“Being Dr. Tom”
September 22nd, 2009
Sometimes, as a television critic based in Canada but reviewing primarily American television, it’s easy to let “home grown” shows slip by. However, last year I made a vow that I was going to try to look at more Canadian television (likely since I’m writing a thesis about the subject), and as such I committed myself to Being Erica largely sight unseen. What I discovered was a show that took a premise bordering on gimmick and turned it into something emotional and effective, delivering a first season which emphasized the comic and the dramatic in the confrontation of one’s past. Central to the show was the sense that Erica Strange’s journeys into her own past facilitated by the mysterious and philosophical Dr. Tom were fundamental to he putting her present day life together, a quality which made the somewhat procedural storyline (each episode featuring a different event from her past) feel serialized in how it constructed Erica as a character. When the show ended its first season with the starkly emotional return to her brother’s tragic death, and even before that with Erica’s attempts to break off her sister’s marriage, you learn that there are some things she isn’t able to change. This isn’t an issue of cause and effect, but rather an intersection of fate and desire in which the latter doesn’t always win out.
Going into a second season, which seems as if it has arrived awfully fast for some reason, the show has one problem: for the most part, we have seen Erica’s most fundamental regrets. We saw her confront her relationship with her parents, and her brother’s passing, and her life is pretty great: she has a boyfriend she loves, a job with serious upward momentum, and is closer to her family than ever before. With Erica no longer quite the damaged patient she was, with her life largely together, where is the drive for her to remain in therapy?
It’s a question that the second season premiere answers in spades, something I don’t think I was really expecting. While the easy route is to throw Erica’s life back into turmoil and unearth a whole other set of regrets in her past, the show does something completely different. Picking up where last season left off, with Dr. Tom gone (due to their confrontation after she saves Leo’s life) and a new therapist in a sterile white office waiting for Erica, the show plays around with the definitions of student and teacher, and patient and therapist, while expanding on (in a number of different ways) just what this cosmic therapy is exactly. The result is a highly compelling premiere that reveals a whole new side to Dr. Tom, and a whole new path for this sophomore series.
The central premise of the episode was a clever one, if only because the show was finally able to let Michael Riley loose in terms of showing us the darker side of Dr. Tom that we got to see back in the finale. In that moment, our minds were on Erica’s transgression (saving Leo and creating an alternate future, and thus angering Dr. Tom’s bosses) rather than the severity of Dr. Tom’s reaction, but seeing the other side of that altercation really does help us understand just what was happening. While his anger (and his physicality) may have seemed like an overreaction for the sake of selling the audience on how serious Erica’s mistake was, in reality (although through a quasi-deus ex machina) his reaction was less a reflection of broken rules than of a broken heart. Dr. Naadiah sending Erica back into Tom’s memory, discovering him as a disgraced businessman drunk and picking fights with frat boys at a Coyote Ugly bar, reveals that Dr. Tom’s problem was not what Erica did but that he never got the chance to do it himself.
The episode remains vague on just what happened to Tom after that point, but what we learn is that at least in his own memory he jumped off of that building to his death no matter what the papers say. How he transformed himself from a drunk anger management case into a therapist in his own right isn’t entirely clear, but all Erica needs to know is that Dr. Tom is as human as she is. She no longer needs a therapist in the sense that her life is in shambles, but rather needs a friend who can help make sense of the past and the present alike. Her position has changed, and as a result their relationship changes with it, and by revealing a more complicated nature of Tom’s back story the show achieves this quite well. Riley was fantastic throughout the episode, giving more weight to Dr. Tom’s frustration and resignment while letting it all loose when it came to Tom Wexler, businessman. We still don’t know the whole story (while Erica indicates that Tom might have been a patient, then why wasn’t he able to go back and revisit his daughter’s estrangement?), but we have enough of a sense to really open up their relationship.
That, in itself, would probably be enough to be able to sustain a second season of pleasant comic adventures with Dr. Tom, albeit now with two lines of therapy, both Erica and Tom as patient and teacher to some degree (Erica’s moment on the rooftop, realizing that she was his opportunity, cementing her growth a bit suddenly but not without meaning). However, the show goes one step further by having Erica not coincidentally find herself meeting someone else (a young barista named Andrew) who shares her penchant for cosmic therapy sessions. The whole coffee house scene seems like just a small little moment, but the man who knocked coffee out of Erica’s hand turns out to be another therapist, one whose office is an open field and an almost Alice in Wonderland-type aesthetic. Rather than living in Erica’s world, we are officially entering into the world of Cosmic Therapists, which means that the linearity of the series has been thrown out the window.
And I didn’t expect that from this show, so I’m quite impressed. Yes, the show has yet to prove that it can balance Erica’s own past, the present and past of another patient, competing therapists as well as Erica’s own present (editing a sex book and enjoying a fairly normal relationship with Ethan), so it may be too early to judge how it all goes down. But the show has shown a willingness to change which indicates a level of confidence in its cast and creatives which one normally doesn’t get from Canadian television. Erin Karpluk is predictably great throughout the episode, and it’s clear that they think the show can change around her: rather than forcing her to play Erica in one particular way (such as the awkwardness of the Coyote Ugly bar scenes), they’ve let her stretch her emotional range, and there may even be a point where she takes over as the Doctor (still awkwardly, of course) and the show introduces a new patient and evolves even further.
For now, they’re still moving slowly: we haven’t really met Andrew, or this new therapist, and there’s still room for this to all be screwed up. But, the show has suddenly gone from a surprisingly sweet and complex dramedy to a sort of supernatural psychiatric network dramedy, a switch which has its downsides but which also turns the show on its head. Whether it will be able to capture the same emotional appeal as Erica’s final moments with Leo, or even the details of Dr. Tom’s own past, remains to be seen; however, on paper, this season has become a whole lot more unpredictable, something that makes me far more interesting to see how it unfolds.
- If you’re an American, who watched the show on SoapNET, you’re probably wondering “When is Being Erica starting in America?” Well, the answer is January – SoapNET’s schedule works differently, and CBC has it as a main fall program. As a result, it’ll be a while yet, but be patient: it seems like it’s worth it.
- Interesting to see Julianne show up in Dr. Tom’s memory at the bar – was this actually factual (meaning that to some degree Erica was living Julianne’s past as well), or was it simply a throw away moment? I remain unsure, but it’s certainly something the show can play with.
- As Erica is repeating some of Dr. Tom’s first advice to her from the pilot (clever, that), she evokes the image of a guardian angel, and Tom later questions that definition although not too much. The episode then ends with a cover of Train’s “Calling All Angels” (which, not my taste, but I totally recognized it), so it’ll be interesting to see if they run with the Guardian Angel image in the weeks ahead.
- If they do, however, I think the show is definitely moving slightly too closely into Twice in a Lifetime/Drop Dead Diva territory – I like it better when there is actually some sense of medical terminology/process built into the series, as opposed to more evangelical connotations.
- My mother was convinced that the actor playing Andrew was someone she recognized, and sure enough she had it right: it was Sebastian Pigott, who was a contestant on Canadian Idol before starting an acting career.
- The book editing side of things brings back Jeff Seymour (The Eleventh Hour) for a guest role that seems as if it will recur, as he’s around the publishing house.