A Little Third World Do-Gooding
Otis Cole (Jason George) is skeptical of the new crop of young doctors coming to work at his clinic “Somewhere in South America” (filmed in Hawaii). “Baby docs are all the same,” he observes, “They don’t give a crap about the work. They’re just padding their resumes with a little Third World do-gooding.” His white colleague, Ben (Martin Henderson), is more forgiving. “We just need one good one,” he says, earnestly.
Yes, he gets his wish Off the Map, premiering on ABC 12 January. Within minutes of her arrival, Lily (Caroline Dhavernas) is helping to hold down a poison victim, spurting blood as he fights off the do-gooders trying to save him. Lily, like her fellow newbies, Mina (Mamie Gummer) and Tommy (Zach Guilford), has come to the jungle for her own reasons. Predictably, each has a trauma to get over. As Otis notes of the assignment, “It’s not work, it’s penance.” As you might expect in a show executive produced by Grey’s Anatomy‘s Shonda Rhimes, it’s penance that lends itself to soapy drama. As their pasts emerge—Tommy disappointed his family, Mina misdiagnosed a patient, Lily “lost someone”—it becomes clear that these doctors aren’t so much padding resumes as they are working out their personal lives.
It’s also penance that eases the impression that these very white, very privileged “baby docs” are only self-interested, or, as Dr. Zita Alvarez (Valerie Cruz) describes them, “cocky imperialist doctors.” The show’s designated (and generalized) “native,” Z is frustrated that so many of her mentees are “useless Americanos who don’t even bother to learn Spanish.” So, the title of the first episode, “Saved by the Great White Hope,” ends up being less ironic than it might have been: as naïve as the kids may be, they also surprise themselves with how resourceful they can be.
The trouble is, they don’t surprise you. Their routes to redemption are laid out early and often: Tommy, who partied his way through med school and oh yes, pursued a specialty in plastic surgery, is hoping for a “clean slate”—as well as a chance to hit the beach, so he can “get [his] swim on” (who talks like that?)—until he learns that Ben has his number. His first assignment has Tommy (a.k.a. “Plastics”) traversing mountain roads to reach a family afflicted with TB. Though Tommy is so utterly ignorant that he doesn’t know what “gringo” means, when he hears it from the clinic’s 13-year-old translator, Charlie (Jonathan Castellanos), he must convince the distrustful patient to accept his white man’s medicine. Somehow, dear reader, he does.
The girls’ plots are equally sentimental, as each digs deep inside to discover she has resolve as well as an inclination to “objectify one of the greatest humanitarians of our time,” as Lily describes their ogling of a shirtless Ben. The point-of-view moment serves several purposes: it ensures you know Ben has a worldwide reputation, it bonds Mina and Lily, and it simultaneously differentiates them from Tommy (who pops in at that precise instant to exult, “This place is awesome: not only are there no malpractices, but there’s also surfing!”) and makes them too much like them, that is, looking for romance/sex even though they say they’re not. Ay! Americanos!
Along the way, the yanquis are also subjected to lessons in environmental and international aid politics. When one patient complains at the clinic’s lack of basic painkillers (“What kind of crazy ass witch doctor doesn’t have drugs?”), he’s advised, “The kind that survives on donations.” And when a pregnant Peace Corps worker worries that her birth plan—including aroma therapy and a mix tape—has been derailed, Zee reminds all of us, “Americans and their birth plans: the plan around here is to squat in a bush and get back to work!”
And don’t be fooled by the rudimentary look of the facilities, Ben asserts. “You’re standing in the middle of the greatest medical resource on earth,” he says, “We have plants that cure viruses, tree sap to heal wounds, insects that stop gangrene. This is where medicine was born.” Again and again, the new doctors are exposed to treatments that seem brand new but are, you know, very old. Coconut juice can be used in place of blood during a transfusion pinch. And cow’s hoof lowers blood sugar in diabetics. If only they can find a plant that helps scriptwriting.