Well, maybe you're not skeptical about visitors from beyond the grave. Whether you are or not, 'A Gifted Man' should still work for you, because it treats the ghost, the person she appears to and the whole concept of working things out after death with an intelligent mixture of curiosity, confusion and compassion. There's no contempt, but neither is there any cliched, sentimental blather.
What I'm trying to say is, even though this show airs on Friday night on CBS, at no point will you be reminded of 'The Ghost Whisperer.'
Sometimes you have to wait until the end of a pilot -- or until several episodes have aired -- before you know whether a program is truly worth watching or not. But no qualifications or hedging are necessary with this drama. Fifteen minutes into 'A Gifted Man,' the performance of Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Ehle and Margo Martindale had completely won me over, and of all the pilots I've screened for fall, this is the one I most want to see more of.
Wilson, ably supported by creator Susannah Grant's nicely understated script, instantly establishes the arrogance and controlled professional competence of Dr. Michael Holt, the neurosurgeon whose boutique practice is frequented by the wealthy, the powerful and the famous. Half the reason he's unsettled by the visitor who begins appearing to him is because he has a lot of things to take care of every day. Really, who has time for schizophrenic hallucinations?
That's not what's going on, but I'm loathe to give away much of what happens in this pilot, because, under director Jonathan Demme's sure hand, the story unfolds in such a graceful and pleasurable fashion. The great Margo Martindale, who won an Emmy Sunday for her work on 'Justified,' manages to make an impression in a supporting role (one that should become more substantial in coming months, she said in a recent interview). I've never been a big Julie Benz fan, but she and Pablo Schrieber ('Lights Out') are excellent as Holt's sister and her shaman friend, respectively.
And Jennifer Ehle, 'A Gifted Man's' female lead, has a wry, understated presence that meshes perfectly with Wilson's low-key but palpable charisma. The chemistry between the actors implies a long and complex history between their characters, and I look forward to finding out about more about their pasts.
But the pilot really belongs to Wilson, who's terrific in the lead role. In his reactions to his untimely visitor, he has to run the gamut from terrified to giddy to flustered, and there's even some deadpan humor in there. He does all that flawlessly, even as he reinforces the idea that Holt needs to be in control, and both loves and hates the one aspect of his life he can't predict. Holt is a man whose looks and skills have allowed him to get away with a great deal of rudeness and selfishness over the years, but Wilson shows us the sincerity and even the charm that lurks under the doctor's crisp, driven surface.
The medical cases add some suspense to the proceedings, but they're really not the main event here. The pilot for 'A Gifted Man' follows Holt's emotional journey, and the conclusion to that journey feels earned -- and it feels like an interesting beginning.
There's still time for this concept to get messed up and codified in conventional ways, but my fingers are crossed that 'A Gifted Man' does with the medical drama what 'The Good Wife' did for the legal drama. The latter show picks and choose from genre conventions in order to tell unexpectedly rich stories about complex, flawed people and their interesting jobs. The cases supply interesting frameworks for 'Wife,' but if it weren't those particular people litigating those cases, we wouldn't care half as much.
CBS has seen fit to stick 'A Gifted Man' on Fridays, but let's hope that means lowered expectations will allow it to develop into an unconventional, character-driven drama about mortality, death and medicine too. There's certainly a lot of life in that premise, judging by the show's first episode.
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