By Ken Tucker
January 05, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST
Mario Perez/ABC
  • TV Show

Now that producer Shonda Rhimes has shepherded three series onto the current TV schedule — Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and the new Off the Map — we can pinpoint the signature, common traits in her work. She likes big casts consisting equally of men and women; everyone must be pretty; they must be caregivers who labor and love with great strenuousness, frequently with one another; and they must be able to deliver a florid line such as ”This is where medicine was born!” without bursting into giggles.

Off the Map is Grey’s Anatomy with flies; it’s Private Practice with no sunblock. Set, we are vaguely informed, ”somewhere in South America” (the series is actually shot primarily in Hawaii), Map divides its doctors into two groups: the dashing ”old” pros (Martin Henderson, Valerie Cruz, Jason George) and the eager young pups (Zach Gilford, Mamie Gummer, Caroline Dhavernas, Rachelle Lefevre). Because Gilford used to star on Friday Night Lights and Gummer has done fine work on The Good Wife and is Meryl Streep’s daughter, my hopes were high that Off the Map would be a superior nighttime soap opera.

But the premiere episode is marred by a dreary earnestness and a smothering flood of character backstories. (Example: Gilford’s Tommy used to be a med-school party boy, and so his South American stint is a form of penance. Boo-hoo.) The show really needs to be about, as one character says, ”baby docs padding their résumés” by frolicking in a warm climate — now, that might be fun. The second episode, however, proves more promising. It includes Gilford taking off his shirt to help a dying man and, in the midst of the emergency, being called on his exhibitionism by the female doc he’s trying to impress. More of that clever self-criticism, please, Off the Map.

The show’s creator, Jenna Bans, worked previously on Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives, so she knows how to juggle characters and that mixture of romantic and workplace subplots that inspire millions of viewer fantasies. Bans has woven in what will doubtless be an Off the Map trademark: regular tips the baby docs receive about local medicine methods (using tree sap to heal wounds; insects that stop gangrene). Plus, Gummer’s particular tragic backstory is healed verbally by another doctor who actually says, ”That kid you misdiagnosed back in the States — we’ve all got one.”

Melodrama, rippling musculature, straight-from-a-Valentine’s-Day-card dialogue: There’s no reason Off the Map can’t become a hit. It just has to avoid sincerity like the plague. Or gangrene. C+

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