'Gifted Man' is hauntingly good drama
Patrick Wilson plays a shallow neurosurgeon whose life changes when his deceased ex-wife, played by Jennifer Ehle, starts to visit in "A Gifted Man."
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On paper, CBS's "A Gifted Man" does not inspire much confidence that it could be a quality TV series: Arrogant New York neurosurgeon Michael Holt (Carnegie Mellon University graduate Patrick Wilson) begins to see his moist-eyed, perpetually smiling, overly maternal, deceased ex-wife, Anna (Jennifer Ehle, "The King's Speech"), who appears to him out of nowhere, usually preceded by a bouncing red ball.
Is she a ghost? Is she the "Doctor Whisperer"? Or does he have an undetectable aneurysm somewhere in his brain?
In the wrong hands, this premise could turn laughable and mawkish. But series writer/creator Susannah Grant and director Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs") manage to ground the show in a way that makes it both believable and heartfelt. "A Gifted Man" is the most romantic, emotionally resonant fall TV series pilot.
Michael's ordered life stands in stark contrast to the chaos of the free clinic where Anna worked prior to her death, and now she's asking him to help her with unfinished business there. That doesn't sit well with Michael's assistant, Rita (Margo Martindale, "Justified"), who is accustomed to Michael's discipline, except maybe when he underappreciates her.
Then there's Michael's more ethereal sister, Christina (Murrysville native Julie Benz in a recurring role), a single mom raising a rebellious teenage son (Liam Aiken). Christina is thrilled at the prospect of her brother talking to his dead ex-wife and hastily arranges for him to meet with her friend, Anton (Pablo Schreiber), a mystic.
Mr. Wilson walks that fine line of playing Michael as a jerk but a jerk with redeemable qualities. On first glance, Ms. Ehle's Anna seems an unlikely match for Michael -- maybe it's her maternal nature? -- but as the show moves through its briskly-paced pilot episode, it's hard to imagine an actress more suited to the role. Her warm humanity nicely balances against Mr. Wilson's cold aloofness.
"A Gifted Man" benefits from strong performances all around, but for my money one of the outstanding players in the pilot is actress Marin Ireland, who plays an MRI tech who consistently catches Michael talking to Anna, but only sees him speaking to an empty room. Her facial reactions add needed humor to the pilot episode. (Ms. Ireland is listed only as a guest star but I hope producers are wise enough to ask her back.)
It's unclear how "A Gifted Man" will unfold moving forward. CBS provided only the pilot episode for review and producers are recalibrating the show somewhat to place a greater emphasis on the free clinic and less emphasis on Michael's family life. Regardless, after CBS's repeated attempts to launch a medical show -- "Three Rivers," "Miami Medical" -- there's no question that "A Gifted Man" is the network's best, most creatively successful effort in the past five years.
First Published September 22, 2011 12:00 am