Doogie Howser MD: The Smartest Kid on TV

We are in the midst of our Teen Scene blog series this month. Today we learn about a true teen genius, Doogie Howser, MD.

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Photo: sitcomanddramas.weebly.com

This half-hour sitcom was created for the fall of 1989 by Steven Bochco who created Hill Street Blues and LA Law and would go on to develop NYPD Blue. He asked David E. Kelley for help writing the pilot. Kelley, who also wrote for Hill Street Blues, would go on to write for Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public, and Boston Legal. Bochco and Co felt Neil Patrick Harris was the perfect kid to play a teenage doctor. ABC did not like the casting and was not fond of the show in general or the pilot. However, Bochco’s contract required that if the network canceled his project, they had to pay a penalty. They ended up putting the show on the air because test screenings ranked so well. The show ended up being on the air for four seasons, creating 97 episodes. It was one of the first sitcoms not to have a live audience or a laugh track.

While Doogie had to deal with professional medical problems at work, in his personal career, he was still a teenager dealing with the same issues all teenagers do. His best friend Vinnie (Max Casella) had been in his life since kindergarten. Vinnie wanted to pursue film school, but his dad wanted him to join the family business. Doogie’s family business was medicine; his dad, Dr. David Howser (James B. Sikking) had a family practice, and his mother Katherine (Belinda Montgomery) became a patient advocate at the hospital.

Sikking, Harris, and Montgomery Photo: showbizjunkies.com

Doogie and Vinnie dated best friends. Wanda (Lisa Dean Ryan) was Doogie’s girlfriend but before the end of the show, she left to attend the Art Institute of Chicago and they broke up. Vinnie’s girlfriend Janine (Lucy Boyer) drops out of college to become a department store buyer.

Doogie’s professional colleagues include Dr. Benjamin Canfield (Lawrence Pressman), head of the hospital and friend of Doogie’s father; Dr. Jack McGuire (Mitchell Anderson), a resident who eventually moves overseas to help third-world countries; Mary Margaret Spaulding (Kathryn Layng) a nurse who ironically dates McGuire, Canfield, and Doogie; and Raymond (Markus Redmond), an orderly who Doogie got hired after he left gang life. In seasons 2-4, Barry Livingston (Ernie from My Three Sons), plays Dr. Bob Rickett, a fellow doctor at the hospital.

Doogie Howser, M.D. (ABC-TV, 1989-93) Shown (l. to r.): James B. Sikking (as Dr. David Howser), Belinda Montgomery (as Katherine Howser), Markus Redmond (as Raymond), Neil Patrick Harris (as Doogie Howser), Lawrence Pressman (as Dr. Canfield), Kathryn Layng (as Nurse Curly Spaulding), Max Casella (as Vinnie)

Doogie’s (Douglas) story is that he was a two-time survivor of early-stage pediatric leukemia which gave him a desire to become a doctor. He was labeled a genius in school and had an eidetic memory and earned a perfect SAT score at the age of six, graduating from high school in only nine weeks at which time he entered Princeton at age 10. By 14, he had finished medical school and was beginning his career. A couple of sources I read said Bochco based the character of Doogie somewhat on his own father who was a violin prodigy.

Harris, Cassella Photo: flickr.com

We meet him at 16 when he is a second-year resident surgeon at Eastman Medical Center in LA. He lives at home with his parents, and he keeps a digital diary which he typically ends the show with, writing as he makes observations about what he has learned during the episode.

The show dealt with some heavier topics including AIDS awareness, racism, homophobia, and gang violence, but most of the shows also involve Doogie’s personal life and his social issues being a teen in an adult world. By the time the show ends, Doogie has moved into his own apartment. Howser then resigns from the hospital to take a trip to Europe. If the show had come back for a fifth season, the creators planned to have Doogie explore a writing career.

While audiences responded enthusiastically to the show, critics were not on board. Marvin Kitman of Newsday rated the first season 40/100 and said sarcastically, “What a wasted childhood my kids have had, I got to thinking while watching this otherwise normal Doogie Howser. It makes you look at your kids differently. What lazy bums they must be still in high school at 16.” Christopher Smith of the Bangor Daily News gave it a C and said, “No classic, this series.”

Harris, Dean Ryan Photo: sitcomsonline.com

However, fans continued to tune in, and a review by c l lance on imdb.com, in 2005, said “Doogie Houser [Howser], MD. Just the name brings a smile of remembrance to me. In the tradition of such television classics as L.A. LAW, NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues, Doogie Houser, MD was wonderfully funny with a touch of life. As a 30-something adult when I first watched Doogie in late-night reruns, I was hooked by its humor and wit while watching this “kid” with an adult mind, yet the hormones and maturity of a teenager, grow into independence. Memorable episodes include his first day, the late-night skinny dip (as mentioned by another viewer), the practical joke he played on other hospital staff only to have it ruthlessly reciprocated, and the apartment with his best friend Vinny. There is some risqué humor but it is nothing when compared to today’s standards. I always enjoyed seeing the relationship he had with his dad and mom. I had the entire series recorded but sacrificed them for NFL games. BIG mistake!! Doogie Houser, MD will long be cherished by this now 40 something dad and his now 20 something daughters. I look forward to seeing Doogie’s journal again.”

A lot of us knew Harris better from his role of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. During one episode, “The Bracket,” Barney writes in his computerized diary while the theme song for Doogie Howser plays in the background.

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 19: DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D. – Season One – Pilot – 9/19/89, Neil Patrick Harris played 16-year-old child prodigy Douglas “Doogie” Howser, a second-year resident at Eastman Medical Center who zipped through high school in two months, graduated from Princeton at 10, and medical school at 14. At the end of each episode, Doogie entered his experiences in his electronic diary, on his computer. , (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

On September 19, 2019, USA Today did an interview with Harris on the 30th anniversary of the show and mentioned that upon the death of Steven Bochco, Harris reflected about his time on the show: “I look back on that with fondness. That was a very remarkably wonderful chapter for somebody who had never really been in the entertainment business before.” Doogie might have missed his chance to become an author, but Harris has written a series of kids’ books, The Magic Misfits, as well as an autobiography.

I do remember watching the show during prime time. If I was home, I watched it but it was not a must-see show for me. It was an interesting concept though and seemed realistic enough given the few people who would experience this type of life. I think the bigger issue for me was that the first three years it was on against Night Court, so I probably watched more of the fourth season when it was sandwiched between The Wonder Years and Home Improvement.

Photo: pinterest.com

Murder She Wrote: Cabot Cove, the Murder Capital of the World

We are kicking off a new series: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Perhaps no person represents this theme better than Jessica Fletcher, the crime solver behind Murder She Wrote.

Photo: crimereads.com

Airing on CBS from 1984-1996, Jessica (Angela Lansbury) is one of our longest-running sleuths on television, averaging more than 30 million viewers a week in its prime. The series produced 264 episodes and four made-for-television films. The title was a play on words from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple story, Murder She Said from 1961.

Although it’s hard to picture anyone else in the role, Lansbury was not the first choice for the part; both Jean Stapleton and Doris Day turned down the role.

The creative team who worked on Murder She Wrote was the same team behind Columbo—Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter S. Fischer. While Columbo’s tag line is “Just one more thing,” Jessica’s is “I couldn’t help but notice.”

Photo: tvseriesfinale.com

Jessica lived in Cabot Cove, Maine. (Spoiler alert: the show was actually filmed in Mendocino, CA.) She was a widow and retired English teacher who becomes a successful mystery writer. Her first novel was The Corpse Danced at Midnight. Although she has no children, she has a network of friends and extended family in her small hometown. She had four siblings but only Marshall, a doctor, was seen on the show.

Photo: christmastvhistory.com

We get to know many of the town folk. Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom) is the local doctor and one of Jessica’s best friends and a potential romance. Sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) works with Jessica often on crime cases. Sheriff Mort Metzger (Ron Masak) takes over when Tupper retires and moves to Kentucky. Jessica’s nephew Grady (Michael Horton) seems to get in trouble with the law often despite his aunt’s influence. Jean O’Neil (Madlyn Rhue) is the local librarian. Sam Booth (Richard Paul) is the mayor and is voted in every year because he promises to do nothing and that is exactly what he does. Eve Simpson (Julie Adams) is the local realtor and gossip extraordinaire. Loretta Speigel (Ruth Roman), keeps up with Simpson’s gossiping and is a hairdresser. Ethan Cragg (Claude Akins) is a fisherman.

Photo: eonline.com

Of course, none of us would want to live in Cabot Cove because there was a huge number of murders occurring there over a twelve-year span. In fact, the term “Cabot Cove Syndrome” was coined to describe the constant appearance of dead bodies in remote locations. During season eight, Jessica rents an apartment in New York City to teach criminology and participate in more murder cases.

The police around the town never seem to learn. They are always ready to arrest the wrong person until Jessica solves the case. Some officers appreciate her help, knowing her skill for deducing the murderer while other officers dread seeing her show up at a crime scene.

Photo: pinterest.com

Several characters who Jessica worked with regularly included insurance investigator Dennis Stanton (Keith Mitchell); private investigators Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach) and Charlie Garrett (Wayne Rogers); British agent Michael Haggerty (Len Cariou); and NYPD detective Artie Gelber (Herb Edelman).

Cabot Cove was almost another character on the show. Viewers loved getting to know the charming town with a population of 3650. Jessica never drove a car around town; she biked or took a cab.

Photo: hookedonhouses.net

With twelve years’ worth of shows, it is not surprising that the guest star list is formidable. Just a smattering of stars include Ernest Borgnine, George Clooney, Neil Patrick Harris, Buddy Hackett, Janet Leigh, Julianna Marguiles, Leslie Nielsen, and Joaquin Phoenix

In its final season, the show was moved from its Sunday night slot with loyal viewers to Thursday night against Mad About You and Friends. The show went from 8th to 58th in the ratings and was cancelled. Although Lansbury considered retirement several times during the show’s airings, she was blindsided by the move. In a Los Angeles Times article, she was quoted as sharing “I’m shattered. What can I say? I feel very emotional about it. I just felt so disappointed that after all the years we had Sunday night at 8, suddenly it didn’t mean anything. It was like gone with the wind.”

Photo: irishtimes.com

Obviously, the show was popular with viewers staying on the air for twelve years, but it was also popular with critics. Lansbury received an Emmy nomination for best lead actress in a drama every single season the show was on the air. Unfortunately, she never won.

Often when you picture a crime solver, it’s someone who is young and sexy, such as the cast on Charlie’s Angels or Magnum PI. Jessica Fletcher does not pretend to be young or anything other than a middle-aged woman from Maine. But she does like to travel, she has romantic relationships with men, and has interests and a career. What you see is what you get. Perhaps that was the biggest reason for her popularity during those twelve years.

Photo: pinterest.com

The show continues to do well in syndication, appearing on WGN mornings and the Hallmark Mystery and Movie Channel at night. Spend some time with the good folks in Cabot Cove and watch Jessica Fletcher solve a few murder mysteries. No one embodies murder, mystery, and mayhem more than she does.