If you slice it down to its bones (an appropriate analogy for a medical program), “A Gifted Man” owes a debt to “A Christmas Carol”: The series features Patrick Wilson as the self-absorbed neurosurgeon who experiences a belated spiritual epiphany, unlocking do-gooder impulses that transform him from talented bastard into something closer to Dr. Kildare. The semi-religious component (embodied here by the ghost of doctor’s past) will likely play well with CBS’ heartland audience, but the longterm prognosis hangs on whether the series can find a pulse beyond just older viewers in an up-for-grabs Friday timeslot.
Wilson’s Dr. Michael Holt is arrogant and brilliant before a surprise visit from his ex-wife Anna (Tony winner Jennifer Ehle). Yet that chance encounter takes on a different hew when he discovers she died prior to their meeting (why he didn’t hear about this earlier is a mystery best left ignored), leading him to offer his services to an overwhelmed clinic his ex had championed.
Suddenly, Holt is exhibiting a more humane streak and performing pro bono surgeries — a change that isn’t lost on those around him, including his sister (Julie Benz) and office manager (Margo Martindale, built for better stuff than the pilot presents). Sis even enlists a spiritual guide (“The Wire’s” Pablo Schreiber) to see if there’s a way to exorcise Anna’s gh-gh-ghost.
Developed by Susannah Grant and run by Neal Baer (a medical doctor who worked on “ER” before “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), “A Gifted Man” is certainly earnest, in a “Marcus Welby, M.D.” kind of way. Post-sale tinkering also improved the pilot, with Anna becoming Holt’s conscience in a way that better explains her presence, while extracting some humor from their only-he-sees-her encounters.
Beyond establishing the premise, the opener features three medical plots — one about a tennis prodigy, another devoted to a difficult patient (Bill Irwin) and finally Michael’s grudging efforts to help an ailing kid. It’s manipulative, but fairly effective.
Granted, there’s been no shortage of medical shows built around wish-fulfillment fantasies of doctors who genuinely care, with nary a mention of insurance forms or HMOs. It’s just that medicine has grown more complicated and even politically thorny.
Presumably, the series’ beating heart lies between two comforting notions — the existence of a larger spiritual world and the good a committed physician can accomplish here on Earth once touched by an angel or infused with the milk of human kindness. Whether there’s enough material to sustain a series stemming from Michael’s pivot toward greater generosity of spirit thanks to Anna’s gentle prodding remains unclear.
CBS’ ratings expectations can’t be unreasonably high, and Wilson feels like a star who many CBS viewers will think of not just as gifted but as “that nice-looking young man.” Even so, those with a stake in “A Gifted Man’s” fate ought to practice the same regimen many follow as they go under the knife: Put trust in the surgeon, yes, but also pray for help from a higher power.