Now that we’re well into back-to-school season, it feels like a good time to brush up on the great works of literature the proper way: by watching TV.
And since there are surprisingly few adaptations of the classics this fall — Chuck Lorre isn’t gonna adapt Beowulf for the small screen anytime soon — it’s also a good time to rediscover the arts and culture network Ovation, which premieres its surprisingly funny and gory black comedy A Young Doctor’s Notebook tonight at 10 p.m. ET. (The first season is only four episodes long, and you can find the right channel to watch them on here.) Or if scholarly knowledge doesn’t motivate you, what about the tawdry thrill of seeing Don Draper shoot morphine with Harry Potter?
Based on an autobiographical short-story collection by the Soviet doctor-turned-writer Mikhail Bulgakov, the same crazy genius who gave us a talking, gun-slinging cat in The Master and Margarita, the series follows a Russian medical school graduate (Radcliffe) who’s whisked off in 1917 to a pre-Revolution village so tiny and drab, he jokes that “even letters don’t want to be sent there.” Fortunately, an older version of our hero (played by Hamm) has been sent back in time from Moscow in 1934 to coach his younger self through gruesome surgical procedures, prevent him from getting high on his own morphine supply, and deliver witty banter along the way. (Young Doctor, pointing to the gnarly medical device that the Old Doctor is holding: “Careful, you could have an eye out!” Old Doctor, picking up an even gnarlier device: “No, that’s what this is for!”) Nobody can see or hear the Old Doctor except the Young Doctor, which makes for some clever farcical moments with the hospital’s stone-faced, round-bottomed nurses, who are constantly measuring the Young Doctor against his smarter, more impressively bearded predecessor, the comically named Leopold Leopoldovich. And Radcliffe faces such comparisons with admirable good humor, considering that the characters often riff on the fact that he: a) stands almost a foot shorter than Hamm, even though they’re supposed to be the same person, and b) looks like a 12-year-old boy. “It’s not that ridiculous, is it, for a man to travel to Petrovka?” the Young Doctor asks a nurse. “For a man, no,” she replies. “But you will freeze to death.”
Co-written by two alumni from IFC’s underrated David Cross comedy The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, one of whom played “Officer Vagina” on that show, the tone is hilariously deadpan: Imagine Sweeney Todd, with slightly more jokes and about the same number of amputations by way of rusty tools. It doesn’t just blur the line between comedy and tragedy. It wisely understands that, in Russia, there’s not much difference between the two. At one point, the Young Doctor discusses the hospital’s surrounding geography while trying to deliver a baby for the first time. “I’m new to the area, I don’t know where anything is!” he admits. Not exactly what a woman wants to hear when she’s enduring a gruesome, blood-soaked labor. Another scene finds him gravely informing a mother and her two kids that they have syphilis. “Can’t you give us something?” she begs. “I can give you a spade to dig three little holes,” he offers, not so helpfully. Radcliffe is all fizzy energy in these scenes, pulsing with such frantic, sweaty nervousness, you can practically see the cartoon anxiety waves zigzagging off his head. He’s perfectly complemented by Adam Godley (that’s Elliott Schwartz to you Breaking Bad fans), a creepy dentist who’s almost embarrassingly excited to have a new friend at the hospital. And Hamm gives an intelligent performance as the Old Doctor, even though he has apparently mistaken a gravely serious, Masterpiece Theater-style baritone for a Russian accent. It’s strange that Hamm so often tries to break into slapstick, with cameos on 30 Rock and SNL, when those roles ignore what makes him so powerful as Mad Men‘s Don Draper: He understands how to make absurd moments feel a little melancholy. He gets the ideal showcase for that talent here.
It’s surprising how well this early 20th century Russian drama translates to modern times and Western audiences. The benefit of hindsight needs no translation, and the question of what you’d tell your younger self if you could go back in time is so universal that everyone from Oprah to Dwight Schrute has answered it. (My answer? A beer dolly should only be used to transport beer, not the people who’ve drunk it.) Bulgakov certainly would’ve enjoyed this conceit, which is missing from his book. If he’d been able to listen to Future Bulgakov’s advice, he might have prevented himself from becoming a morphine addict in real life. After sucking diphtheria from a sick child’s throat, he took an agonizing anti-diphtheria antidote, then treated himself with the opiate to counteract the pain. Sadly, he found it hard to stop treating himself.
A Young Doctor’s Notebook was such a hit when it aired in the U.K. that it has already been picked up for a second season, which will apparently delve into the Young Doctor’s struggle with drug abuse. My colleague Clark Collis, who just came back from the set, describes the next season as “dark.” But these first four episodes are great fun with their sharp one-liners and gallows humor. If Leopold Leopoldovich were still around, with his impeccable taste and his very intellectual beard, he would love this show.