When I first heard the plot description of A Gifted Man, I grimaced—brilliant neurosurgeon begins seeing his dead ex-wife, who sets him on a new path in life. But I love series star Patrick Wilson, an underappreciated character actor who has done great work in film and theater. And I was hearing positive buzz, even from those who admitted the premise wasn’t all that appealing.
So I gave it a chance, and I say this as someone who was dubious from the get-go: It’s not very good. The cast is great, yes—not only Patrick Wilson, but (Emmy Award winner!) Margo Martindale and Julie Benz. The pilot, which aired Friday night on CBS, was definitely well made. Kudos to director Jonathan Demme, who did a solid job with the material. The script is what’s lacking. Well, that, and the basic conceit.
I usually approach pilots with the understanding that they have to incorporate a lot of exposition and set up stories for the next several episodes; they’re often overly dense, and even the dramas I currently enjoy didn’t necessarily start out so hot. But A Gifted Man’s first episode was painted with such broad strokes that it felt more like a Lifetime Movie of the Week than the beginning of a TV series. And the characters, who needed to be strong enough to draw me into the premise, were too flat to merit much interest.
Wilson’s character, Michael Holt, is an accomplished surgeon who sometimes fails to see the bigger picture. We’ve seen this before—a lot. I guess it’s more of a primetime soap standby (Everwood, the also-new-this-season Hart of Dixie), but it’s been done. Everything changes when Michael starts seeing his ex-wife, Anna (Jennifer Ehle), who, as Michael soon learns, died two weeks before her first spectral visit. But his reaction to this ghostly presence is a frustrating reiteration of his pragmatic, scientific take on life. Yes, we get it: We don’t need Michael delivering such painful lines as, “Anna, I’m a doctor. People put their lives in my hands. I can’t be [dramatic pause] irrational.” Later, when his friend Ron dies, Michael cries, “No, there is a logic and there are rules!” I have a harder time believing that anyone really talks like this than I do accepting the ghost wife thing.
The other characters are equally two-dimensional. Michael’s flaky sister Christina (Julie Benz) instantly jumps to the conclusion that Anna’s ghost is visiting Michael—with nary a pause for skepticism. “Maybe her spirit came to you!” she exclaims. “This is a cosmic gift, Michael!” And of course, she knows a shaman who can help him deal with the situation. Then there’s Martindale’s Rita, who huffs and puffs about Michael’s responsibilities and reminds him that they’re not running a free clinic. Isn’t modern medicine so distant and uncaring? Let’s ponder that.
It’s all too obvious, and a series like A Gifted Man could really benefit from some subtlety. The plot is so far-fetched that it needs intriguing characters and good writing to keep it grounded. Instead, it is exactly as maudlin and predictable as you’d expect after reading the network logline—and that’s a real shame. CBS is doing great things to broaden its demographic, and here’s a series that is perhaps the most cliché “Friday-night CBS show” possible. Well, next to Blue Bloods.
Oh, I could go on about the other things that bugged me: the slow-motion surgery sequence, the way the tennis star’s tantrum magically changed Michael’s mind, the idea that this overworked neurosurgeon is supposed to basically do everything for everyone. (I’m not trying to be heartless, but geez, give the guy a break. He can’t perform brain surgery and open his dead wife’s computer files and save his dying friend and help a kid in need all at the same time.) Suffice it to say, A Gifted Man is not a series for me. I do hope it improves for the sake of its cast, but I won’t be tuning in to find out.
What did you think of A Gifted Man‘s series premiere?