In "Off the Map" young expatriate doctors look for patients,… (Maria Perez / ABC )
From Seattle to Santa Monica to South America; if only Shonda Rhimes were as experimental with genre and theme as she is with geography. Instead, she has an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, and who can blame her? Six years in and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" is still going strong, having survived all manner of insanity on-camera and off, while its spinoff "Private Practice" appears to be holding its own as well.
So there is some logic in moving Rhimes' signature conceit — a youthful and racially diverse group of doctors searching for love and self-knowledge — to a Doctors Without Borders-type setting. But instead of going more bravely into a war, or at least a political hot zone, "Off the Map," which premieres on ABC on Wednesday night, settles for a touristy South American locale. Supplies may be short and the distance between clinic and patients long, but the real conflicts are personal.
Created by "Grey's Anatomy" writer Jenna Bans, "Off the Map" is so inspirational and message-laden it would not be out of place on Oprah Winfrey's new network. By the very nature of the work, everyone involved in "Off the Map" is instantly credited with a certain amount of heroism. Clinic veterans, Drs. Zee Alvarez ( Valerie Cruz), Otis Cole (Jason George) and Ben Keeton ( Martin Henderson) may look momentarily askance at their newest recruits, but the three young doctors have not come to the jungle to pad their privileged resumes (as the jaded and exhausted Alvarez suggests). They are here to find Rebirth, Resolution and Redemption.
By the end of the pilot we know that Lily Brenner ( Caroline Dhavernas), the wide-eyed central character, recently lost her fiancé; Mina Minard ( Mamie Gummer) fatally misdiagnosed a child's illness; and requisite wise-acre Tommy Fuller ("Friday Night Lights'" Zach Gilford) is a selfish party boy hoping to make good.
Alas, it all plays just as sappy as it sounds, even with the gorgeous and ridiculous distractions of make-do medicine — after Lily treats a patient mid-zip line, Ben transfuses him with coconut milk when the blood stores run low (kids, don't try this at home); Tommy saves a medicine-wary tubercular family using only the power of his voice and the soulfulness of his eyes (he speaks no Spanish); and Mina deals with the ho-hum-until-it's-not nature of clinic work. Don't even get me started on the perilous pregnancy plot of the next episode.
Much of "Off the Map" was shot in Hawaii giving it such a "Lost"-ian air that it's difficult not to keep an eye out for the DHARMA Initiative logo. And while poverty will fill narrative needs, the only political statement of "Off the Map" is the clear need for bilingual education in the United States; amazingly, none of these young doctors speaks a word of Spanish, or any romance language for that matter.
The older doctors are obviously weighted down by similar troubled back stories. Henderson's Ben, with his raggedy good looks and wandering Aussie/Kiwi accent, is a particularly tortured soul, tended to by Ryan ("Twilight's" Rachelle Lefevre), a sassy second-year who shows up late to the pilot and only after a long personal conversation with God.
It's all so overwrought and silly that you may find yourself making actual sounds of exasperation and fighting the urge to e-mail Gummer's agent.
It's a fine and pretty cast, but in early episodes Gummer, who recently put in an inspired performance as a young and sweetly obnoxious lawyer on "The Good Wife," is the only one who shines, albeit sporadically. One hopes that she, and everyone else, will soon be given something more substantive than jungle sweat and cheap sentiment to work with, because there's not enough coconut milk in the world to make up for good writing.
'Off the Map'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)