You know what prime time television needs? A medical drama! Wait … it already has those? Damn. Well, add another one to the pile: ABC’s “Off the Map,” which follows a team of three young residents who move to a practice at a South American emergency clinic to escape the demons of their pasts.
Off the Map
Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Let’s be clear: The show is set in South America, but characters only refer to it as “the jungle” during the pilot episode. Worse yet, they don’t speak Spanish (nor do they seem interested in learning it) and one of them insultingly compares his new home to the United States. “It’s called civilization,” he says snootily. “You should try it sometime.” It’s the kind of cultural tone-deafness we’ve come to expect of NBC’s “Outsourced.” Oh please, please, don’t let it catch on.
The location itself is stunning; the show is filmed in Hawaii – yes, if you’ve spent the last six years on a mysterious island, it’s shockingly familiar. Being in “the jungle” illustrates that exotic locations make for equally exotic medical cases. The show has the advantage over comparatively tame hospital dramas in that it can show the truly nitty gritty injuries and diseases. As one character puts it, “They say that when you hear hoof beats you gotta think horses, not zebras.” Think flu, not Lupus. Her companion’s blank reply a few minutes later pretty much sums up their situation: “Sometimes, it’s zebras.”
The characters are flat at best, with the kind of problems we’ve come to expect from our TV doctors – lost loved ones, misdiagnosed patients or, in one case, laziness that impairs medical practice. It’s hard not to be skeptical, if not outright scornful, when Tommy (Zach Gilford, “Friday Night Lights”), one of the new doctors, tells his sob story to a patient refusing treatment whose family is dying of tuberculosis. In short, Tommy’s problem is that he is gifted and privileged, but spent too much time partying, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him and see that he’s not so different from the culturally estranged invalid before him. The misguided monologue does manage to tie things back together, though, when Tommy says “I lost my family because I was proud. I don’t want you to do the same thing.”
What stands out about the show’s pilot isn’t characters, plot (there was a plot?) or even the beautiful locale – It’s definitely the blood. Dramas are always more graphic than other shows, and for good reason, but “Off the Map” is just gratuitous. Within a single hour, the doctors encounter a man who’s been stung in the ankle by a stingray, and another whose arm is caught on a zip line. He later suffers internal bleeding, which is externally disgusting. The lack of access to equipment and technology means that things can get pretty gross pretty quick, but viewers can only be expected to stomach so much, especially in a pilot episode.
“Off the Map” isn’t bad; it’s just more mediocre than memorable. After watching one episode, it’s hard to even remember the characters’ names. If there’s one thing to be learned from the exorbitant number of medical dramas on TV, it’s that character is of paramount importance. Shows like “House,” “Scrubs” and “Grey’s Anatomy” haven’t survived on scenery and spraying blood: They’ve survived because the audience cares enough about the characters to turn on the TV each week and follow their story. If “Off the Map” focuses more on the story of what’s-her-name than on the gore, there might be a reason to keep watching.