'Dr. Ken': TV Review

Dr. Ken Still - H 2015
Danny Feld/ABC

Dr. Ken Still - H 2015

TV physician, heal thyself.

Ken Jeong's semi-autobiographical ABC comedy suffers from misuse of Ken Jeong.

The original pilot for ABC's Dr. Ken was just terrible.

After some tweaking, the revised Dr. Ken pilot that will air on ABC on Friday (Oct. 2) night is merely very bad.

The second Dr. Ken episode (technically the third, in order) sent to critics by ABC to display growth was, indeed, forgettable, but rarely excruciating.

This is why it's professionally responsible for critics to watch as many episodes as are available for new shows, especially comedies. With any first-year show, it's a growth process and there's a learning curve, and I feel confident that if Dr. Ken continues on its current trajectory, there might be a good show here by fall 2016.

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Through the two episodes I've seen, there are ample components that could be the basis for a good sitcom, and even the show's biggest flaw is not without potential, but the alignment is so out-of-sync that it's easier to imagine viewers tuning out at the first commercial break than sticking around for 13 or 22 episodes to see if Dr. Ken becomes the best, or even a better, version of itself.

Based rather loosely on star and co-creator Ken Jeong's own prestardom background as a doctor, Dr. Ken focuses on an allegedly brilliant physician who is horrible with his patients and co-workers but fumblingly well-meaning as a husband to Suzy Nakamura's Allison and father to kids Molly (Krista Marie Yu) and Dave (Albert Tsai).

Jeong has emphasized that he was never this awful a person in his medical days, which is probably why Dr. Ken has no sense of tone when it comes to its main character. Imagine Dr. House if he ran around frantically flapping his arms, talking in outdated slang and never had a plot-driven way of proving his genius, so you're just left with an insufferable tool who treats his patients badly and has no sense of volume control. When Dr. Ken gets a diagnosis right, it tends to be not because he's a genius, but because patients are idiots, which only reenforces his earlier behavior. And the cycle repeats itself. I'm not saying I want an episode of Dr. Ken to be built around the main character killing a patient through negligence, but it might be the most humanizing thing that could happen to him and to the series.

It's not that the creative team behind Dr. Ken is unaware that they've built a show around a gaping hole. Almost all of the finessing between the original pilot and the episode that will air on Friday was toning down its hero's insults and caricaturing of the people in his sphere (and also of himself, since I think at least one short joke was trimmed). And the third episode, titled "The Seminar," forces Dr. Ken to attend a bedside-manner seminar and learn valuable lessons about not being unbearable. It remains to be seen if it works, but should the seminar prove even partially effective, the writers will have to deal with a bigger problem: Unpleasantness is paramount among Dr. Ken's personality traits, and the result is devoid of humor, but stripping the lone tangible personality trait wouldn't suddenly make Dr. Ken funny. It would just make him boring.

Making matters worse is the inevitable byproduct of the multicam format. I can see how in a small room, Jeong flailing his limbs, falling over things and spitting out hip-hop jargon either might seem compulsively funny or that the pressure of the environment might force laughs upon you. Also, Jeong is a funny guy who has been funny in many contexts. That the multicam format and this sitcom, as currently constructed, both force him into some of his broader, worse habits is a disappointment, but it's OK to want to like him. The roars of audience approval for Jeong impersonating older Asians or cracking wise on a hippie or Stephen Tobolowsky? That's just low-hanging fruit and false encouragement.

TV physician, heal thyself.

Jeong has it in him to be an effective sitcom star, and if that happens, he's surrounded himself with performers who could make up a rather terrific ensemble — if they had a more consistent lead performance to work against. In his office alone, Jeong is joined by Tisha Campbell-Martin, Jonathan Slavin and Dave Foley, who bring a lot of accumulated TV goodwill. In the seminar episode, Slavin steals a few chuckles by raising his volume to Jeong's level, but that doesn't feel sustainable either. Foley's character is also likely undergoing some reconception, because his HMO bureaucrat was initially sketched out as potentially even worse than Dr. Ken before somebody recognized the folly. I'd compare the disconnect between workplace-with-upside and misjudged lead character to NBC's Sean Hayes-driven failure Sean Saves the World, in which Hayes kept doing tone-deaf pratfalls into a promising Thomas Lennon/Echo Kellum/Megan Hilty series.

The domestic side of Dr. Ken also suffers from a worthy supporting cast not knowing how to play against the title character. It's absolutely tremendous that the versatile Nakamura is finally getting a regular, multidimensional TV lead, but Dr. Ken then backslides by making her another of those sensible TV wives forced to feign endless loving frustration with her ever-so-wacky spouse. As Trophy Wife proved, Tsai is capable of lifting cute kid gimmickry to an art form, but arbitrarily doing mime to Katy Perry is almost the least you can ask of him. And Yu, the least known actor in this family unit, has already given hints of doing better-than-average sitcom-daughter embarrassment.
The pieces really are here, even if the punchlines generate a steady string of cringing. In the pilot, my lone laugh came courtesy of a one-off guest star while in the second episode, my laughs came from Slavin yelling. But the show isn't called Guy in Prison Cell and Phil From Better Off Ted.

We haven't passed into a glorious new era of saturated diversity in which Dr. Ken's depiction of a Korean family isn't progressive and worthy of admiration as part of the bigger TV landscape. We still desperately need shows like Dr. Ken, even if its idea of cultural specificity is still mostly accent-based gags.

Unfortunately, we need shows like Dr. Ken to be better, and with Fresh Off the Boat swiftly taking a position as one of the best comedies on network TV, there isn't just a bar where no bar existed before. There's a bar, and it has been raised high. Given where Dr. Ken is starting, even with the improvement I'm happy to acknowledge, that bar is still a long way away.