"Grey's Anatomy" creator Shonda Rhimes can dazzle, and she can infuriate, and often the two extremes come from the same emotional place. Sometimes, her fondness for melodrama will give you the riveting Super Bowl bomb episode; other times, it gives you Katherine Heigl having sex with a ghost. When you go for broke, sometimes you get rich, and sometimes you just get broke.
The new medical drama "Off the Map" (Wednesday at 10 p.m. on ABC) is produced by Rhimes but was created by "Grey's" writer Jenna Bans. Not surprisingly, it feels like a very accurate imitation of what Rhimes does, but with many of the rough edges sanded away. In the two episodes I've seen, there aren't any particularly wince-inducing moments, but nor are the various grabs for the heartstrings as successful as they are when "Grey's" is at its best. No lows, but no highs, either.
The series focuses on a remote jungle hospital in an unnamed South American country, staffed largely by American doctors who are for various reasons running away from home.
At the show's press tour session yesterday, Rhimes was asked why it would be unfair to call this show "'Grey's Anatomy' in the jungle," and she replied, "Because it's not... It's Jenna's voice, Jenna's characters."
From the outside looking in, though, the parallels in both tone and character are pretty hard to ignore. Caroline Dhavernas is Lily, who's a slightly less brooding Meredith Grey. Mamie Gummer is hyper-competitive, emotionally-cold Mina - Cristina Yang if she were played by Meryl Streep's daughter. Zach Gilford is plastic surgeon Tommy, a mash-up of obnoxious season one Alex Karev and insecure George O'Malley. There's a (mc)dreamy head doctor, played by Martin Henderson, who gets into a love triangle with Lily and (shades of Addison) tough red-head Ryan (Rachelle Lefevre). Jason George, who played a doctor who dated Dr. Bailey on "Grey's," here plays a doctor in a relationship with the stern, easily-frustrated Zee (Valerie Cruz), who has as little patience for the young docs as Bailey does for hers.
And because the show films in Hawaii, it can be a fun party game to figure out which scenes were shot in the same locations as "Lost" episodes. I'm pretty sure Tommy treks over the hill where Ana-Lucia once fought Goodwin, and the Smoke Monster may well be lurking in the background of a carnival scene.
(There's also a scene where Henderson's Dr. Ben Keeton has to jump off a cliff to rescue a drowning man, and if it's not the exact same cliff where Jason Ritter did that in the pilot for "The Event," it's a good replica.)
Beyond the character parallels, "Off the Map" works the way "Grey's" does. Lily and Mina Ogle a shirtless Ben and only briefly pause to wonder if they're being inappropriate. The young docs are competitive about procedures (albeit MacGyver jungle medicine where you use coconut milk when you run out of plasma), and the patients always offer a convenient parallel for whatever problem their doctor is suffering. One of them has recently lost a loved one, and in two of the first three episodes conveniently winds up treating brand-new widowers and widows.
It is, in other words, pretty much what you'd expect when you hear Rhimes is producing a show about doctors in a tropical setting, only without her usual extremes.
The cast features a bunch of actors I've really liked elsewhere, but who don't have a ton of interesting things to do in the early going.
Last season on "Friday Night Lights," Gilford gave one of the best performances I've ever seen in an episode of dramatic TV, and while it's nice to see him playing a different character than Matt Saracen, casting him as a cliched callow goof striving to be better so far seems a waste of him. Similarly, I didn't like "Wonderfalls," Dhavernas' short-lived FOX series, but I did quite enjoy her snarky lead performance, and her character here is a bit bland - again, not as annoying as the actual Meredith Grey, but not as memorable, either.
Maybe in time Bans will push the characters further away from their obvious "Grey's" templates, and/or she'll figure out how to imitate Rhimes' emotionally extreme approach as well as she's mimic'ed her characters and style of dialogue. Right now, though, "Off the Map" is a pleasant, unremarkable, overly-familiar show with a pretty setting.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com