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Television Review

New medical drama suffers from case of overeagerness

From left: Martin Henderson, Caroline Dhavernas, Thomas Blake Jr., Jason George, Mamie Gummer, and Zach Gilford. From left: Martin Henderson, Caroline Dhavernas, Thomas Blake Jr., Jason George, Mamie Gummer, and Zach Gilford. (Mario Perez/ABC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / January 12, 2011

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Lurking somewhere in “Off the Map’’ is an idiosyncratic, interesting medical drama, one that throws the American health care system — and our cultural foibles — up against the Third World. The germ is in there, I just know it, but the new ABC series buries it under a heaping pile of obviousness. It’s like watching a cast of enthusiastic mimes act out every scene.

Reality shows are allowed to lack subtlety and still engage. That’s how they roll. But there is no reason that network dramas such as “Off the Map,’’ which premieres at 10 p.m. on Channel 5, need to be this blatant about each emotion and upcoming plot turn. Everything is all up in your grill. The touching moments aren’t just touching; they’re mauling. The life lessons aren’t just suggested; they’re shouted at you.

It’s as if all of those involved — ABC, executive producer Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy’’ and “Private Practice,’’ and show creator Jenna Bans — are afraid to let the stories in “Off the Map’’ emerge gracefully. Bans and her writers telegraph the entire future of “Off the Map,’’ especially regarding the ensemble’s love lives, right from the first hour of the show. You can see each character’s fate instantly — who will fall for whom, which obstacles will get in their way, what past traumas they’ll need to overcome. You want to say to the show, as you might say to a dog, “Down boy!’’

Like almost every network cop and doctor series, “Off the Map’’ reveals its world — in this case, a rickety clinic somewhere in the jungles of South America — through the arrival of newbies. Three promising young actors have been stuffed into stereotypical wide-eyed doctor roles. Zach Gilford, the shy Matt Saracen from “Friday Night Lights,’’ plays surfer dude and recovering party boy Tommy, who looks down on the locals and hits on chicks. Mamie Gummer, who was spectacular on “The Good Wife’’ as a faux ditzy lawyer, is Mina, the good girl haunted by having made a fatal diagnostic error. And Caroline Dhavernas, so droll on the short-lived “Wonderfalls,’’ is Lily, the sensible one still grieving a lost love. I’m betting she’s going to be the dark and twisty Meredith figure.

The kids fall under the tutelage of three older docs, although they’re older in the network definition of the word, which is to say they are also young and beautiful. They are led by Martin Henderson’s Ben Keeton, the heroic founder of the clinic who is quite the hunk — he’s very Sawyer from “Lost.’’ Right after they arrive, Lily and Mina see him changing his shirt and, in true Rhimes fashion, they bond over their lust for him. But Lily, as the Meredith, will surely be the one to have some kind of tortured something with him. Henderson, by the way, is originally from New Zealand, and his accent veers back and forth between continents.

Jason George plays Otis, a hard-nosed former military doctor who has no tolerance for Tommy’s entitled ways. He appears to have a thing for Zita Alvarez (Valerie Cruz), the third of the senior members and clearly the most cynical as she rolls her eyes about the new kids like Miranda Bailey did on “Grey’s.’’ The show is filmed in Hawaii, and it’s beautiful — the cliffs, the waves, the sunsets — but Zita appears to be unmoved.

As on “Grey’s’’ and “Private Practice,’’ the romances on “Off the Map’’ are wound together with medical cases and dangerous predicaments, such as the injured man hanging from a zip wire in the premiere. The resolutions to these crises are painfully half-baked — notice how the zip wire situation isn’t concluded so much as dropped. And each case invariably has a schmaltzy, overly earnest final twist, such as the medically absurd moment when the doctors take a critically ill patient on a nostalgic detour to a magical lake so that he can dump his wife’s ashes and you can shed a tear. Again, down boy!

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

OFF THE MAP

Starring: Mamie Gummer, Caroline Dhavernas, Zach Gilford, Jason George, Martin Henderson, Valerie Cruz

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 10-11