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TV Tonight: First World Problems

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Do you like Grey’s Anatomy, but wish that the doctors’ private crises and personal issues were analogized to Third World suffering? Then you’ll love Off the Map!

The new medical drama from Grey’s creator Shonda Rhimes, debuting tonight on ABC, was probably a no-brainer for the network to pick up, because it combined elements of two of the network’s most successful shows of the last decade: the medical stories, personal drama and eye candy of Grey’s and the lush tropical setting (and personal drama and eye candy) of Lost. (Which, to be fair, is probably a better commercial strategy than trying to reproduce the mythology of Lost, which many other shows have done.)

In theory, the challenges, and culture clashes, of Third World medicine have rich potential for a drama. In practice, Off the Map plays like a rote example of “It’s _____, but set in _______!” school of programming, in which the background is much more interesting than the foreground.

Off the Map is set in the South American town of Ciudad de las Estrellas, in an unnamed country, where a small medical clinic is staffed mainly by young expatriate American doctors. What drives someone to leave cushy America to practice medicine in the hinterlands? Idealism, maybe, but as ABC says, this is mainly a show about “how far one has to go to truly heal.”

In other words, each of our doctors has personal problems they’re running from—not an invalid dramatic device and one, after all, that the show also shares with Lost. The problem is not so much the premise as the execution. How do you know that the doctors have personal demons? Because at some point in the first episode, most of them will get a dramatic scene in which they get to unload a dramatic monologue telling you exactly what demons they’re running from.

At one point, for instance, new kid Tommy (FNL’s Zach Gilford, trying mightily to ground his character) has the challenge of persuading a local villager—who came to distrust medicine after a loved one died—to allow his sick family to be treated. Tommy finally gives him a heartfelt spiel about how he can relate to the man, because he rebelled against his family, who pressured him to become a doctor, by partying and coasting in his career without really trying. Through which he learned not to punish yourself and your family because of your frustrations.

That’s right: being a privileged, whiny, underachieving American med student is exactly like being a Third World villager living in poverty! Thank God Tommy is there to put the guy’s petty problems in perspective for him! Again, it’s not necessarily a problem that these characters are being placed in this situation—the wastrel doctor finding himself through service, &c.—so much as the fact that Off the Map seems to want us to take this as a genuinely moving exchange. (Rather than, say, an example of the very self-absorption that maybe Tommy needs to work through.)

Off the Map is not entirely unconscious of the pitfalls of contrasting First World and Third World problems (as they say on the Internet). But the main indigenous voice on the show, local doctor Zita (Valerie Cruz) plays like a stilted mouthpiece figure, delivering canned lines about her mistrust of Yankees parachuting in to solve the locals’ problems.

For all that, there’s potential in Off the Map. There’s a fairly strong (not just in looks) cast, including Wonderfalls’ Caroline Dhavernas, and the setting provides ample opportunity for locals and America tourists to suffer the kind of bizarre medical maladies that Rhimes loves to play with on Grey’s. (In one episode, a man gets caught under a fallen tree in the jungle, like a possibly unintentional callback to the finale of Lost, which extricated Ben Linus from under a massive log without ever explaining how.) From what I’ve seen so far, however, it’s not worth the trip.