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How Do You Mine Jokes From a Hospital Ward? Don't Ask “Emily Owens, M.D.”

“Emily Owens, M.D.,” which premiered Tuesday night on The CW, occupies a strange space between dire hospital drama and lighthearted CW mean-girls fare. At first glance the show feels like little more than a bad “Grey’s Anatomy” knock-off: a soapy medical procedural that pits romantic intrigues against the mortal stakes of hospital life. Mamie Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep, plays the title character, a first-year resident haunted by the uncoolness of her high school self. It turns out that the tormentor from her teenage years is a resident at the same hospital, and they are in cutthroat competition for the affections of a cute doctor. “Hospitals are like high school,” we are told too many times to count, and the show means that literally.

Unlike “Grey’s Anatomy,” "Emily Owens" is basically a comedy, though the jokes are all directed squarely at the protagonist, who flubs basic social interactions and eats half the contents of a vending machine in a fit of self-pity after learning that the handsome doctor doesn’t share her feelings. She analyzes her feelings in endless infantilizing voice-overs. (“I’m done feeling stupid and insecure about being stupid and insecure.”)

The actual medical traumas orbit awkwardly around Emily’s petty adolescent ones. Something is off in the proportions: a 12-year-old girl nearly dies of cardiac arrest, and then Emily cries into a bag of potato chips after confessing her unrequited love. While Emily accuses her nemesis of hiding her pager (“Of course you stole it just like you stole my debate club cards in high school”), an elderly Alzheimer’s patient wanders away from the room and is lost. Emily must be reminded by a fellow doctor that an amputee and a pancreatic cancer patient have it worse off than she does. “You must think I’m incredibly self-absorbed,” Emily says, and we do.

“The Mindy Project” is an obvious point of comparison: it targets a similar demographic and also features a competent (if self-centered) female doctor with a personal life in shambles. But “Mindy” uses the doctor’s office as a setting, not a subject; it is a rom-com accessorized with white coats and OBGYN stirrups. “Mindy” has an unapologetically superficial heart—it skirts real tragedy and trauma. There are no Code Blues on Mindy’s operating table. But “Emily Owens” seems confused about what emotional territory it wants to cover. A pregnant woman frantically paces the halls looking for her husband after he is wounded in a car accident. Then Emily’s face crumples as her doctor crush says “I don’t see you like that.” The result is that the high-school heartbreak feels overblown and the tragedy feels cheap.

It’s not that jokes can’t be mined from a hospital ward. But classic medical comedies “M*A*S*H” and “Scrubs” worked because they offered a broader satire of hospital life. For the characters of M*A*S*H, practical jokes were a way for the staff at the army hospital to deal with deeply unfunny circumstances. The laughs were a relief from the grimness of the Korean War. With “Scrubs,” the comedy extended beyond a goofy protagonist. The fantasy sequences brought the world of the hospital to weird and vivid life: Zach Braff as J.D. daydreaming that his head had floated free from his body, residents barreling down a hallway like a herd of bulls as they competed to treat a member of the hospital board, or J.D. playing a game of Connect Four with Death. These bits were very funny and also told us something about the absurdity of the job itself, the way those endless on-call hours can numb you to human suffering and skew the senses. “Emily Owens,” alas, is a commentary on the absurdity of nothing but herself.

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