Doctors Operating Abroad, With Lots of Body Language - 16 January 2011 - .:Caroline Dhavernas Online:.

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Doctors Operating Abroad, With Lots of Body Language


"Off the Map” isn’t a very descriptive title for ABC’s latest medical drama about do-gooders in a remote jungle clinic — "Doctors Without Shirts” would be more helpful.

This series focuses on a group of young, buff doctors in various states of tropical love and undress, and not surprisingly, Shonda Rhimes, who created "Grey’s Anatomy” and "Private Practice,” is one of its executive producers.

What is a little odd is the timidity of the pilot, which will be broadcast on Wednesday, especially compared with the first episode of "Grey’s Anatomy.” That medical drama, now in its seventh season, has turned unspeakably pulpy and purple. But when it began in 2005, it was witty and refreshing — young, driven and fast-talking female surgeons in Seattle agonizing over what specialty to pursue, not which man (their priorities changed over time).

"Off the Map” is a series about aid workers abroad that keeps the abroad part purposely vague and innocuous. The setting is an unnamed South American country that is likened on the ABC Web site to "paradise.” (The filming was done in Hawaii.) The clinic is in La Ciudad de las Estrellas (City of the Stars), a place that seems a lot more like a Club Med than a crisis zone.

The first patient assigned to the newly arrived Dr. Lily Brenner (Caroline Dhavernas) is an elderly American tourist who got tangled in a jungle zip line. (Lily has to zip across the rain forest to his rescue.)

The clinic posting is supposed to be prestigious and hard to win, as Ben Keeton (Martin Henderson), the clinic’s handsome but stern founder, a rain forest McDreamy, is fond of reminding Lily and her fellow newbies, Tommy (Zach Gilford) and Mina (Mamie Gummer). "Out of hundreds of doctors,” he says, "I picked you three.”

Spanish would seem like an easy and helpful criterion for the job, yet not one of the chosen three speaks a word of it — Tommy has to ask the translator what "gringo” means.

The creators seem to think the characters’ helplessness with the local language will make them more appealing to viewers.

And that is probably the safer bet. Globalization may have taken over the world, but networks — or their audiences — remain remarkably chauvinistic. Series that try to broaden horizons mostly get shot down.

"The Philanthropist,” a 2009 drama about a business tycoon who becomes a globe-traveling humanitarian in places like Nigeria and Kosovo, was canceled by NBC after only a few episodes. "War Stories,” a two-hour television pilot on NBC in 2003 that starred Jeff Goldblum as a foreign war correspondent, wasn’t picked up as a series. Even London may be too exotic: in 2002, "The American Embassy,” a promising Fox drama about a young woman who becomes a diplomat in Britain to escape a bad relationship, was quickly canceled. (The creator of that show, James D. Parriott, is now an executive producer of "Covert Affairs,” about a C.I.A. spy who works undercover abroad but never stays away too long from Washington.)

Television offers plenty of realism, as long as it stays within the United States. Overseas hot spots tend to be shown only briefly, like Dr. John Carter’s stint as a relief worker in Darfur on "ER,” or they are imaginary, like the planet Vulcan on "Star Trek.” The hit series "Lost” was set on a mysterious South Seas island that was fictional and fantastical — a "Fantasy Island” where wishes mostly didn’t come true.

Perhaps wary of too much exotica, "Off the Map” takes few chances with plot or characters. All of the doctors seem to have gone to the clinic to escape personal problems back home, which may often be the case in real life but is hardly flattering to aid workers and Peace Corps volunteers.

The veteran doctors are predictably tough and jaded, including the one local physician, Dr. Zee Alvarez (Valerie Cruz), who scoffs at the American newcomers as "the great white hope.”

The younger recruits are appealing, but the writers didn’t try very hard to make them original or unusual. The heroine, Lily, is predictably bright-eyed and eager, while Tommy, a plastic surgeon, is — what else? — shallow. Ms. Gummer, who played an amusingly ditzy lawyer in a few episodes of "The Good Wife,” shows a little more individuality and suppleness as Mina, an insecure but ambitious doctor.

The primitive location, wherever it is, offers exotic diseases and treatments (a coconut transfusion, to name one), though mostly it provides a balmy romantic background for seduction. The doctors even perform surgery by candlelight.

ABC must not be superstitious, because it is already selling souvenir "Off the Map” T-shirts and travel mugs on its Web site, even though the first episode has yet to be broadcast, let alone develop a following. "Commemorate the hard work & soul-searching being done in the remote South American village of La Ciudad de las Estrellas,” the ad says.

Never mind where exactly. What "Off the Map” really offers is hard bodies searching for sex and soul mates there.

OFF THE MAP

ABC, Wednesday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.

Created by Jenna Bans; Shonda Rhimes, Betsy Beers, Gretchen Berg, Aaron Harberts and Ms. Bans, executive producers. Produced by ABC Studios.

WITH Jonathan Castellanos (Charlie), Valerie Cruz (Zee Alvarez), Caroline Dhavernas (Lily Brenner), Jason George (Otis Cole), Zach Gilford (Tommy Fuller), Mamie Gummer (Mina Minard), Martin Henderson (Ben Keeton) and Rachelle Lefevre (Ryan Clark).

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