Review: Promising start for ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’

Even in these halcyon days of television excellence, not every niche network can afford to launch a prestige drama all on its own. But the Joneses must be kept up with somehow, and what better way than with a BBC import starring “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm and “Harry Potter’s” Daniel Radcliffe?

At least that’s what the folks at the art ‘n’ culture network Ovation are counting on. And it’s definitely not a case of brand distortion. “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” which premieres Wednesday, is based on an autobiographical short-story collection by Russian physician turned novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov. “Doctor Zhivago” meets “Doc Martin.” So a little higher brow than the “Smash” reruns Ovation is also running.

The series, which was enough of a hit in the U.K. to get a second season, follows a troubled man’s memories of his years as a fresh-minted doctor in a small pre-Revolution village. The doctor is never named — Hamm plays the older incarnation, Radcliffe the younger — and in the story’s most promising and troublesome conceit, the two often interact with each other. Episodes last half an hour, and if the first is any indication, reflect the distinctly Russian tendency to blur tragedy with comedy, realism with absurdity.

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We meet the young doctor as he is being dumped, unceremoniously, at a snow-bound hospital where the minimal staff lose no time in remarking upon his obvious youth and inexperience (Radcliffe could still easily pass for 16). Next, they inform him of the general fabulousness of his overly bearded predecessor.


For his part, the male dentist or feldsher (Adam Godley, fresh off his finale appearance in “Breaking Bad”) is uncomfortably excited to have a new companion. But the two nurses, played by Rosie Cavaliero and Vicki Pepperdine, are not at all impressed (did I mention they were Russian?).

Nor should they be. The young doctor is bumbling, anxious and not at all prepared for his first patient, a woman in labor with a breech baby. Though his mistakes are played for comedy, the blood is copious and very real, as are the barbaric instruments of the time. Fortunately, his older self is on hand to offer reassurance, which allows Hamm and Radcliffe to perform together. And honestly, it makes no narrative sense at all.

It’s a tough one to call, “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” especially based on a single half-hour episode. The supporting cast is terrific, the setting sublime, and there is absolutely nothing like it on television.

The tone may veer a bit wildly from grim to hilarious for an American audience’s taste, but once Hamm and Radcliffe settle into their roles (and Hamm into his accent), it could very well live up to its U.K. rep and provide Ovation with some skin in the game.

And if Radcliffe manages to introduce even a few “Harry Potter” addicts to Russian literature, how great would that be?


‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’

Where: Ovation

When: Wednesday 7 p.m.

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)