A Gifted Man is built on a familiar gimmick. A rich, successful man is desperately in need of a reality check gets a supernatural intervention to make him rethink his vanity. Since A Christmas Carol and before, this story has been a staple of popular entertainment.
In this case, Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson) is a brilliant neurosurgeon who seems to lack any interest in human contact. He can’t even manage to wish his assistant (new Emmy winner Margo Martindale) happy birthday when prompted. When that happens early on in the premiere episode, it looks as if Holt will be just another caricature, crudely drawn to make viewers anticipate and want his eventual transition to saintliness.
But A Gifted Man doesn’t fall into that trap. Shortly after that first demonstration of his arrogance, Holt acts harshly toward someone who makes a mistake in the operating room while assisting him in surgery. This could have been played as an irrational reaction to a simple error. But instead, the scene suggests Holt is concerned for his patients and unwilling to compromise when lives are at stake, and yes, rough on his colleagues. This is a complicated man: he’s found success but not perfection in his own life, even as he strives for it in his work.
Holt’s vulnerability becomes even more obvious when he has an apparently chance encounter with his ex-wife, Anna Paul (Jennifer Ehle). We see that he still loves her, and she says she’s returned to New York City from Alaska where they once lived together. Holt lights up in her presence, as she tells him about the free clinic she runs now. This looks like his second chance.
Except for the fact that Anna is a ghost. She was run over by a car a few weeks earlier, and now she’s returned to Holt, convinced that she still has things to do in this world.
You may be inclined to give up on A Gifted Man right about now. But hold on. Much as it makes Holt complex, it also has a few surprises when it comes to Anna. She’s not trying to save Holt’s soul, even if she might claim to be. She’s confused, trapped between worlds, and she’s straining to understand what has happened. The first thing she asks Holt is to go to her clinic and put her password into the computer system so they can access her files. The task is so pragmatic that it briefly disrupts what seems a strong gravitational pull toward sentimentality.
Mawkishness, however, remains the clear and present danger for this series, even though it manages to sidestep it in the first episode. A hint of the structure for future episodes emerges as Holt is involved in two subplots. While at Anna’s clinic, he finds himself agreeing to give a free MRI to a young boy and then has to decide whether to perform a pro bono surgery for another boy. At the same time, Holt is treating a famous tennis player who is willing to sacrifice her own life for the glory of winning. Again, he sees the obvious lesson in this case (there is more to life than material success). In both cases, the ethical issues are weighty and no doubt topical, but the plotting is already verging on contrived.
So where does the series go from here? The general integrity of the first episode offers some hope that it won’t become a Procedure of the Week melodrama. But the patients need to be as complicated as Holt and Anna, not walking moral lessons.
We can hope that we will get a smart drama that explores what it means to live a good life. A man with a functioning moral compass who doesn’t know how to apply it to his own life is more interesting than an unrepentant asshole in need of comeuppance. A reluctant ghost who is scared to let go is a better option than rehashing Touched by an Angel. If the pilot is any indication, A Gifted Man, working within a well-known construct, will keep viewers guessing about who really needs to be saved.