Drama in Miniature: A Young Doctor's Notebook

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The advent of film and television precipitated the decline of theater, both in influence and scope, and maybe that was the start of the expanding arena in drama. If you’re not limited by a stage, it stands to reason that you’re not limited by anything. Today, we have more characters, more locations, and more narrative complexity, and the journey of a single show covers as much physical terrain as mental. Think of The Wire, which trains its wide lens on an entire city and state, from slums to state house. Or Breaking Bad, which spent five seasons reeling across the southwest, unveiling new layers of the criminal underworld as Walter White transformed into Heisenberg. For shows like these, there’s no reason to stop; newness is exciting, and the camera gives you the means to constantly refresh.

It’s hard to complain about the change. Bigger doesn’t mean better, but it also doesn’t mean worse, and since we’re blessed and cursed with more mobility than any other society in world history, it’s reasonable for our art to reflect the open landscape. If there’s one thing we lose in our frenzy to move, though, it’s the ability to examine the microcosmic, stationary scenes in life; the kind beloved by the playwrights who wrote page after page examining the inner provinces of the human experience, all within the setting of a single room.

The beauty of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, the four-episode Sky Arts production starring Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter), is that it returns to the intimacy—and claustrophobia—of the static drama. You could argue that it’s difficult to pull off the feat without reverting to an older era, and as you’d guess, the show is set in Bolshevik Russia, jumping back and forth between 1917 and 1934. Loosely based on the short stories of Mikhail Bulkgakov (as the New York Times noted, it’s one of an increasingly rare breed of literary adaptations), the plot follows a young, unnamed doctor who has just graduated at the top of his class from a prestigious medical school in Moscow, and is sent out to a remote, snowy village called Muryovo to begin his practice. This is the kind of place, as Hamm notes, where “you take a train to the middle of nowhere,” and it still takes another day to arrive.

In a diversion from Bulgakov’s stories, Hamm also plays the doctor, 17 years on, saddled by a morphine addiction and hunted by the medical authorities. He’s not constrained by time, though; he also haunts the scenes with Radcliffe, a pale ghost of a man with very little of Don Draper’s vitality, alternately warning and encouraging his younger self. The hospital where the doctor lives and works is snowbound and isolated, and almost all of the drama exists inside its walls. Here, the naive doctor endures the mocking support of his three assistants as he attempts to navigate a world that doesn’t seem to care about his high test scores and impressive diploma. Nor do those triumphs help him among the peasants he treats; even in the mild cases of syphilis, nobody seems to understand that they might need more than “a gargle.” And it gets worse. There’s gore aplenty in Notebook, and without spoiling anything, you won’t be disappointed if you’re the kind of person who likes to see bone and gristle and tendon and blood.

The Bolshevik Revolution is underway in the cities and fields, but in Muryovo, life goes on as it has for centuries, untouched (for now) by politics. For the young doctor, it’s agonizingly lonely, and the only times when life isn’t boring is when it’s horrifying. Over the four episodes, which originally aired last December in the UK and are currently airing on Wednesdays at 10 pm on the Ovation Channel (go here to see if you’re one of the 38 percent of American households who receive it), we witness the young doctor’s crumbling mental state, and the question lingering in the air is when he’ll succumb to the morphine that will cripple his older self.

Radcliffe is strong as the bumbling younger man, and it’s a pleasure watching his overconfidence waver as he realizes the extent of everything he doesn’t know. But Hamm is the real star, with his desperate, brooding presence reflecting the brutal environment of the frozen countryside. His scenes with Radcliffe are the high points of Notebook, and often have a distinctly Russian humor—cynical, cold, and incisive.

Hundreds of miles to the east, V.I. Lenin is leading a revolution that will bring the tsarist era to a close and change the course of world history, but Notebook doesn’t concern itself with politics. This is a story in miniature about a man doing battle with the demons of his own desolation. The only time the young doctor leaves the hospital, it merely serves to show how deep the morphine’s claws have gripped his brain. Forget the scope; this is a compelling drama, a throwback that documents the internal horrors of life and still manages to make room for humor. Here, things are peered at under a microscope rather than gazed at through a telescope, and it may feel oddly confined to modern viewers. But don’t be fooled, because there’s a richness in the details—proof that good drama can still come in small packages.

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