Someone stop the presses (that aren’t actually running because this is a website): Emily Owens M.D. managed to get through an entire premiere episode without a single scrubs-clad sex scene. No speedy tryst in a centrally located linen closet, no patients stuck precariously together after a tacky glue fetish session gone wrong—could we really be headed back to a time that predates the Grey’s Anatifiction of melodramatic medical television? Well, no. But Emily Owens at least looks to be the softer side of Scrubs (if someone dosed JD with Adderall…and gave him ovaries).
Created by Jennie Snyder Urman, whose past work was mostly Gilmore Girl and lady-demographic fare like Lipstick Jungle, Men in Trees, and 90210 (part deux), Emily Owens is set in Denver Memorial Hospital, where it opens with bushytailed Emily Owens (Mamie Gummer) starting the first day of her internship. In what you think is a flashback of poor, nerdy little Emily sitting alone outside of her high school, you quickly realize is just grownup Emily starring creepily at a poor, nerdy freshman with a passing resemblance. (I want this girl back every single episode.) Things are looking up for Emily, especially now that she has her hunky med school buddy Will (Justin Hartley) by her side. Enter Cassandra (Aja Naomi King), Emily’s high school rival who is starting her internship at the same hospital, on the same day. Just when she’s on the verge of adulthood, Emily must re-face all the trials and tribulations of high school—only this time with patients wedged in the middle.
The hospital = high school metaphor is cute until the details are actually presented. Jocks in orthopedics, mean-girl plastic surgeons, goody-goody OBs, nerd neurologists, rebel ER docs, stoner anesthesiologists—everyone falls into whatever precise clique is needed to make such a cutesy piece of dialogue work. Or not work, in this case. (If ER taught me anything, it was that Mark Green and John Carter were not bad boy rebels, OK? So I deny your analogy, Emily Owens)
For as much as I huffed and puffed at Arrow for its poor use of voiceover, it’s somewhat ironic that in the next pilot I watch, the narration gimmick actually works for me. Like a less philosophical Angela Chase, Emily talks to herself throughout the day, challenging her psyche to confess her feelings to Will and to stop reveling in her fears of quote-unquote adulthood.The show has all the sentimental trappings of an ABC Family drama, but when Cassandra calls Emily a “krunt” while they wrangle over the K-sounding pronunciation of a last name, Emily Owens gets saucy (for a fraction of a second).
Emily is brilliant, of course, and awkward, as you must be to have your own show. (It’s good to know Blossom grew up to be a doctor.) But there’s also a level of sanctimoniousness that makes you want to throw a bedpan at her head. Emily does get called on this fact—but in a way that’s almost as annoying, considering it’s her “bitchy” archenemy Cassandra who does it by manipulating a patient’s caregiver—in this case a woman and her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s—into doing what they both think is the “moral” thing by sharing a sad but similar experience in her own life. In fact, Emily has not one, but two, plot lines in the first hour where she stumbles into an ethical dilemma and has to Do The Right Thing. It’s a nice sentiment to see a harrowed daughter continue to care for her ill mother, or a guilty man turn himself in for a DUI that his innocent brother is intentionally taking the fall for, but it’s as preachy as a pastor convention; and just thinking about it more makes me want to go in search of that bedpan again.
Besides Cassandra, Emily must also interact with her boy-next-door love interest. Hartley’s Will, so far, appears to be a decent guy, even if he doesn’t make gooey eyes at the quirky protagonist. Before the episode finishes, Emily gives him the “I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her” Notting Hill speech, and he turns her down. Not particularly outrageous, given television’s unhealthy need to make everyone’s love affair last from afar for at least four seasons. As an arc it would be more interesting if he truly did just want to be her friend, a rare kinship in any medium, but I have a feeling he’ll change his mind right about the time Emily starts playing doctor—shut up, it’s a relevant pun—with her resident overseer, Micah (Michael Rady).
Emily Owens is the television equivalent of a solid but shallow beach read, yet it’s not without charm—namely Gummer and the fleeting glimpses of snappiness. All of this is happening on the CW, a network dedicated to a weekly lineup of merging pretty people with monsters. Sometimes together, sometimes separately; but if it’s not pretty socialites fighting their personal demons, it’s even prettier hunters fighting the literal ones. This leaves Emily Owens an oddity amongst niche appeal. Nothing inherently sexy about it, no villains getting kicked in the face, just a dorky doctor by the name of Emily whose internal monologues sometimes tangent from the meaningful to a neurotic love of cheese. But as long as nobody in episode two picks up any steamy nicknames that start with “Mc,” I think for a while we can all handle a little bit of cheese.