Based on short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, this new series on Sky Arts 1 follows the adventures of a youthful, innocent doctor in his first job in a small country hospital in Russia. The stars are Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Daniel Radcliffe. I will refer to Radcliffe as “Potter” from now on, if you don’t mind. It’s so much easier to remember.
A Young Doctor’s Notebook is billed as a comedy. Why? The action takes place in 1917 – a time when Russia was at its most humourless and miserable, and I have to say that watching it made me feel pretty humourless and miserable as well.
I’m a big fan of Mad Men and I really like Jon Hamm, but what on Earth is he doing in this? I’ll tell you what he’s doing – he’s playing second banana to Harry Potter, that’s what he’s doing.
Hamm portrays Potter’s older, wiser self who regularly pops back through time, for some reason, and offers his younger self advice and guidance. On his next visit the first thing he should share with Potter is that he should never, ever have taken this part.
Anyone who has ever seriously studied literature knows that Russian comedy isn’t funny. It’s the opposite of funny. Maybe at some point in the dim and distant past it was mildly amusing. Perhaps if someone like Stephen Fry had translated the manuscript, some slim semblance of wit may have been salvaged from the original. But 90 years on, and migrated into a very different language and different times, it’s frankly a car crash.
Generally the performances are unsubtle, overcooked and far better suited to the stage than the small screen, and the slapstick is clumsy and poorly directed. At one point Potter appeared to examine a pregnant woman’s nether regions while she was still wearing her undergarments.
The low point for me in episode one is when Potter, in trying to extract a tooth from one of his patients, manages to dislodge a large part of the man’s jaw and yank it out of his mouth – this grisly extraction being accompanied by the sight of a bucketful of blood being projectile vomited across the room by the patient. Ah, those crazy Russians.
It’s a pity that Mikhail Bulgakov’s short stories weren’t a lot shorter.