‘Complications’ Is More Than Just Another USA Procedural — But It’s Not as Smart as It Thinks, Either

I love watching USA original series, even if I fully understand that some of them aren’t what you would call “good.” USA procedurals work because they are silly and repetitive enough for pleasant, background, doing-chores-around-the-house watching: current shows like Royal Pains or past shows like Psych, and Burn Notice are prime examples. There have been some departures from the formula — Suits is losing steam, but it often works best as a combination law procedural and serialized narrative; Satisfaction‘s first season seemed like it was aiming to be a character-driven series in the prestige-drama style — but USA has yet to stick the landing. Matt Nix’s (Burn Notice) upcoming medical drama Complications  is the latest example of an ambitious USA show that is admirably trying to do something different but that still doesn’t quite work.

At least Complications isn’t a tightly focused portrayal of a doctor, as I’d originally assumed it would be. Instead, it’s kind of an unbelievable mess. John Ellison (Jason O’Mara) is one of those Doctors With Issues characters that are all over television, with problems including the death of his young daughter and a wife who, unbeknownst to him, is doing a bit of flirting behind his back. But the biggest issue surfaces quickly in the pilot, when John (freshly grieving over the loss of his child) stumbles into a drive-by, saves an 11-year-old boy, and shoots the suspect, essentially getting sucked into an ongoing gang war — and also, somehow, becoming totally responsible for the kid.

The pilot, an exhausting, two-hour double-header, relishes in questions of morality, responsibility, and the lengths a person must go to, to save a) his family and b) strangers. It’s about saving lives outside of the hospital, which, of course, brings up questions about John playing God. Complications desperately wants to be smart and dark and a riveting conversation starter — at times, it seems intent on being a palatable, USA-friendly version of Breaking Bad — but the script just isn’t up to par, and there’s too much that goes unexplained.

COMPLICATIONS -- "Infection" Episode 101 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jessica Szohr as Gretchen Polk, Justin Miles as Seth -- (Photo by: Guy D'Alema/USA Network)
Jessica Szohr as Gretchen Polk, Justin Miles as Seth — (Photo by: Guy D’Alema/USA Network)

It’s bizarre how much is underwritten and unclear, considering that the pilot takes on such a familiar, hackneyed format: John talks to a therapist (Constance Zimmer, who is thankfully doing better work on UnREAL) about his “breakdown” at a hospital, detailing everything as the show jumps back a week in time to let us know how he got here. Yet even as John details his motivations for taking certain actions, it remains hard to believe these motivations. Telling viewers to believe something far-fetched is easy, but getting us to commit takes more skill than is on display here.

So far, John’s wife Samantha (Beth Jean Riesgraf) has no personality to speak of, except that she’s still into a guy from her past and sometimes actually utter statements like, “This is not the time for you to be around gang members!” Also thrown into the mix is Gretchen (Gossip Girl‘s Jessica Szohr), a well-intentioned but brassy nurse with poor impulse control and her own wealth of problems. We know that she’s a cool rule-breaker because she smokes cigarettes, has a tattoo of thorns, and is also a chill lesbian — this is such a bland role, it makes her Gossip Girl character look edgy. Gretchen gets a stock plot about bending the rules in aiding an unhelpful patient who shows up clearly abused by her boyfriend. Her insistence on helping the woman (she makes it very, very clear that she does not like abusers — it’s almost as if there’s some history there!) is what results in Gretchen tumbling into John’s gang violence-heavy story, despite the two constantly clashing.

The story picks up and becomes a little more engaging during the two episodes that follow the two-hour pilot (if you try very hard to ignore the fact that our hero doctor is white and every vicious and violent gang member he ever encounters is black), as the action becomes more urgent and intense, offering the possibility that Complications could become an average thriller instead of a poor character drama. There’s some semblance of something good happening there, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly whatComplications is watchable, though not yet enjoyable. I’m eager to see whether it will seize its potential to become a better show.