Diagnosis Schmiagnosis

'Do No Harm'

by Michael Landweber

31 January 2013

Cole's reckless selfishness is a real problem for Do No Harm. He's a brain surgeon putting his patients in danger every day because he refuses to address his own illness.
cover art

Do No Harm

Series Premiere
Creator: David Schulner
Cast: Steven Pasquale, Alana De La Garza
Regular airtime: Thursdays, 10pm ET

US: 31 Jan 2013

By day, Jason Cole (Steven Pasquale) is a celebrated neurosurgeon. But at exactly 8:25 every night, he changes into Ian Price, a lowlife criminal and all-around scumbag. Then, on the dot of 8:25 every morning, Price becomes Cole again. 

Do No Harm identifies the Cole/Price schism as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), a real medical condition wherein a patient has at least two distinct personalities. It’s a disorder that’s showed up on TV before, rather notoriously in 1976’s Sybil, and more recently, in Showtime’s United States of Tara, which focused on a woman (Toni Collette) trying to hold her family together even as she routinely lost control of her actions to a number of alternate personalities.

Tara was a brutally honest and very funny portrayal of how someone might deal with an unusual mental condition. The short-lived series posed serious questions concerning individual and social responsibilities, and how someone might take responsibility for her own actions even when she can honestly say she was not herself when she committed them.

Do No Harm is less serious. It seems determined to ignore the diagnosis that serves as its premise and convince viewers that Cole and Price are two different people, not two personalities of a single troubled individual. Primarily, this means that the two are trying to destroy each other. Dr. Cole wakes up behind the wheel of a stolen car. Mr. Price comes to as he’s handcuffed in front of a drug dealer to whom he owes money. The premiere episode presents the two alters as if they’re frat boys playing pranks on each other. It’s hard to believe that Cole/Price doesn’t realize that if one of them dies, say, in a car crash or at the hands of a drug dealer, so goes the other.

But the show isn’t interested in a nuanced or even persuasive portrayal of the experience of DID. Do No Harm is the latest TV show trying to layer a high-concept premise on top of a medical procedural. The set-up is always the same: a talented and arrogant surgeon has a secret that threatens to derail a promising career. Recent misfires in this burgeoning sub-genre include The Mob Doctor, where the doctor had a debt to the mob, and A Gifted Man, where the doctor had a morally inclined ghost of an ex-wife.

Per the sub-generic formula, Do No Harm features a couple of unusual patients each episode. We never doubt that Cole will know exactly what to do to save them, though we might wonder whether Price, who has absolutely no medical knowledge, will interfere. Waiting for the alter ego to emerge each day and threaten the lives of patients who trust their doctor is, not surprisingly, uncomfortable and painful to watch. 

Actually, most everything in No Harm is hard to watch. It’s frustrating to see Cole’s colleagues, who supposedly spend their entire lives thinking about the human brain, ignore the obvious dangers posed by his mental illness. This is particularly true of Dr. Lena Solis (Alana de la Garza), a neurologist who is assaulted twice by Price in the first two episodes. Despite all indications that she is an intelligent and responsible doctor, she allows Cole to continue to practice at the hospital. She’s not alone: at least three other people have reason to blow the whistle on the good doctor, yet none of them does. None of their reasons for inaction is even remotely believable. 

Cole’s particular Jekyll-and-Hydeness is, of course, wholly implausible, and the show doesn’t offer any sort of explanation as to how he came to this point. As the series begins, he’s been self-medicating, specifically, putting himself into a drug-induced coma that lasts for 12 hours every night. That in itself is a little hard to fathom, and when you consider that a surgeon is usually on call 24-7, the show’s basic logic dissolves even further. Cole has created an excuse about having diabetes, which you would think would be hard to pull off in a hospital. Then, you start wondering about how Cole got through med school and internships and residencies if he was only himself 12 hours a day.

Cole’s reckless selfishness is a real problem for Do No Harm. He’s a brain surgeon putting his patients in danger every day because he refuses to address his own illness. It’s distracting that the show even pretends he has an actual disorder, rather than a completely fantastic one, for instance, possession by a supernatural force or a more faithful adherence to Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, in which the doctor is responsible for unleashing his own evil self. In that case, Do No Harm might have provided a provocative morality tale. Instead, Cole is good and Price is evil. And neither one of them is remotely interesting.

Do No Harm


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//Mixed media