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For several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s, The Wonder Years and Doogie Howser, M.D. were the shows I’d sneak off to watch by myself on the family’s second TV, the ratty old Sony where you sometimes had to pound on the top of the set to make the image stop rolling, the one without a remote control so you actually had to stand up and turn a literal dial, which made it convenient that both shows were on ABC.
Both shows featured a protagonist who was roughly my age, even if I gravitated more toward the hero’s slightly more socially awkward pals. Both shows conveyed the easy-to-digest message that everybody feels like an outsider growing up, whether they’re as remarkable as a teenage doctor or as normal as a scrawny kid waiting for puberty. I probably wasn’t quite old enough to appreciate how strange it was that in a broadcast lineup dominated by broad multi-cam sitcoms, both ostensible “comedies” — they were half-hours, so what else could they be? — sometimes had no punchlines at all. They were actually genre-defying cable or streaming shows 30 years ahead of their time, closer to On My Block or Reservation Dogs than Murphy Brown or Cheers.
Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.
Television this fall seems to be rebooting 1989, with new versions of both The Wonder Years (back on ABC) and Doogie Howser, M.D. (now on Disney+) hitting the screen, each with an inclusive spin so that whole new audiences of kids watching on their parents’ console TVs (or on their watches) can see themselves represented. Perhaps because The Wonder Years and Doogie Howser, M.D. were so far ahead of their time, both shows are pleasantly well suited for reboots, and the new versions are among the fall’s most promising new comedies (or “comedies”).
Disney+’s new Doogie offers a strong template for how to update a well-liked franchise, solidly improving on the streamer’s perfectly fine take on Mighty Ducks and many leagues better than Turner & Hooch. Created by Kourtney Kang, Doogie Kameāloha, M.D., executes a fine balancing act between playing to an older audience’s nostalgic appetites and simply telling a good, admirably personal stand-alone story.
Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. starts with the wise choice to exist in a world in which Doogie Howser, M.D. exists, as a TV show. Lahela Kameāloha (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) is a 16-year-old medical prodigy living and working in Hawaii. Because she’s so young and causes so much confusion every time she enters a room, older doctors refer to her as “Doogie,” a reference she barely gets because she’s been too busy becoming a doctor to watch Doogie Howser, M.D. repeats on Hulu.
The Jake Kasdan-directed pilot is packed with homages, including a lovely ukulele spin on Mike Post’s original theme music and Lahela’s nightly vlog entries instead of Doogie’s journal musings. Such details as the way Lahela’s best friend, Steph (Emma Meisel, effectively steering into her character’s comic creepiness), visits Lahela only through her second-story window will trigger smiles of recognition from more venerable viewers without distracting the target audience.
The question with so many reboots and remakes is “If you took away the nostalgia, would there be anything worth watching at all?” And the answer with Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. is “Absolutely.”
In only two episodes sent to critics, Kang has swiftly established the entire Kameāloha family, including loving-but-demanding mother Clara (Kathleen Rose Perkins), a doctor struggling to balance being a parent at home and Lahela’s boss at work; more easygoing father Benny (Jason Scott Lee), who runs a shave ice and flower truck; less academically inclined older brother Kai (Matthew Sato) and differently precocious younger brother Brian (Wes Tian). Taking the place of Lisa Dean Ryan’s Wanda — like Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, a prototype for my childhood crushes — is Alex Aiono’s Walter, raised by his mother and a houseful of aunties and trying to figure out how to woo Lahela without being intimidated by her.
As was the case with the original series, each episode includes a very thinly sketched medical subplot that parallels whatever Lahela’s adolescent struggle-of-the-week happens to be, all tied together in a vlog entry at the end. Instead of being perturbed that these episodes run longer than your normal broadcast half-hours — 35 minutes for the pilot, 27:15 minutes for the second episode — I found myself thinking I would happily watch another 10 or 15 minutes per story, which surely wasn’t the case with the padded weekly installments of Turner & Hooch.
Owing a lot to its leads, Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. is, in the most general of terms, simply charming. Peyton Elizabeth Lee grew up on TV on Andi Mack, but she has little of the too-polished robotic streak that sometimes plagues thespians who passed through the Disney Channel juvenile factory. She’s broadly expressive when comic beats require it, and she has the requisite vulnerability for the young love side of the storyline, as well as those moments when Lahela has to learn important lessons about mortality or the challenges of the medical world.
There’s a great warmth in Lee’s and Perkins’ performances, the former conveying a relaxed joy and the latter offering brief glimpses of the cutting wit that made her a standout on Episodes. Maybe Lahela’s two brothers feel a hair more sitcom-y than the show around them, with Brian in particular feeling like a bit of a joke factor on a show that doesn’t otherwise require punchlines, but not in a way that’s excessively distracting.
Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. has a lot in common with Netflix’s recent update of The Baby-Sitters Club. It’s unapologetically aimed at young viewers, and it treats the little traumas of teen life with a complete earnestness that, at the same time, makes them universal. Though the nostalgic elements might have been the ones that struck the deepest emotional chord with me — the opening credits, freely adapting the original show’s mixture of newspaper clippings around new Hawaiian trappings — it was easy to take pleasure in how the show treats the struggles of teenage and family life with frequently good humor, but no irony at all. There’s no winking or distancing to how Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. approaches young love or family disagreements or even the plight of Lahela’s various patients.
The Hawaiian setting is captured in beautiful camerawork, including a lovely series-opening surfing scene that manages to be pleasantly character-driven instead of just a showcase for stunt performers. The locale also is occasion for distinctive ensemble casting and little bits of language and culture that, even when they feel broad, feel broad in the service of introducing that core young audience to this world. If Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. were a gritty FX drama about a 16-year-old doctor, I’d probably think the Hawaiian depiction was a hair too stereotype-driven, but in this context it feels like an extension of the show’s welcoming attitude, much of it carried by Lee’s apparently ageless enthusiasm. That goes for a lot of the show. Sure, it could be more nuanced and more serious-minded, yet being honest and open is enough.
Disney+ has been aggressive and a little savvy in mining properties that parents born between 1970 and 1985 will actually want to watch, with or without their kids, and also in delivering legacy sequels roughly on par with the source material. Between Doogie Howser, The Mighty Ducks and Turner & Hooch, Doogie Kameāloha, M.D. has the best source material and, in the early going, it’s the best-conceived continuation of the brand.
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