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'Do No Harm' unobstructed by complex plot and characters

By Proma Khosla, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 6, 2013

Ever since Hippocrates wrote “do no harm” in ancient Greece, the three words have echoed ominously in Western society. In NBC’s new Thursday night drama, the title has a few layers of meaning.

It alludes to the Hippocratic Oath taken by all doctors from the Hippocratic Corpus. It refers to the protagonist’s work as chief of neurosurgery and his promise to always do right by his patients. But most of all, it haunts every scene with the threat that harm may befall these characters, and that it will be anything but an accident.

“Do No Harm” tells the story of Steven Pasquale’s (“Rescue Me”) Dr. Jason Cole (or as it says on the door to his office, J. Cole), a classic, well-intentioned doctor with all the promise of Jack Shephard but a whole new trove of demons. His problem? A particularly venomous case of Dissociative Identity Disorder. For 12 hours a day, Jason Cole ceases to exist. In his place is Ian Price, a rough and vengeful identity Cole has spent his life trying to stifle.

At the outset of the pilot, we find Cole during a peaceful period. He has been trying experimental drugs which put him into such a deep sleep at night that Price is unable to awaken (when do these dueling personalities sleep?). It so transpires that Price has built up his immunity to the drugs and the demon is now unleashed.

“Do No Harm” ’s greatest strength is that the show keeps it simple. Cole is a highly competent surgeon, but we don’t spend excessive time with him and his patients. The one time we do, the patient is a victim of domestic abuse, and Cole cleverly introduces her abusive husband to Ian Price’s fists. That scene introduces the intriguing possibility of these battling minds teaming up to better each other’s lives — a plotline for the future, perhaps. In the meantime, Cole’s plan is to strike up a truce, to allow Price to once again live his life, only to end it once and for all.

There’s also the mysterious Olivia (Ruta Gedmintas, “The Borgias”), an ex-girlfriend who interacted with both sides of Cole’s identity and ultimately had to move away to start her life over. Olivia serves as the only anchor in Ian Price’s personality; his obsession with her bordered on stalking and his resurgence threatens her life as much as Cole’s.

Other than that, there are few characters introduced to overwhelm the audience or subtract from the gravitas of Cole’s predicament. Phylicia Rashad (“The Cosby Show”) shines in her few moments as Cole’s boss, commanding the screen with enviable presence in every scene she inhabits.

The best part is the first time we witness Cole’s transformation into Ian Price: He’s in the shower at a dingy motel when he begins to tremble. Panicked, Cole turns to the steam-covered door and begins to write with his fingers: “DO NO HARM.” It should be the tackiest interpellation of a show title in the history of pilots — but right before he completes the “M” a hand swipes across the condensation, wiping away the words of Hippocrates and leaving in their place the rancorous countenance of Ian Price.

At its worst, “Do No Harm” could fall victim to formula, dragging week to week between Cole’s life as a daylight doctor and Price’s nighttime escapades and terrifying trips to Olivia’s house. At its best, the show has the potential to be a truly memorable drama, unencumbered by embellishments and unafraid of causing the characters a little harm.