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ONE SEASON WONDERS: Off The Map

The Off the Map logo

Off the Map was an American drama that aired on ABC from January to April 2011. It was created by Jenna Bans and starred Martin Henderson, Valerie Cruz, Caroline Dhavernas, Jason George, Zach Gilford, Mamie Gummer, and Rachelle Lefevre. More after the jump…

Off the Map grew to be a much better show than its pilot, which I gave a lackluster review, but never really became something truly special. At times, Grey’s Anatomy (Off the Map‘s spiritual successor, though the show outgrew Anatomy‘s structural quirks partway through the season) would rise to a height that vastly outshone its performance week to week, making it really a show of peaks and valleys. Off the Map, on the other hand, was extremely consistent in its stories, and while the show climbed in quality over the course of its short first season, it never reached the heights that its fellow did.

The one great thing Off the Map accomplished was creating a likeable cast, which made its procedural structure and early formulaic stories much more enjoyable. Early on, I couldn’t really imagine wanting to tune in for an hour with these characters every week, but by the end of the season I find myself missing almost all of them. It also flouted a few of the conventions that seemed evident in the pilot; for example, the somewhat forced implication they’d pair Dr. Lily Brenner (Caroline Dhavernas), the grieving know-it-all, and Dr. Ben Keeton (Martin Henderson), the head of the practice. As they settled in, the episodic stories were the thing that set it apart, because they were different than every other medical drama. Not structurally, but in stakes, character types, and conflicts. A big city hospital isn’t going to have to deal with one thief clearing them out of medical supplies, for example, and it’s not likely Dr. Brenner would have been swept away in the river.

I enjoyed the arcs of Brenner and her two new colleagues, Dr. Mina Minard (Mamie Gummer) and Dr. Tommy Fuller (Zach Gilford), and the bulk of the rest of the cast. They were well-built to reach natural development points as of the thirteen episode mark without closing off, which gave closure at the series’ end. However, where the series really worked was in the chemistry of the friendships. Oftentimes they were the thing that showed these characters were worth watching, rather than the romantic entanglements that often dominated the stories.  The standouts were the relationships between Fuller and Charlie (Jonathan Castellenos) , between Minard and Dr. Ryan Clarke (Rachelle Lefevre), the easy friendship between Keeton and Dr. Otis Cole (Jason George), and the once-in-a-while mentorship between Keener and Brenner. The cast had a breezy chemistry that made watching them enjoyable. Even in antagonism, they worked better than the romances: watching Minard and Keeton come into conflict in the last two episodes gave both plenty of scenery to chew, and that was much more fun to watch than the awkward would-be relationship between Minard and Fuller.

Of course, this leaves the romances that, following the Grey’s formula, were often the focus of the plots and the characters’ interactions. When it worked, like with Keeton and Clarke, it gave the show some spark. However, when it didn’t, it felt like an unnecessary and frustrating distraction from what did work. The problem was that most – well, two out of the three between the core cast – didn’t. The most prominent relationship on the show was Cole and Zee (Valerie Cruz), and their relationship was often the factor that dragged the show down. Early on, what chemistry they had was enough to make their scenes work, but the moment they broke up their scenes became a rehash of the same beats, over and over: he wanted her back, she didn’t want to pursue a relationship with him, ad nauseum. Their involvement could bring an otherwise-interesting episodic plot, like the adoptive parents of the baby in “There’s Nothing to Fix” (1.09) to a screeching halt every time their characters were both in the scene. Without spoiling the conclusion to their arc, their repetitive squabbling over a relationship they never really sold in the first place made sure that by end of season, I’d really prefer if they saw other people. I’d have much preferred seeing Cole mentoring Fuller, much like early in the season, and Zee have an actual arc within the scope of the clinic, perhaps mentoring Minard. It particularly bugged me because I enjoy watching both actors do their thing. I’ve been a fan of Jason George since Eli Stone, and I got a strong sense from the pilot that Valerie Cruz would be one of my favourites here. And, outside of her scenes with George, she was.

The other relationship arc that the show didn’t really sell was Fuller pining over Minard. They played with that in the pilot, but their return to it late in the season felt jarring and, other than giving Zach Gilford some new notes to play, not really worth the screentime. The show wanted to be Grey’s Anatomy in the jungle, but the show’s best moments weren’t romantic. They were the growing friendship between Clarke and Minard, or Fuller struggling with how to help Charlie deal with his mother, or Keeton watching Brenner become a good doctor. The joy of watching it was in experiencing these doctors working together in paradise, developing and dealing with the crises at hand.

The only romantic relationship that really worked was Keeton and Clarke, and that’s because it tapped into each character’s unique traits: Keeton’s issues about his comatose wife and his need to save Clarke slamming right up against her stubbornness and need to be independent.  And watching Minard get caught up in that, with her interpersonal issues and her self esteem issues and her complicated relationship with Clarke, made it all the more interesting to watch it play out.

Ultimately, the show was a good show with some great potential. I wish the show had gotten a chance to run beyond thirteen episodes, to see if the producers would have figured out the problems and ironed them out. It could have been great.

Best Episode: 1.12, “Hold On Tight”

Spoiler Alert for the back half of the season.

“Hold On Tight” includes some of the best work from the entire cast, including two of the series’ strongest plots: Minard and Zee working on a dying Clarke while Keeton was distracted elsewhere, and Fuller struggling to help Charlie come to terms with his mother’s schizophrenia. Emphasising the relationships between Zee/Clarke and Minard/Clarke allowed all three a chance to showcase their work: Zee realising she was too close to Clarke to maintain a proper distance, and Minard working to save her. This plot closed by giving Martin Henderson one of his best moments, as an angry Keeton fires Minard for treating Clarke behind his back and taking over as her doctor. This meant that Gummer, Cruz, Henderson, Gilford, Lefevre and Castellanos all were serviced, and each of them rose to the occasion.

And unlike some other episodes, the tertiary plot wasn’t a time suck. It was both relevant, building to Brenner’s plot in the final stretch, and enjoyable.  Caroline Dhavernas has great chemistry with Nocholas Gonzalez and Elizabeth Peña, who played Mateo and his mother, and once Peña entered the show, that plot felt much more interesting. It felt a bit like filler, but unlike earlier subplots (say, featuring Cole and Zee), it was fun to watch. And the key patients, played by April Grace and Cynthia Stevenson, made for an enjoyable pair of guest stars. Their issues were great, with both actresses nailing the frustration of fading love as well as the more tragic elements of their predicament. All in all, it was a tight script that managed to service all of its cast in strong ways, with great emotional resonance and the best ending of any episode of the season. It’s too bad that the show was just finding its feet as it ended prematurely.

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Comments
One Response to “ONE SEASON WONDERS: Off The Map”
  1. Reblogged this on Conversations I Wish I Had and commented:
    I agree.

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