A reader of this blog has asked me what I think is the reason so many viewers have found Doc Martin a show that captivates them. I’ve certainly asked myself that question a number of times. I’ve never started a blog about anything before even though I’ve admired other TV shows, and I’ve never watched episodes of a show many times over as much as I have with this show. My background is analyzing and interpreting novels; my professional life has been teaching how to closely read what we have called “Great Books” so that they can be fully appreciated. For me, this show has been like analyzing a well written novel with the added quality of excellent acting.
What makes a novel “great”? As a professor of literature, I’ve been asked that question many times. Certainly the use of language and all of its subtleties has a lot to do with it. Often it’s how the novel represents its time, and we have had many literary movements over the last 4 centuries. Another important element is the themes it explores: do we learn something about human nature, relationships, love, family interactions, existential dilemmas? Has the writer created a plot and characters that urge us to think deeply about the characters and their circumstances? There are many identifiable attributes that make a novel great along with some ineffable ones.
Since I began thinking more specifically about why DM has inspired me to be so intrigued, I read an article in the New Yorker Magazine written by Emily Nussbaum, their television critic. In that article from earlier this month Nussbaum discusses what made “All in the Family” so popular in the 70s. I have decided, as a result, that I should approach the question of “Doc Martin” and its appeal from both an objective and a subjective position. (I should mention that Nussbaum refers to a new book by Saul Austerlitz titled “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘Community.’ ” I know DM isn’t a sitcom; however, there is plenty of humor and I can see a lot of similarities between what Nussbaum and Austerlitz write and DM.)
The objective view I would like to propose follows Nussbaum’s thoughts on “All in the Family” to a great extent. It seems quite apropos because, as Nussbaum recounts, “All in the Family” began as a British show called “Till Death Do Us Part” that was also a ratings hit. The objective view will be along the lines of what I would say about a novel. Indeed, I think that one reason I have become so fascinated by this show is because it can be analyzed like a novel. One DM fan recently posted a podcast with Nigel Cole, one of the directors of DM and the director of “Saving Grace,” the film progenitor of DM. He had a lot of interesting things to say about his experiences as a director and how he works with scriptwriters. For me, one of the most insightful comments he makes is that TV is like a novel in that it allows characters to drift and to have them fluctuate between being appealing and being disturbing or unlikeable. He used “Breaking Bad” and Walter White as the best example. Sometimes he’s attractive and caring, and sometimes he’s disturbing and exasperating; Cole likes that flexibility. I like that too and see the same sort of “drifting” in Martin Ellingham.
The subjective view will be my personal thoughts on why I have responded to the show with such long-term interest, with the hope that my reasons will resonate with those of you who read them.
Now on to the Nussbaum article and how I see it relating to DM:
Among the comments Nussbaum makes about “All in the Family” is that the selection of Carroll O’Connor as the actor was essential. According to Nussbaum, “O’Connor’s noisy, tender, and sometimes frightening performance made the character unforgettable.” When they decided to expand the Martin Clunes’ character of Dr. Martin Bamford from “Saving Grace” and position him as a doctor who comes to the village of Portwenn, they fortuitously worked with an actor who applied these same attributes. Whether intentional or not, Martin Clunes has taken a page out of O’Connor’s notebook with his portrayal of Martin Ellingham. Nussbaum states “Archie was the first masculine powerhouse to simultaneously charm and alienate viewers.” She also notes “it’s Archie’s volcanic charisma that lingers.” ME has the same mixture of charm and charisma along with a tendency to be insufferable.
While Archie Bunker gave bigotry a human face at a time when America was dealing with civil rights issues, Martin Ellingham gives socially compromised (Asperger’s like) adults a personal representative. (We can argue over what ME is afflicted with, but Dominic Minghella and Philippa Braithwaite have acknowledged he’s not “normal.”) Autism and Asperger’s have become very prominent disorders lately, and using that sort of handicap works well with the audience of the past decade. Martin Ellingham also represents the doctors of the world who try to make sense of the way people/patients handle their health and medical care in today’s environment of the internet and diminished respect for physicians.
According to Nussbaum, Archie should also be described as an anti-hero, and, as Nussbaum notes,”as anyone who has ever read the comments on a recap can tell you, there has always been a less ambivalent way of regarding an antihero: as a hero.” Martin Clunes has said British audiences like their heroes “anti.” Nussbaum believes that many viewers embrace anti-heroes, and we can easily point to “The Sopranos” Tony Soprano, “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White, even “True Detective’s” Rust Cohle; I could go on. Martin Ellingham’s abrasiveness makes him an anti-hero, while he retains many endearing qualities much like Archie (Tony, Walter, and Rust). Literature is filled with anti-heroes with this same combination of nastiness and attractiveness.
A recent interview with Bryan Cranston, who played the role of Walter White in “Breaking Bad,” elicited this comment: There’s a reason antiheroes are so popular all of a sudden. “In days gone by, there were those bad guys of poorly written material who were just bad. No reason, no rhyme — they were just bad,” Cranston said. “It’s easy for the audience to cast them aside and just go, ‘I’m not even afraid of him because he’s just bad.’ You know where he’s coming from, you know what he wants. But a more interesting, complex character is someone who I’m not sure if he’s good or bad. I’m uncertain. And that’s what strikes the heart of Nucky [on ‘Boardwalk Empire’] and Tony Soprano and my character.” ME fits that description as well.
In addition, Nussbaum addresses the way words are used in “All in the Family.” Surprisingly, one of the most influential literary theorists of the 20th century, Paul de Man, quoted Archie and Edith’s dialogue to dramatize a point about the slipperiness of meaning in words: “the idea that the intent of words was endlessly interpretable.” In the case of Archie and Edith, Edith takes Archie’s comment “What’s the difference?” literally and explains the difference to him, while Archie really means he doesn’t care. In DM, ME takes comments literally all the time, e.g. when L asks M how she looks and he answers flushed and takes her pulse. She’s hoping for a compliment, not a medical opinion. By writing the dialogue in this manner, we recognize the ambiguity of language and how hard it is for L, or anyone for that matter, to get through to M. Words often fail to convey to him what someone is trying to tell him. Furthermore, he struggles to find the right words with which to express himself. In both of these examples, we viewers enjoy the flubbed communication and mostly humorous consequences.
Nussbaum concludes her article by stating that good TV shows involve “storytelling that alters the audience by demanding that viewers do more than just watch.” She wants originality and would “rather watch a show that unsettled me than something that was merely ‘good.'” We can all attest to the fact that DM leads us to do more than just watch and can be unsettling at times. That is cause for celebration and more evidence of its excellence.
Now that I’ve probably gone overboard with my objective analysis, I’ll move on to my subjective reasons.
Perhaps the most important reason I felt compelled to start a blog about DM is that watching the show brought up so many philosophical topics about the human experience. It made me want to interrogate what it means to be a mother, how to define family, what names signify. It dramatized many women’s issues and the prevalence of psychological conditions of all kinds. It inspired me to think about whether people can change and what brings us happiness in life. In short, the show has given me another opportunity to put my brain to work in the same way that a good novel has always done for me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read Melville’s Moby Dick or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Mann’s Death in Venice. Re-watching “Doc Martin” is no different. Every time I reread these works of literature or re-watch an episode, I see something I missed, something new that excites me if only because I never noticed it before.
Moreover, I love the combination of these serious topics with the humorous delivery. I would argue that all of the shows I’ve mentioned above contain that same sort of gravity accompanied by scenes that make me laugh (as do the novels I’ve mentioned). It doesn’t get any better than that. If we can be provoked at the same time as being entertained, it’s the best of both worlds to me. I revel in ME’s pratfalls, awkward comments, dialogue with his receptionists, inability to admit fault, conversations with Stewart, etc., etc. I have published several posts on the humor in the show, so I doubt anyone reading this will be surprised that I consider humor very valuable to the show. Of course it helps that Martin Clunes is well known as a comedian and wants the show to have a comedic underpinning. Caroline Catz may not have spent as much time doing comedy as MC, but her timing and expressions convince me that she is just as capable in that field of acting as she is in drama.
Which brings us to the quality of the acting and the characters themselves. The main characters have been developed as multidimensional, and that in itself is fascinating. We can’t pigeonhole them. Not only do Caroline Catz and Martin Clunes have a good chemistry between them that comes across during their scenes together, but also they are both accomplished at portraying an equipoise between vulnerability and strength; uncertainty and forcefulness. For me, that quality is truly captivating and draws me to their characters. ME is an underdog due to his social and psychological issues, and we generally root for the underdog.
The other attribute of these actors that I think helps is that they are physically attractive and appealing, but accessible and have unique features. We can relate to them as being part of the real world because they appear natural, unaltered, and approachable. They reflect that no one is perfect. I know that there are many women and men who have developed an infatuation with MC and CC and will probably object to my position that they have flaws. I’m willing to take my lumps for this comment.
Beyond the two primary characters, we have so many other regulars who are intrinsic to the show – Mrs. Tishell, Aunt Joan, Bert, Al, Pauline, Morwenna, Mark, Joe, Aunt Ruth – and who add depth and levity. They are types to be sure; however, they aren’t stereotypes. Through the great development of each of these characters, something that makes them come alive and seem real, we have a unified team that carries us through the series. Then other “visiting” cast members can enter and exit without changing the overall atmosphere. Substitutions of main cast members have occurred with amazingly little disruption: Aunt Ruth has replaced Aunt Joan, Morwenna has replaced Pauline, and Joe has replaced Mark. Each time I have been stunned at the seamlessness with which I accept the newcomers. The new characters bring something fresh to the show such that I can move on without too much regret. (I do miss Roger Fenn and think it would be nice to have another man in the village who could have some sort of relationship with Martin.)
Ultimately, the reason I like the show so much is because of the writing. As Nigel Cole said in his interview, and as I’ve quoted Robert McKee as having said, the script is everything. Cole asserts that once a script has been work-shopped and the director and writers have worked together to get the script right, there’s no way to make the filming better than the script. He’s seen directors make things worse, but never better. According to him, the director’s job is to bring the script to fruition. I re-watch many episodes because I want to hear the dialogue again. I want to hear the fish monger’s speech to ME, Mrs. T’s diatribe on L and M’s relationship, M’s discussions with Louisa, or Pauline, or Margaret, or Ruth and others. It’s a joy to hear how the words have been maximized for the best impact. I know how hard it is to write that well and truly admire this achievement.
I can’t deny that I also enjoy the romance between ME and L as well as the scenes with JH. Without the attraction between Martin and Louisa, the show would be missing an essential attribute. There generally has to be a love interest in every successful show (or novel), someone with whom there is friction as well as enticement. The match between ME and L has worked very well for the series. L has been allowed to stand up to M on many occasions while M continues to baffle her throughout. Still, we see their desire to keep trying to be a couple, never entirely happy either apart or together. I like that tension, although I’m ready for a little less of it now. In addition, the tenderness with which both ME and L treat JH is endearing. I’m glad ME is given the freedom to be caring and loving towards his son. I’d like to see more fathers interact with their children in such an intimate fashion in real life, and it makes me a little sad that until recently most men never took that sort of interest in their babies.
The fact that the show depicts many medical conditions and uses them as a means of demonstrating what kind of person ME is also appeals to me. I have been surrounded by the medical profession for many years and get a kick out of the interplay between doctor and patient.
The setting is not as important to me as the other elements. That part of England is beautiful, but it’s not what captures my imagination. I could see any small village working as the backdrop for the series. The location works well because of its remoteness and the surrounding area has the convenience of somewhat larger towns with facilities the citizens of Portwenn can use. It’s just not the compelling force that drives me to watch the show.
I’m sure I’ve left out some features that I may kick myself for forgetting. I look forward to reading your feedback.
Originally posted 2014-04-26 18:43:26.