Oh, the torments of being a teenaged surgeon! It's funny that a nation known for distrusting intellect would embrace a show about a young genius who becomes a doctor at 14. Debuting in 1989, Doogie Howser, M.D.
originally emphasized Doogie's medical career, contrasting the issues of life and death with star Neil Patrick Harris's chipmunk cheeks and buoyant energy. Season Two tilted more towards Doogie's life as a teenager--particular the bubbling of his adolescent hormones, often sparked by the schemes of Doogie's best friend, the relentless horndog Vinnie Delpino (Max Casella, later to appear in Ed Wood
and The Sopranos
). The show's sexual frankness can be startling--it's hard to imagine a contemporary show that would openly advocate condoms, as Doogie does when he makes public health promotions for a music video channel.
Given the gimmicky nature of the premise, it's also surprising how emotionally complex Doogie Howser, M.D. could be. The season opens with a realistic investigation into Doogie's lost youth and closes with a multi-episode storyline about Doogie's girlfriend Wanda (Lisa Dean Ryan, Surfacing) struggling with depression after losing her mother in a car crash. Of course, the show was just as often silly (Vinnie enlists his friends to make a zombie/slasher movie) or awash in sentimentality--Doogie's journal entries, which conclude every episode, could be wincingly sappy. But even at its weakest, producer Stephen Bochco (creator of L.A. Law and Hill Street Blues, who created Doogie Howser, M.D. with David Kelley, creator of Ally McBeal) kept the writing and directing crisp, and the cast (including James Sikking, Belinda Montgomery, and Lawrence Pressman as the adults in Doogie's life) turned in solid work. Harris successfully carried off the role of a genius who still had the emotional confusions of youth; it's jarring to see him as an adult in a short interview, included as an extra, as well as an interview with Casella (who, it turns out, was already in his 20s when the show began). The show rested on Harris' shoulders, and, like his character, he carried his responsibilities lightly and with style. Warning: Repeated exposure to the theme song will inspire suicidal thoughts; fast forward through the credits to preserve your sanity. --Bret Fetzer