Oh, the multitudes of pop culture jokes this show spawned. But once upon a time in 1989, it made its debut. The show opens with a 16-year-old kid taking his driving test in a Volvo station wagon. His overbearing mother has tagged along. When they see an accident ahead of them, the kid speeds up and jumps out of the car to assist. He amazes the police officers on the scene by taking charge and adjusting the victim’s leg to restore circulation. It’s a great, surprising opener that lets the viewer know all he or she needs to know. The opening credits fill in the details, with newspaper headlines about the child prodigy, Doogie Howser (Neil Patrick Harris), acing the SATs, graduating from Princeton, and becoming an M.D. all by age 14. And for an extra flourish of heroism, there’s one about how he delivered a baby in a mall. Nothing says 80s teenagerhood like a mall.
Next, Doogie is at the hospital, and we get a feel for the workplace dynamic. This is followed by a scene at home, where we see Doogie’s life as a normal teenager, goofing around with his buddy and making big plans for the upcoming school dance.
It’s a story of contrasts; the “regular” kid living in the same body with the genius medical professional. The poor kid gets pressure from all sides. His parents hassle him like all parents of teenagers, plus patients and other doctors don’t always take him seriously. (And he’s cute as a button!) Over dinner, his father speaks the theme of the show: “Emotional maturity is not a function of genius, it’s a function of experience.” We, the viewers, are going to be along for the ride as this young man gains some of that experience.
It’s got it’s amusing moments; Doogie’s horny boy banter with friend Vinnie (Max Casella) is, if not predictive of the Bro Code, at least typical of adolescent boys, and what’s not funny about that? And Doogie and Vinnie’s revenge scheme on doctor who embarrassed Doogie is a good chuckle. But this isn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of show. We get a sad story about how Doogie had leukemia as a child and went through chemo. He shares his experience with a sick child in need of a heart transplant. The tone is actually quite Scrubs-like, humorous moments contrasted with serious ones. There’s even a goofball musical sequence of Doogie getting dressed for the dance to Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing.” It’s followed soon by, in real Scrubs fashion, a heart-wrenching patient death. Doogie ends the episode typing into his computerized diary, “Kissed my first girl. Lost my first patient.” Again, contrasts. Also these experiences being firsts, it’s the right place in this character’s life to start telling his story.
I think I only ever watched this show once or twice when it aired, and I’m sure I had never seen the pilot. As a NPH fan, I was so excited to find that it’s now on Hulu. It’s fun looking at it through the lens of subsequent shows, but even standing alone, the pilot promises a sweet, touching, and unusual show.