It must be a difficult experience for an actor to try and move beyond starring in a successful series. You work so hard to find success and then when it comes you can be overshadowed by it. There are examples after examples after examples of actors finding success in a movie or television series only to either get caught playing the same sorts of characters for the rest of their careers or to sink into obscurity.
Both Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe know all about this struggle. Radcliffe having starred as Harry Potter in eight hugely successful films and Hamm is now wrapping up his role as Don Draper in Mad Men. It's been fascinating to see how both men have attempted in various ways to shed the roles they are known for and create interesting work for themselves.
Certainly A Young Doctor’s Notebook counts as something far removed from their previous work. Based upon the autobiographical works of the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, the actors play the same character, just 17 years apart. Radcliffe is the Young Doctor, having just graduated medical school and has been shipped to a remote village to begin his practice in a small hospital. Hamm is the Old Doctor, now living in Moscow and being investigated for prescribing himself morphine, an addiction he acquired while working in that village as a young man.
The show begins with the Old Doctor finding his old notebook and reminiscing about his early days in practice. This allows him to appear to himself as the Young Doctor to give advice and generally scare the hell out of himself.
The show is violent, gory, bleak, and pitch black in its humor. There is a scene in which the Young Doctor is forced to amputate a young girl's leg. We watch in horror as he slices through the flesh with his scalpel and close our eyes as he attempts to cut the bone with a very dull saw. The camera lingers as the saw makes little headway into the bone no matter how hard Young Doctor tries. It then fades to black. We sigh in relief as our expectations lead us to believe the moment is over and when the light comes up, the ordeal will be through. But when the scene comes back we’re still in that operating room and he’s still sawing away. Then we fade to black again only to come back a third time to that gory scene. It is an excruciating few moments of television, and yet brilliant in its conception and it its own horrible way terribly funny. And that perfectly describes the show.
Radcliffe is excellent as the Young Doctor, who comes to the village fresh faced, ready to do good, but as the show moves on we see the horrifying realities of his situation take its toll. Jon Hamm is likewise excellent but it takes him a little while to warm up. I still have a hard time allowing him to be anybody but Don Draper. He so fully encompasses that role it colors everything else he does. After about an episode, I had gotten over it and he seemed to completely embody the Old Doctor.
My biggest complaint about the show is that at just over 20 minutes an episode it never really allows itself to fully develop. The secondary actors are good, but we never get to know them. The setting is one that I think could have made for a really compelling hour-long comedy/drama, but with such a short air time I left each episode wanting more. Which is not the worst thing a show could leave you with.
There are no extras at all, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see what brought each of the actors to a project that is so very different from their previous work. Though it is not noted anywhere on the DVD, this is just season one of a series that has completed its second season.
A Young Doctor’s Notebook is a wildly entertaining, macabre, broodingly dark comedy that could have been so much more, but certainly is well worth watching.