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Complications react: Too complicated for its own good

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Daniel McFadden/USA Network

Being a doctor is a tough enough job—and there’s been plenty of options on TV to showcase the difficulties of it. But being a doctor who has to break laws in order to save a patient under the threat of losing his and his family’s life?

Well, that’s a whole new level of stress, and it’s the plight Jason O’Mara’s John Ellison faces in USA Network’s new dark drama Complications. And I mean dark, not just in its lighting for much of the episode but also in its tone, which continues the network’s trend away from blue sky comedies and dramas like Psych, Burn Notice, and Royal Pains.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the premiere’s dour tone that brings it down. The plot machinations are needlessly, well, complicated, and the premiere is too mired in cliche, with a healthy dose of identity confusion that it never makes any specific impact, despite the bright spot of O’Mara’s performance.

At the center of it all is Ellison, who just can’t seem to catch a break. The premiere opens in media res, with John being woken up in the middle of the night at the sounds of a possible home break-in. He’s got a gun and is ready to protect his family, but before he can, the episode flashes back to just what exactly led to anyone wanting to break into John’s house.

John is undergoing therapy for a traumatic event at the hospital in which he went into a berserk rage and began pummeling guests in the hospital waiting room. The thing is, his rage was all a ploy to distract the hospital staff while he had a nurse help him sneak a young patient to another hospital.

John previously saved that young boy, who was shot by an unknown assailant, by getting him medical care while shooting down the men trying to kill the boy. He later discovers that the boy is the son of a currently jailed gang leader, who wants John to risk everything to save his son or suffer the consequences. (John is also trying to cover up the fact that the man chasing after the boy who was gunned down was shot and killed by John.)

All of this unfolds (as we’re already in a flashback), by jumping back and forth in time, with the frame device of a psych evaluation being used as a launching pad to explore the key moments that led to John’s outburst. John grapples with taking care of the boy, involving Gretchen (Jessica Szohr) with his illegal schemes to protect the boy, while also dealing with his own family drama.

John and his wife Samantha (Beth Riesgraf) lost their daughter, and ever since their marriage, and their duties to their son, have been strained. Sadly, that strain comes in the form of predictably played out, trope-ridden dialogue that does little to build up their relationship. Consider this exchange:

Sam: “You can do that at the hospital, but you don’t get to do that with me, okay. I am your wife; I need to know.”

John: “I don’t, what do you want from me?”

Sam: “I want the truth! I want you to talk to me. Something happened the other day in that street, something changed in you and I need to know what it is.”

Now, aside from the dialogue sounding like it’s lifted from a marriage counselor’s example of a feuding couple, this is also one of only a handful of scenes John and Sam share. They’ve lost a daughter, and their lives must be a daily struggle that is only complicated by John’s newfound gang ties. But the show never goes below a surface-level exploration of this relationship. It’s stilted and, when mixed in with John’s work life, which takes such precedence over his domestic issues, it feels like an afterthought, and not a core relationship.

And it’s a shame, because O’Mara does what he can even when the material from writer/director Matt Nix (who has created memorable leads in Burn Notice and even The Good Guys) falters. The relentlessly serious nature of the premiere weighs on the proceedings, with O’Mara left to inject any sort of life and light into John’s plight. Even if I find John’s behavior bizarre, as O’Mara explains his rationale to the therapist evaluating him, I began to actually sympathize and even agree with him.

Nix directs the episode with a sense of claustrophobia, that focuses the entire world of Complications almost exclusively around John. Whether intentional or not, the premiere feels locked close in on O’Mara wherever he goes, rarely letting him offscreen or a presence in the frame. It adds to the fraught sense of instability being introduced to John’s world, but it does little to break away from the episode’s gloomy tone.

While keeping the focus around John ensures O’Mara’s charismatic presence is always a few moments away, the episode’s structure makes it frequently difficult to latch onto whatever version of John is on screen. The frequent shifts and muddled execution left me confused as to which parts of the world I was supposed to care about.

Is Complications a medical drama with violent underpinnings after the pilot? Or does it transform into a show of John mostly focusing on helping the gang he’s become associated with by using his medical expertise entirely outside of his hospital? I’m not exactly sure by the end of the premiere, and I’m not exactly sure the premiere did enough to ensure I tune in to find out that answer. 

Complications airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on USA Network.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Matt Nix created The Other Guys when he in fac tcreated The Good Guys.

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