At its heart, USA's new series "Complications" is a simple and familiar story: White man goes wild.
Whether it's Michael Douglas in "Falling Down," Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad" or Burt Reynolds and company in "Deliverance," the primitive power lurking in white men's souls is the fossil fuel of American storytelling. The more straight-arrow the character appears in the opening frame, the more dramatic, presumably, is his metamorphosis.
In "Complications," the man is a skillful, charming and beloved emergency room surgeon who has suffered a devastating loss from which he has struggled to recover. Until he, Dr. John Ellison (Jason O'Mara), becomes involved with an imprisoned gang leader after saving the life of the leader's young son.
Not in the operating room, by the way. No, John just happens to be on scene when the boy is shot at a playground. And John doesn't just keep the boy from bleeding to death, he shoots and kills the original assailant, who is coming at him in a speeding car.
After which a viewer would be forgiven for assuming that John is, in reality, a retired CIA agent or Navy SEAL. "Complications" creator Matthew Nix also gave us the wonderful and still mourned "Burn Notice," and O'Mara, who has also starred in "Life on Mars," "Terra Nova" and "Las Vegas," certainly could go there. But the story does not. According to press notes, Nix based the show on a personal experience. Unfortunately, the story he tells of following an intruder out of his Echo Park home sounds far more subtle and provocative than early episodes of this show.
Which was sent out in its entirety — I made it through four before concluding that "Complications" does not concern the effects of brutality on a life dedicated to healing or the snowballing effect of a bad decision. It's just a show that forces a nice guy doctor to act like a complete crazy person.
See, from the moment John picks up someone else's gun and manages to kill a gangster through the windshield, he begins to feel better. Or rather he begins to feel like someone else.
Someone who thinks on his feet, and isn't afraid to play with fire. Someone who quickly enlists the aid of Gretchen (Jessica Szohr), a young nurse so street she has tattoos and still smokes but so human she champions a battered woman. To keep their two patients safe, John and Gretchen embark on a series of rule-breaking adventures that are not so much explorations of moral ambiguity as examples of off-the-rails absurdity.
As is so often the case when previously law-abiding characters take matters into their own hands, help from the police is not an option, something Nix doesn't bother to explain. The boy's father is a menacing gang leader, with an equally menacing henchman, so, you know, what choice does John have?
We don't need a therapist, or even a series of weird swoon-related flashbacks, to tell us that the death of his daughter has left John ripe for the chance to channel his anger into something he can control. But in trying to depict the meeting, and blurring, of two very different worlds, "Complications" chooses antic over subtlety, banging around from one crazy plot development to another.
O'Mara is a very likable actor and Szohr does her very best, but for reasons known only to himself, Nix eschews the black humor that made "Burn Notice" so brilliant, which is too bad. As the show progresses, John and Gretchen may begin to acknowledge the insanity of their actions, and that would certainly help.
If you're going to make a show that looks like "Oz" met "Grey's Anatomy" and decided to visit Mr. White for a little meth, letting the audience laugh with you, as opposed to at you, is probably a good idea.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)