Waking the Dead (the movie not the TV series) is one of my favorite movies. Starring Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, it is the story of a initially well-intentioned, compassionate but ambitious, politician running for Congress. All is going well in the polls as he slowly sells his soul to the devil to get elected when suddenly the ghost of his dead significant other appears. Crudup’s character slowly loses it as Connelly’s character forces him remember why he got into politics in the first place. As Crudup’s character slowly loses his grip on reality (it’s a fabulous performance), drawn deeper and deeper into this delusion (or haunting), he is also eventually redeemed, becoming a better man and the “man of the people” that always lurked beneath. Of course, returning from the grave to rescue and redeem a loved one is a literary staple, whether in fiction, film or television.
I was reminded of Waking the Dead while watching the premiere of the new CBS series A Gifted Man. Starring critically-acclaimed stage and screen actor Patrick Wilson (Phantom of the Opera) as brilliant, mega-successful neurosurgeon Michael Holt. We learn in the first few moments of Gifted’s pilot episode that Michael is rude to nurses, insensitive to his (apparently long-suffering) secretary Rita (Margo Martindale, Steel Magnolias), and seems generally in the surgery business for its material rewards. Although he is the only real male presence in his nephew’s troubled life, he refuses to do anything but throw money at the problem. Basically, the doctor is a grade-A ass of a human being.
Into his life one evening walks ex-wife Anna (Jennifer Ehle, The King’s Speech). It is a seemingly chance meeting, but Michael is ecstatic that their paths have crossed again, despite the fact that it was he who walked out on their marriage several years earlier.
On the surface, Anna appears to be Holt’s opposite number. She is a free spirit to Michael’s buttoned up cool; she is a “do-gooder” doctor—in medicine to help the most vulnerable members of society. She runs a free clinic of New York City’s bleaker side of town. But you also get the impression that there is something more, better, to Michael. Why else would the deeply compassionate Anna have been so drawn to Michael in the first place?
As Anna and Michael share gourmet takeout, they reminisce about their years together treating the Inuit in Alaska. Michael wants to maintain this renewed connection with Anna, but when he tries to contact her the next day at the free clinic, he learns that she died a few weeks earlier. Spooky. Seriously spooky.
Michael is naturally concerned that something is seriously wrong with him; he could have a brain tumor—or be schizophrenic. And neither of these conditions is good for the future of a neurosurgeon. As he tries to diagnose the reason behind the apparent delusion of his dead ex-wife, she continues to drop in at random moments, telling him that she needs his help.
Reluctantly (and disbelievingly) he helps her. But Anna’s presence unnerves Michael as he finds himself at her free clinic, among the underprivileged, almost forced to help them.
Even (skeptically) consulting a new-age, crystal-wielding practitioner to rid himself of the apparition, Michael cannot shake the ghost of Anna. She doesn’t want to go; so she won’t. There are many doors, she explains, that need closing before she can leave, and she needs Michael’s help to close them.
In the meantime, he tries to conceal his problem, although his staff begins to become curious when he appears to be talking to himself—and even more concerned when he treats a penniless clinic patient (without insurance) gratis.
The premiere episode of “A Gifted Man” is a decent effort with an interesting premise. Wilson and Ehle are fine in the leads, and Martindale is great in a small role that greatly underutilizes her talent—at least in this first episode.
My question is, where does the show go from here? It’s easy (and predictable) to see the series framework from this first episode. Holt gets lured by Anna into cases that demand his skills for patients that cannot even begin to hope for the funds to buy them. Over the course of the series first season, Holt will completely reassess his place in the world of medicine (slowly) and re-evaluate his life—become a better man and remember why he got into medicine in the first place. I know this is where the series is heading, but I hope there’s more to it than that. Change is difficult, if not impossible, and from a narrative point of view, the struggle is what makes the story compelling (at least to me).
What makes Waking the Dead compelling is that the real transformation doesn’t take hold until the final moments of the film; it is a slow burn taking place within a serious internal battle. I really hope that Michael’s tranformation is slow, halting and eventual. The end point, not the starting point. I want to see the struggle. There are hints of a storm brewing beneath Holt’s calm exterior. We see little cracks when Anna’s presence begins to get to him, and when a close friend dies after ignoring Michael’s post-op medical advice. I’m not sure how many darker angles they’ll explore in what appears to be a more redemptive, feel-good series. But you never know, so I’ll tune in again to see where the series is headed.
A Gifted Man airs on Fridays at 8:00 p.m. ET/7:00 p.m. CT