Doogie Howser, M.D.: Season One (DVD)

I need a child doctor to cure me of these cooties.

Steven Bochco, creator of heavy TV dramas such as Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue, turned his sights to comedy in 1989, with the oddest premise for a series since a genie fell in love with an astronaut.

Douglas “Doogie” Howser (Neil Patrick Harris, Starship Troopers) is, in many ways, a typical suburban teenager. He wants his own car, his room is always a mess, and he frets over his relationship with his girlfriend. But Doogie is also a child genius who breezed through med school in a matter of weeks. Now, at age 16, he’s a second-year resident at a major hospital. While most teens struggle through algebra, Doogie spends his days performing surgery and saving lives.

Our hero’s dual identity is balanced by his parents David (James B. Sikking, Hill Street Blues), and Katherine (Belinda Montgomery, Days of Our Lives). Then there’s his perpetually horny best friend Vinnie (Max Casella, Ed Wood) and his girlfriend Wanda (Lisa Dean Ryan, Dead at 21), who never let him forget to enjoy his youthful years. On the other side of the operating table, we have Dr. Canfield (Lawrence Pressman, American Pie), Doogie’s stern and demanding boss. Looking out for Doogie at the hospital are Nurse Curly Spaulding (Kathryn Lang, The Marrying Man), who acts as the older sister he never had, and Dr. Jack Maguire (Mitchell Anderson, Jaws: The Revenge), who gets maybe two minutes of screen time per episode if he’s lucky.

The Evidence

Anchor Bay had prescribed all 26 episodes from the first season for you, spread out over four discs.

• “Pilot”
Doogie spends his 16th birthday worrying about getting his driver’s license, romancing Wanda, and saving a young patient.

• “The Ice Queen Cometh”
An older, female colleague has an unusual request for young Doogie.

• “A Stitch Called Wanda”
When Wanda comes down with an unexpected case of appendicitis, Doogie has to operate on her. This complicates their relationship, to say the least.

• “Frisky Business”
Vinnie convinces Doogie to throw a party while his parents are out of town, but some poor judgment on Doogie’s part could put a patient in jeopardy.

• “The Short Goodbye”
Frustrated by his lack of independence, Doogie moves out of his parents’ house.

• “Simply Irresistible”
A renowned pediatrics firm tempts Doogie with an offer to leave the hospital and enter private practice.

• “Vinnie Video Vici”
Fifteen years before its invention, Vinnie comes up with the idea for reality TV by following Doogie around with a camera all day—much to Doogie’s frustration.

• “Blood and Remembrance”
Doogie’s relationship with Wanda is strained yet again, when his schedule prevents him from spending too much time with her.

• “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Cousin”
Vinnie starts dating Wanda’s overweight cousin, while a plastic surgery patient challenges Doogie’s ethics.

• “My Old Man and the Sea”
It’s time for Doogie’s annual fishing trip with his dad. Too bad Wanda has invited him to Palm Springs that same weekend.

• “Tonight’s the Night”
Doogie and Wanda feel the pressure to take their relationship to the next level, if you know what I mean.

• “Every Dog Has His Doogie”
Doogie takes a stand against the hospital’s policy on treating the homeless, putting his medical career on the line.

• “Doogie the Red Nosed Reindeer”
It’s Christmas time, and Doogie has to work on the same night as the biggest party of the year.

• “Greed is Good”
Winning big on a TV game show brings out a new side to Doogie’s friends and family.

• “Attack of the Green Eyed Monster”
Jealousy threatens Doogie and Wanda’s relationship, as well as his mom and dad’s.

• “It Ain’t Over Till Mrs. Howser Sings”
A cancer scare has Doogie’s mom rethinking her life, so she sets out to relive her glory days as a singer.

• “Tough Guys Don’t Teach”
It’s back to high school as Doogie is recruited to teach sex education to his peers, which is fine until he runs afoul of the local bully.

• “I Never Sold Shower Heads For My Father”
Vinnie’s dad wants him to join the family business, but all Vinnie wants is to become a filmmaker.

• “Doogie’s Awesome, Excellent Adventure”
After getting “cool lessons,” Doogie changes his image. But to keep up appearances, he secretly helps himself to his father’s BMW.

• “Use a Slurpy, Go To Jail”
A gangbanger holds Doogie and Vinnie hostage in a convenience store after a robbery goes awry.

• “Whose Mid-life Crisis Is It Anyway?”
Feeling washed up, Doogie’s dad announces his retirement, until our young genius helps him see life in a new light.

• “Vinnie’s Blind Date”
Vinnie falls for one of Doogie’s patients, a blind girl whose sight is about to be restored.

• “And the Winner is…”
Maguire finally gets some screen time when he and Doogie compete for the same award.

• “Breaking up is Hard to Doogie”
When Doogie and Wanda’s relationship hits yet another bump in the road, they decide, somewhat strangely, to give marriage counseling a try.

• “The Grass Ain’t Greener”
Doogie reevaluates his feelings for Wanda after a Laker Girl asks him out.

• “Frankly My Dear, I Don’t Give a Gland”
Vinnie’s romantic date is ruined by a medical problem, and Wanda has a surprise announcement for Doogie.

Unlike most half-hour comedies, the humor here isn’t just a collection of one-liners. It has more of an absurdist quality, which is what you’d expect when you’re watching a squeaky-voiced teen making rounds at a hospital, spouting off rapid-fire medical jargon to adults twice his height. There aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments, but expect plenty of amusing “what if” situations.

Despite the outrageous concept of a teenage doctor, the creators also know when to play it straight, and there are serious moments throughout. The best of these occur when the combined pressures of adolescence and professional medicine get to be too much for Doogie. The worst of these occur when your basic “TV morals” come forward, and everyone learns a valuable-yet-clichéd life lesson.

But don’t think this is a safe, family-friendly comedy for the kids. Just like Doogie’s pal Vinnie, the entire series is preoccupied with sex. There are jokes about sex, frank talk about sex, and other references to sex in every episode. Mostly it’s for humorous purposes, but it’s also because our hero, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of human anatomy, is filled with hormones and curious about women. The creators play this up every chance they get.

See, Doogie Howser, M.D. aired at an odd in-between time in American television. So-called “family” sitcoms such as The Cosby Show and Family Ties had outlasted their popularity, while the sexcapades of Melrose Place and the political incorrectness of Seinfeld were still a few years away. As a result, this series straddles the line between tradition and irreverence, where preachy family moments and raunchy sex jokes often appear side-by-side in the same episode.

The series is at its best when exploring Doogie’s double life. Surprisingly, the unlikely teen doctor scenario lends itself to some effective comedy and drama. But when stories lead away from the hospital, they become bland and predictable. If the series had been about Doogie as a regular teen, the characters by themselves might not have been enough to carry it.

As the title character, Harris pulls off the doctor shtick believably enough, but he’s also down-to-earth enough to make Doogie likable. He really was 16 at the time, and proved himself more than capable of carrying the series, even at its cheesiest. Yes, Harris has a few scenes that are so goofy they’re cringe-worthy, such as his Bogart impression; but some would argue that’s just part of the series’ oddball charm.

The supporting cast ranges from good to ho-hum, depending on how well-written the episode’s script is. Casella’s “horny best pal” routine is funny at times, but feels forced at other times. Pressman finds a nice balance to his character, knowing when to be a stern authority figure and when to let some humanity show through. Doogie’s father doesn’t fare as well. It appears that the writers were never quite sure what to do with him. Sometimes he’s Ward Cleaver, sometimes he’s Clark Griswold, and sometimes he’s Jack Byrnes. Sikking is a fine actor, but his character could have used more consistency.

The picture quality of the discs is quite good for a series from 1989. Edge enhancement is visible at times; but other than that, the full screen image looks just as good as it did when first aired. The 2.0 audio is serviceable. It’s not fancy, but the dialogue and music comes through with clarity.

The only extras are two interviews, one each with Harris and creator Steven Bochco. Although brief, they offer plenty of information about the series, from its history to its production to its impact on the life of its star. Also included is an eight-page booklet written in the style of Doogie’s journal, with comments from Vinnie and plenty of color photos. Inserts like this have become rare with recent releases, so it’s nice to see Anchor Bay take the time to create a nice-looking one.

It deserves to be said: The idea of a teenage doctor is so unrealistic, it’s ludicrous. No matter what his or her intellect, no one at 16 or younger possesses the emotional maturity or experience to become a full-fledged doctor. And no matter how hard the series tries to make this concept believable, at its heart the whole thing is just silly.

If Bochco and Harris agreed to do interviews, why not a commentary or two? Also, there are no chapter stops in the episodes. So when watching several in a row, keep your finger on the fast forward button. Otherwise, constant repetition of the Casio-keyboard-sounding theme song will forever haunt your nightmares.

Doogie Howser, M.D. has a little something for everyone. It’s part family sitcom, part medical drama, and part teen sex comedy. It’s enjoyable, but it isn’t perfect. For every moment of humor or heartbreak, there’s a cliché to make you groan.

Oh, and Wanda’s late ’80s/early ’90s fashion sense? Hot stuff!

The Verdict

For fans, it’s great to have the series on DVD, although the extras could’ve been better. For newcomers, the court recommends a rental. But hurry: Your popcorn needs 20cc of butter, stat!

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