A Young Doctor’s Notebook is a show that risks being overwhelmed by its own premise. The SparkNotes version: Harry Potter and Don Draper! Harry Potter and Don Draper, playing the same person! Harry Potter and Don Draper, playing the same person, based — sort of — on Mikhail Bulgakov! The high-profile casting and source material, however, belie the series’ stakes (small) and its scope (smaller). Such cognitive dissonance may make A Young Doctor‘s Notebook a disappointment to some, but when taken on its own terms, the show is a brilliant, black-hearted character study that’s only improved in its second four-episode run, which premieres tonight on Ovation.
To review: a disgraced doctor (Jon Hamm) finds his old diary and recalls the exploits of his younger self (Daniel Radcliffe) while Soviet cops trash his office. Said cops figure out that Old Doctor, the closest the show comes to giving its protagonist a name, has been falsifying prescriptions for morphine to feed a full-blown addiction. Young Doctor, meanwhile, shows where, when, and how that addiction began: as a straight-outta-med-school neophyte’s way of coping with the transition from acing exams to telling illiterate peasants that a gargle won’t cure syphilis. By season’s end, Old Doctor is sweating out withdrawal in prison while Young Doctor is riding high, pun obviously intended.
All this plays out through exchanges between Doctor and Doctor that quickly form the heart of the show. A Young Doctor’s Notebook isn’t terribly concerned with the mechanics of its central conceit; technically, Old Doctor is the subject of his memories and Young Doctor the object, but more often than not Young Doctor flips the dynamic by ignoring Old Doctor, contradicting him, and on occasion, pressing him into dance practice, hence the Tumblr-ready screenshot above. The Old Doctor thus slips into a paternal/guardian angel/Ghost of Addiction Future role towards his younger self, struggling in vain to prevent outcomes he should know he can’t change.
Where last season saw Old and Young Doctor on opposite trajectories regarding morphine and its benefits/drawbacks, Season 2 unites them in shattering each other’s remaining self-delusions. The setting remains claustrophobic as ever; the Young Doctor never leaves his miserably under-equipped rural hospital, and while the Old Doctor is out of the clink, he spends 90 percent of his time in the present cooped up in a freight train. Supporting players, at least at the outset, remain few. The Young Doctor has his two midwives and comically incompetent dentist, while the Old Doctor’s interrogating officer has been swapped out for a good ol’ fashioned homeless guy.
The Young Doctor doesn’t need to venture into the outside world, though. With the Russian Revolution in full swing, the world’s happy to come to him. The happy(ish) life of an addict with an ample supply is interrupted by the arrival of a government inspector first and soldiers second. Such intrusions bring the Young Doctor’s haplessness into sharp relief; they also threaten to expose his addiction, his self-centeredness, and his flexible relationship to party loyalty. Suffice it to say that the hospital keeps a Bolshevik flag on hand to trot out or stow away as necessary.
While the Doctor certainly isn’t a hero in the vein of a certain boy wizard, he’s no glamorous antihero either. There’s no Draper-esque suavity to the way the Young Doctor drops loyal, homely midwife Pelageya like a rock in the hopes of picking up an aristocrat miles out of his league, horrifying his older self. There’s no dignity in the Old Doctor begging the Young to admit he’s an addict while they’re frantically digging morphine out of a bombed-out train. Jon Hamm may have a knack for playing white-collar professionals struggling with substance abuse, but A Young Doctor’s Notebook strips this particular addict of charisma, wealth, and most of his talent. Take that away and what’s left at the heart of this particular difficult man is a naked desire to get a fix and stay the hell out of harm’s way.
Bleak as this sounds, A Young Doctor’s Notebook is mostly a comedy, one carried by strong performances by actors still defining themselves in the wake of their breakout roles. Yes, Jon Hamm’s “British” “accent” will make viewers pine for Peter Dinklage’s infamously awkward rendition; no, Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm are not doppelgangers. A Young Doctor’s Notebook moves past most of these limitations, though, and even includes a clever visual nod to the latter one towards the end. Radcliffe and Hamm deftly share the burden of a man coming to terms with himself, guiding their mutual character towards an acknowledgement, and even acceptance, of his deepest failings.
There’s no word on whether A Young Doctor’s Notebook will have a third season, but it doesn’t really need one. The second has already moved past the Bulgakov story on which it’s based, for one thing. Source issues and movie-star shooting schedules aside, however, A Young Doctor’s Notebook and Other Stories (the season’s official title) ends on a perfectly bittersweet emotional note. The Young Doctor has hit rock bottom, and the knowledge that he’s about to endure 17 years of it at a cushy medical post in Moscow has a fitting irony to it. The Old Doctor’s homeless, jobless, and penniless, giving him a blank slate to make up for some long-ago sins. It’s not a face-off with Voldemort or even an ad presentation, but it’ll do.