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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2011-2012 season, now in its sixth year! Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
A GIFTED MAN (CBS)
(written by Susannah Grant; directed by Jonathan Demme; TRT: 43:38)
The network's description: "A GIFTED MAN is a drama about a brilliant, charismatic surgeon whose life changes forever when his deceased ex-wife begins teaching him the meaning of life from the "hereafter." Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson) is an exceptional doctor who lives a materialistic life of luxury thanks to his work-obsessed career and powerful and wealthy patients; however, Michael's ordered world is rocked when his ex-wife, Anna (Jennifer Ehle), an idealistic free-clinic doctor and the love of his life, mysteriously appears to him. Michael's off-beat sister, Christina (Julie Benz), a single mom to her teenaged son, Milo (Liam Aiken), is thrilled that Anna's back in her brother's life, even as an "illusion," because Michael was always a better person with her.
Curious about Michael's sudden change in behavior is his efficient assistant, Rita (Margo Martindale). When Anna asks Michael to go to her clinic to help keep it running, he meets Autumn (Afton Williamson), a volunteer carrying on Anna's work with the underprivileged. Touched by those in need and accepting of Anna's compassionate "presence," Michael's attitude toward serving the rich and poor is turned upside down, and he begins to see that there's room in his life for everyone. Academy Award nominee Susannah Grant ("Erin Brockovich"), Academy Award winner Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs"), Sarah Timberman, Carl Beverly and Neal Baer ("ER") are executive producers for CBS Television Studios."
What did they leave out? S. Epatha Merkerson was originally cast as Rita, a role which ultimately went to Margo Martindale.
The plot in a nutshell: New York City neurosurgeon Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson) is at his professional peak as fame and fortune seem to await him at every turn. He's also kind of a dick as his bedside manner has been replaced by a shark-like need to be the best. That all changes however after a chance meeting with his ex-wife Anna (Jennifer Ehle), whom he left nearly a decade ago to follow his medical dreams while she stayed behind the save the world at a roughshod free clinic. She improbably cuts through his usual demeanor, igniting something in him that's been dormant for a while. The following day, looking to pursue her further, he learns the impossible: she's been dead for two weeks.
Now horrified he's succumbing to the kind of illness he usually treats, Michael continues to be visited by Anna who explains she has some unfinished business and needs his help to take care of it. His first task: unlock her computer at her now New York-based clinic. He does but finds himself swept into the clinic's foibles in the process, most notably a poor kid in dire need of an MRI. And so he does what any dick-who's-being-reformed-from-the-beyond would do: he helps them, making a dent in his emotional facade in the process. He nevertheless persists to Anna this is something that he can't handle - charity cases, after all don't pay the bills as - that is until he's actually confronted with the reality of the situation.
What works: It's just an extraordinarily likeable show that unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve. Wilson in particular solidifies his leading man status here without having to be too showy. His Michael Holt doesn't need visits from the Ghost of Christmas to re-evaluate his life, just a nudge from the one person whom he feels about are entirely pure, an ever-present pebble in his shoe if you will. It ultimately makes the show feel very intimate and personal as there's the sense this will be an incremental process rather than an overnight conversion. I was also particularly impressed with Demme's direction as he cleverly stages the Michael/Anna scenes so that their eyelines never match, making you always feel like he's having a conversation with someone who both is and isn't there.
What doesn't: Don't get me wrong, you've seen all of the above before and "A Gifted Man" isn't trying to reinvent the wheel so much as it is trying to get you to slow down to enjoy it. That being said, the pilot doesn't firmly establish what the show will be week to week. There's no "case of the week" in the traditional sense as Michael coasts through his patients with ease, their purpose more to show his changing attitude rather than be mysteries to be solved. It's also not quite "Joan of Arcadia" or "Early Edition" either as the universe isn't leaving puzzling breadcrumbs for our protagonist to follow. The end result is a show that sometimes feels too subtle for its own good.
The supporting cast likewise feels very underutilized as Margo Martindale and Julie Benz are burdened with your stereotypical sassy secretary and sister-who-can't-quite-get-it-together tropes rather than being full-fledged characters. Surprisingly the biggest impression outside of Wilson and Ehle is left by guest star Pablo Schreiber as Anton, a spiritual healer who offers his services to remove Anna's presence. You'll either take his contributions as silly and maudlin or see them as endemic to the show's ethereal heart. I fall into the latter category...
The bottom line: ...as I kind of dug this one.