"A Young Doctor's Notebook" (10 p.m. Wednesday, Ovation) is nearly unclassifiable, which is one of the best things about it.
This tale of the unsentimental education of a newly minted doctor is sort of a black comedy, but it's also a farce, a period piece, a melancholy Russian tragedy and a meditation on despair and addiction.
That's a lot of things to mash into one TV show, but having seen all four half-hour episodes, I can say that "Notebook," which stars Jon Hamm of "Mad Men" and Daniel Radcliffe of "Harry Potter," pulls it off. "Notebook" ends up being a convincing and entertaining hybrid, one that actually benefits from its short running time (about 100 minutes or so all told). The show may be for niche tastes, but it doesn't overstay its welcome and it manages to go to some demented and surprisingly emotional places. And then it's done.
Hamm and Radcliffe star as the older and younger versions of the same person, and no, they are not the same height and their accents are not the same. Ultimately that doesn't matter much, given that "Notebook," which is based on stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, is not trying to create an atmosphere of total realism.
It might be a period piece -- the show flits back and forth between 1917 and 1934 -- but at times, "Notebook" recalls shows like "30 Rock" and the more surreal episodes of "Louie." We see enactments of the worst-case scenarios that the young doctor is prone to dreaming up, and there's quite a bit of goofy physical comedy as well, which Hamm and Radcliffe pull off with ease. Think of an episode of "Bob's Burgers" set in revolutionary Russia involving amputation and syphilis, and you're nearly there.
For reasons that are never explained, the young doctor (who remains unnamed) -- the most promising graduate of Moscow's top medical school -- has been sent to a remote hospital "in the back of the back of beyond." There, he encounters a skeptical staff and peasants who are convinced that everything can be healed by the right kind of drops (or maybe a gargle, in a pinch). Everywhere he turns, he is confronted with portraits of the ferociously bearded Leopold Leopoldovich, his predecessor, and he is continually reminded that he doesn't seem up to the job by a staff who worshipped Leopoldovich.
He isn't; part of the attraction of most medical shows is seeing the new kid finding out that book learning doesn't count for much. It's no surprise to see that the earnest "Harry Potter" star still knows how to convey wavering idealism and frightened determination, but Radcliffe shines in other areas as well. Like Hamm and standout supporting cast member Adam Godley ("Suits," "Breaking Bad"), Radcliffe comes at the production with tremendous energy and demonstrates very precise comic timing when called for.
There are moments when "Notebook" is a tad more stagey than it needs to be, but the cast keeps the production grounded, more or less. Godley's eyebrows, on the other hand, are rarely grounded, given that his clueless character crackles with misplaced energy, but his scene-stealing is so deft that I hardly minded.
"Notebook" may not even really be a comedy; it goes to dark places, ultimately, and Hamm once again shows us how willing he is to let his characters look ugly, defeated and weak. Much of "Notebook" features the older doctor in conversation with the younger, and Hamm conveys the tremendous nostalgia the older man has for his lost youth and missed opportunities. The tragedy of what his life has become isn't underlined, because it's plain to see in the older doctor's eyes.
"Why am I here?" the young doctor wails on more than one occasion, and not just because he's stuck in the snowbound sticks, where people are likely to die for the most banal and still-common reasons: lack of money, lack of knowledge, lack of time, lack of experienced medical help. The younger doctor does get better at his job, but that ultimately doesn't make much of a difference to the lives of the locals, and the method he uses to escape all the suffering slowly flips the surreal farce into a bleak tragedy.
"Mad Men" won't end until 2015 (by which point we'll all have jet packs and live on the moon, right?), and it's hard not to see "Notebook" as a clue about what Hamm might be doing in the future. No doubt he'll take some roles in big-budget, mainstream movies (and he'll probably make them better than they deserve to be), but his eclectic choices in recent years have been heartening. He's done "Archer," "The Greatest Event in Television History," "30 Rock," and half a dozen other weird comedies and indie films.
The press notes for "Notebook" say that the production came about in part due to Hamm's interest in Bulgakov's stories, and that the writers come from "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret," another comedy Hamm has appeared in. It's nice to see that whatever industry juice Hamm has, he isn't using it to create a star vehicle but rather helping to birth a whacked-out, tonally unique two-hander unlike anything else around.
For "Notebook," Hamm and Radcliffe had to be willing to be goofy, belligerent, ambitious and detached, sometimes all in the same scene, and this production wouldn't work without their game attitudes. All in all, it's most gratifying to come across this odd little gem in fall TV season where most new offerings are pallid at best.