With its peculiar mix of slapstick and suffering, "A Young Doctor's Notebook" (9 p.m. CT Oct. 2, Ovation; 3.5 stars out of 4) is an oddity.
Based on the somewhat autobiographical short stories of Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, "Notebook" stars Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe as the same doctor at two different points in his life.
Radcliffe plays the naive younger self, freshly graduated from a Moscow university in 1917. He's dispatched to the remote village of Muryovo, where he oversees a country hospital with an experienced staff including Anna (Vicki Pepperdine), a nurse who is obsessed with the doctor's late predecessor, Leopold Leopoldovich; midwife Pelageya (Rosie Cavaliero); and The Feldsher (Adam Godley), an assistant who is more boring than the never-ending snow falling outside.
Hamm is the older doctor who, as suspicious Soviet soldiers ransack his office in 1934 Moscow, begins to reminisce about his early days.
Writers Mark Chappell, Shaun Pye and Alan Connor make an intriguing creative decision in having the two doctors interact in 1917. Without long narrative exposition, the meeting gives viewers an entrée into the mind of the older doctor. When the doctor warns his younger self about the dangers of morphine, he's really taking stock of his life since those days.
The dramatic device also allows two fine actors to work together, and they're a double act worth watching. Never mind that they look nothing alike—the doctor changes so much over the years that the differences work in their favor.
The "Harry Potter" star, much shorter than Hamm and exhibiting a seemingly natural awkwardness, is well suited to play the inexperienced young doctor. Radcliffe's got the acting chops to take his character from innocent and enthusiastic to jaded and disillusioned by his inability to heal all the villagers.
Hamm, who doesn't even smile much as Don Draper on "Mad Men," continues to work the comedic timing he's showed off on "Saturday Night Live," like when he tells a shocked Radcliffe, "I saw a lot of horror and tragedy in here. Happy days."
Yes, the comedy is dark. The farce turns ominous in an instant, and the transitions are as blunt as the saw in a bloody amputation that will have some viewers turning away in horror.
Believe it or not, that stomach-turning gore is part of this four-part gem's charm. "A Young Doctor's Notebook" gets the balance between tragedy and comedy just right.
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