Doogie Howser, M.D.: The Complete Fourth Season (DVD)

“What must it be like to be you?”

Some TV series, when read just by their descriptions, fall under the category of “How’d they think of that?” Like a genie falling love with an astronaut. Or a cute high school girl with a destiny to battle vampires. Or, in the case of Doogie Howser, M.D., a teenage doctor. That this series got made is a miracle. That it’s amusing and (mostly) believable is a medical miracle.

Dr. Douglas “Doogie” Howser (Neil Patrick Harris, Undercover Brother) is a bona fide child genius. He graduated from Princeton at age 10, and by 15 he was a doctor in residence at a major LA hospital. This season, he’s 19, and a lot more grown up, moving into his own Venice Beach apartment, and playing the dating game while not saving lives. Meanwhile, Doogie still has time to hang out with horny best friend Vinnie (Max Casella, Ed Wood) and his parents David (James B. Sikking, Hill Street Blues) and Katherine (Belinda Montgomery, Days of Our Lives). At the hospital, Doogie is backed up by nurse Curly Spaulding (Kathryn Lang, The Marrying Man), former gang-banger turned orderly Raymond (Markus Redmond, Fight Club), and his stern boss Dr. Canfield (Lawrence Pressman, American Pie).

I found this episode list buried under the clutter in Doogie’s room:

• “There’s a Riot Going On”
During the 1992 Rodney King riots, Doogie and friends put in some high-stress long hours at the hospital, learning an important lesson about tolerance.

• “Look Ma, No Pants”
When Doogie meets his mom’s young, attractive boss, the two instantly hit it off and start dating, leading to much conflict between mother and son.

• “Doogie Got a Gun”
After being robbed, Doogie and his family feel vulnerable and paranoid. To regain some control in his life, Doogie considers buying a gun.

• “Doogie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
After a failed attempt to move out his parents’ house in the third season, Doogie decides to give it another try—choosing a grungy Venice Beach fixer-upper apartment with a colorful past instead of a high-class condo.

• “The Patient in Spite of Himself”
Doogie sees how the other half lives when he joins some med students in an experiment in which he checks in to the hospital as a patient.

• “To Err is Human, to Give Up Isn’t a Bad Idea”
Doogie has a go at his first-ever solo trauma surgery, and the pressure is on for him to be perfect.

• “Doogie, Can You Hear Me?”
For his first student film, Vinnie hopes to raise enough cash to make an outrageous comedy. Perhaps Doogie’s new hearing-impaired romantic interest can give him a hand.

• “Nothing Compares 2 U”
When a woman says she finds Vinnie more attractive than Doogie, Doogie starts obsessing over comparing himself to others.

• “Do the Right Thing…If You Can Figure Out What It Is”
Vinnie’s former Girlfriend Janine (Lucy Boryer, Body Bags) makes a return appearance, creating mixed feelings for Vinnie.

• “The Big Sleep…Not”
Doogie’s been putting in some late hours at the hospital, while Vinnie comes down with some serious insomnia. This all leads to a late-night conflict between the two.

• “Will The Real Dr. Howser Please Stand Up?”
Vinnie tries to get Doogie to have some fun with video dating. Meanwhile, it’s serious business at the hospital as Doogie must convince his father that a friend and patient is guilty of child abuse.

• “The Mother of All Fishing Trips”
Doogie’s dad throws out his back on the eve of their annual father-son fishing trip. Instead, Doogie’s mom takes his place in the great outdoors.

• “Roommate with a View”
A free spirited and clothing-optional model temporarily moves in with Doogie, teaching him a thing or to about being a little less organized and a little more spontaneous.

• “Spell it ‘M-A-N'”
It’s the battle of the sexes as Doogie and his new girl have to put up with rumors spreading about the two of them. Vinnie, meanwhile, learns a surprising secret about one of his film school buddies.

• “It’s a Tough Job…But Why Does My Father Have To Do It?”
Vinnie doesn’t approve of his father’s outrageous new girlfriend, while Doogie’s dad fills in at the hospital alongside his son.

• “The Adventures of Sherlock Howser”
Wondering about what his girlfriend is up to when he’s not around, Doogie dreams of himself as a certain world’s greatest detective.

• “Love Means Constantly Having to Say You’re Sorry”
Vinnie believes he’s found the girl of his dreams—she even makes him a man, if you know what I mean—but his over-protectiveness of her might ruin it for both of them.

• “You’ve Come a Long Way, Babysitter”
Doogie is reunited with his first crush, an old babysitter. She’s still as gorgeous as he remembers, but can he convince her he’s more than the little boy she once knew?

• “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round…Or Is It Money?”
It’s a crisis of ethics when Vinnie discovers a technical error has deposited $16,000 in his account, and Doogie discovers a young patient has a crush on him.

• “Dorky Housecall, M.D.”
A cartoonist makes a joke out of Doogie, giving him an idea to turn the tables on a nurse who broke his heart.

• “Eleven Angry People…And Vinnie”
It’s time for another crisis of ethics when Vinnie frets over serving on a jury, while Doogie suspects another doctor of being a fraud.

• “What Makes Doogie Run”
An encounter with other former child geniuses has Doogie pondering his past and future, and all the experiences of youth he never got to enjoy.

Tracking the course of the series so far, season one was a quirky comedy, season two was a bland comedy, season three was a quirky drama, and, now, season four comes across as a mix of the previous three. Some of the comedy episodes are cute and amusing, while some fall back on predictable sitcom clichés. Other episodes take life seriously, especially when dealing with dating and relationships.

By this point, the series pretty much belongs to Doogie and Vinnie. All the other characters are more or less in the background this season. Neil Patrick Harris remains natural and likeable in the role, even if he looks completely different from when the show started—not to mention twice as tall. Max Casella continues to jump into the role with enthusiasm. Vinnie is often played for cheap, slapsticky gags, but Casella manages to give the character some dignity when needed.

With his girlfriend Wanda (Lisa Dean Ryan, Dead at 21) no longer a part of the show, this freed up the writers to have Doogie explore relationships with other girls. So in this season, a whole bunch of ladies enter and exit his life, revolving-door style. There’s the nudity-prone model roommate, the deaf girl with the positive attitude, his mom’s sexy boss, a dog-loving nurse, and, somewhat oddly, his childhood babysitter. Doogie’s main on-again-off-again this season, though, is Michele Faber (Robyn Lively, Twin Peaks), yet another nurse, who involves Doogie in an “okay to see other people” relationship, and all the complications that come with it.

So this season is light and charming, but far from perfect. Like many bland sitcoms before it, scripts here tend to fall back on simplistic moralizing. The season opens with a bang, as Doogie goes into crisis mode at the hospital on the night of the Rodney King riots. Now, given that this series was overseen by Stephen Bochco, who dealt with racial issues on occasion rather well on his other series NYPD Blue, one would expect a more meaningful take on the issue. Instead, all the episode has to offer is a generic “racism is bad” moral, with too much time spent on screwball comedy business such as Vinnie babysitting some kids while doctors treat their day care provider. The potential existed here for a moving, powerful mini-epic, but it was squandered.

Picture and audio here are good; especially considering the series is more than 10 years old. Colors and bright and vivid, and the audio shows no immediate flaws, really coming to life during the few musical sequences. Pressman and Lang return for two brand new interviews, offering their perspective on the series. Both come across as funny and easy-going, making these interviews a real treat. In a previous review, I bemoaned how there were no chapter stops in episodes, making it impossible to skip the electronic keyboard theme song when watching several in a row. Well, this time, the theme is separated with a chapter stop. Thanks, Anchor Bay!

If you’re new to Doogie Howser, M.D., this fourth season set is not the place to begin. That would be the first season. Although the novelty of a teen doctor wore off after that first year, some nice character work by the writers and the actors’ enthusiasm kept things interesting enough for another three seasons. Now that the whole thing is on DVD, I’d say Doogie’s journey growing up is a trip worth taking, even if there are a few slow spots along the way.

The Verdict

It might not have been the best TV series ever created, but it’s certainly one of the most unique. Not guilty.

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