doctors of that era spent most of their time taking drugs, when not bemoaning the primitive state of the facilities they were forced to work in. Though I like "The Knick," it's to the credit of "A Young Doctor's Notebook" that it is entirely free of a certain kind of Prestige TV pomposity, especially where its lead character's foibles are concerned. The Ovation program doesn't take itself terribly seriously, and yet in the four short episodes of Season 2, which chronicle Nika's morphine addiction and the hospital staff's encounters with the Russian revolution, build up a surprising amount of emotional intensity.
What could you do if you met a younger version of yourself? Would you be disgusted and disappointed -- and could you even get the barely-formed version of your adult self to understand the gravity of the mistakes you were making? In wisely calibrated increments, Hamm conveys the older doctor's increasing frustration with his youthful self, and Radcliffe does an exceptional job of playing callow obliviousness, romantic idiocy and general self-absorption.
The actors aren't quite physically matched -- Hamm is several inches taller than Radcliffe -- but in the intentionally absurd world of "A Young Doctor's Notebook," that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that there's a comfort level to the actors' shared performance that gives substance to the younger doctor's loneliness and to the older doctor's substantial regrets.
Though "A Young Doctor's Notebook" will likely remain a minor entry in both actors' resumes, it's encouraging that both Hamm and Radcliffe wanted to try something that is so small (the show's clearly made on a shoestring budget) and so distinctive (there are few other shows attempting this combination of silliness and sadness). Both actors will likely end up in lumbering, big-budget studio movies from time to time, but their participation in "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is an indication that they share a desire to mix things up and stretch themselves.
Thanks to his work in "Mad Men," we already know that Jon Hamm is an actor of tremendous range, presence and depth (and he also has terrific comic timing, which he uses well in "A Young Doctor's Notebook"). It's truly pleasing to see him take on a character who is both more restrained and more rididulous than Don Draper, and if Hamm's accent is a work in progress, well, never mind; the show offers many other charms, including a pitch-perfect supporting cast.
As for Radcliffe, he's also proven himself to be the real deal. If we are lucky, he'll continue to have a varied career as one of TV and film's most reliably adventurous character actors. Truth be told, the expansive frontier of TV may be a better home for an actor with Radcliffe's restless, ruminative energy.
"A Young Doctor's Notebook" premieres 10 p.m. Tuesday on Ovation TV.
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