As for his habit of being annoyed by patients? That's exacerbated by his escape to Portwenn, where everybody likes to get up close and personal--and then share it with everybody else in the tiny grapevine. Far removed from the busy and bustling business of the big city where it's oddly easier to retreat into isolation, Doc (Martin Clunes) finds it near impossible to get an ounce of privacy--clashing with nearly every quirky character he encounters. It's just another day in the office for Doc Martin, the popular British series that debuted in 2004. This box set from Acorn Media combines the previous releases of the first four seasons, a total of 30 episodes (broadcast from '04 to '09) spanning nine discs (and no new content).
I came into this series cold but with high expectations, having listened to three of my family members gush about it. Considering I have a pretty dark, sarcastic and dry sense of humor, it seemed to be right up my alley. I always appreciate oddball characters, which Doc Martin is overflowing with. Leading the way is the father and son team of Large & Large: portly, mumbling Bert (Ian McNeice) owns a plumbing business (before getting into the restaurant business in the latter seasons) and employs son Al (Joe Absolom), who yearns of bigger and better things outside of Portwenn. The Police Constable is a oddball no matter what season you watch: Mark Mylow (Stewart Wright, Seasons 1 and 2) is a kind, lovelorn and perhaps overly "gentle" man who constantly worries that his penis is too small; while PC Penhale (John Marquez, Seasons 3 and 4) is a by-the-books stickler who as a child was kicked in the head by a horse--which may or may not have caused his narcolepsy and agoraphobia.
Back at the office, the Doc's secretary is also a nut: distracted and outright rude Elaine (Lucy Punch) lasts just one season, soon replaced by her more tolerable cousin Pauline (Katherine Parkinson) for the following three seasons (a new secretary is in the works for the upcoming Season 5). Both women become love interests for Al, who briefly disappears at the beginning of the third season (temporarily replaced by a James Dean-like loner whose story arc ends is predictable disappointment, one of the show's recurring faults). The Doc is also greeted by the ever-present weirdness of permanently neck-braced pharmacist Mrs. Tishell (Selina Cadell), a town gossip who harbors an increasingly intense crush on him.
A relative sense of normalcy emanates from the two other women in Ellingham's life: aging Aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole), an organic farmer and town matriarch who--like her nephew--is on the outs with her brother; and school teacher-turned-headmistress Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz), a put-together smartie almost instantly thrust into a "Will they or won't they?" relationship with the Doc, the two attracted to each other yet apparently incapable of doing anything about it. Louisa is the only one who can shake the rock-solid Doc from his stoic demeanor, exacerbating his already awkward social skills. Constantly uncomfortable by her mere presence, Ellingham is unable to express any flattery or admiration--and typically resorts to his unfortunate habits of reciting medical research or giving unwanted diagnoses when he's nervous.
Other people come and go through the seasons, but only a few make a lasting impression. The first season gives us Roger Fenn (Jeff Rawle), a music teacher suddenly stricken with cancer; and little boy Peter (Kurtis O'Brien), an outcast who has a lot in common with the Doc. The second season teases us with an apparent rival for Louisa's affection, ex-boyfriend Danny (Tristan Sturrock)--but it never goes anywhere or even feels important; while the fourth season brings the arrival of red-headed fireball Edith Montgomery (Lia Williams), a fellow surgeon and former flame of Martin who threatens to get between the increasingly agitated Louisa and Doc--whose relationship is the one and only continuing thread that the series concerns itself with. All four seasons are also accompanied by a stray dog (who changes breeds at one point due to the first pooch's passing behind the scenes), who likes to follow the disapproving Doc around.
In addition to the wacky lives of the recurring characters, each episode usually brings us a few weird randoms (Portwenn is particularly accident prone) with medical problems both strange and embarrassing--from excessive diarrhea and bad breath to delusions and pencil stabs to the face. The doctor/patient exchanges are often smartass and snappy, giving the series some of its best moments. On the other end of the enjoyment spectrum are people like Stewart (Ben Miller), the park ranger with an imaginary friend named Antony--a giant squirrel. Stewart becomes infuriating in his second appearance (prepare yourself for an annoying romp in the woods), his actions proving how wrong the "Told you so!" townsfolk were when they dismissed the Doc's medical advice.
Self-contained subplots fill out each episode, with mini-medical mysteries (that usually start with misunderstandings and false assumptions) and darker secrets from the sordid lives (S&M! Drug labs! Affairs!) of the townsfolk uncovered at the end of 45 minutes (we're usually given dastardly set-ups that hint at something evil--Psycho and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? just few of the films paid homage). Doc Martin plays it somewhat sedate, dabbling with more action-driven episodes from time to time--including the first season's finale and the feature-length "special episode" that bridged the second and third seasons (by far my least favorite entry of them all, it saps the series of most of its charm).
You may have picked up a few hints along the way, but I was notably disappointed with the show--whose faults are more apparent when you watch multiple episodes back to back. Yes, it's frequently cute and funny, with a handful of hilarious moments--usually involving the Doc's reactions to a variety of curveballs or uncomfortable interactions--filling each episode. Clunes is perfect for this role, his deadpan demeanor and delivery never disappointing. I particularly love his more spirited outbursts, where he gets to let loose on bad parents or smokers with impassioned speeches that would do Julia Sugarbaker proud. (I also wish there was a little more physical comedy for him, his pratfalls one of the show's secret weapons).
But by and large, the series leaves me empty. There, I said it. Despite its eccentricity, Doc Martin resides in a world that's close enough to reality--it isn't fantasy-driven like Pushing Daisies or mean-spirited enough like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where the rude characters are exaggerated to the extreme and revel in evil. As such, much of what is meant to be funny here struck me as sad--like the behavior Mrs. Tischell dishes out to a supposed loved one in the second episode of Season 4 (wow, she's pretty horrible, huh?!).
Doc Martin needs to try harder in some way--sincerity, humor, something to help it stand out more. Multiple arcs usually dovetail with common lessons about (life/parenting/insert issue here) that you'll see coming a mile away (today's lesson: speak up for yourself! Up next, learn to laugh at yourself! Soon followed by "It's awful to have misunderstandings!"), while character development--which isn't helped by the cast turnover--is usually limited to random problems that are jarringly introduced (in this special episode, Pauline has a gambling addiction! Up next, a famous local is an alcoholic!). The series also unfolds a little too leisurely for my taste, particularly in the earlier episodes. It takes a while to get going, with too much repetition and telegraphing of developments.
I was also constantly amazed at how disagreeable most of the characters were (in spurts, at least), even the ones that are meant to be the good guys. Portwenn is a town filled with Holier Than Thou accusatory folk who like to gossip and mock, exemplified by the ever-present pack of annoying teenage girls that like to point and laugh at unsuspecting victims (imagine if the film Heathers had a Greek Chorus). Everyone here is a loner, and no one here seems to have any real friends who genuinely care about them (poor PC Mylow on his bachelor party!)--making it near impossible to "feel" the forced relationships or get invested in anyone.
Elaine is so intolerable (ditto radio personality Caroline in Season 1), I was amazed she made it past the first episode--and equally amazed that we were supposed to buy into her burgeoning relationship with Al, who is then forced into a relationship with Elaine's replacement in the second season. And I'm sure the Doc lovers will consider this blasphemy, but I never truly felt much between Martin and Louisa--and boy are there a lot of false starts that beat any potential chemistry or viewer investment into the ground (you'll ask yourself more and more, "What do they see in each other?"). I found his repartee with Edith far more believable and natural, their interplay helping to make the fourth season my favorite.
After 30 episodes, I was struck at what little distanced we had traveled with these people. They're saddled with their stereotypes and quirks, and aren't allowed to grow in ways that become truly meaningful or touching--something the show is clearly capable of (how many times can we hear the Doc yell at a dog? It's too predictable and increasingly unfunny). Pauline is the perfect example--yeah, she's good for a chuckle, but she's also pretty rude to Al. How are we supposed to react to and feel about her? I'm left cold and distant, appreciating the laughs she provokes but not caring much for her otherwise (I was hoping Poppy, her temporary replacement in Episode 2 of Season 3, stuck around for a while longer). She's whiny and generally disagreeable, like many of Portwenn's finest.
You get tastes of something better here and there, glimpses of how special the series can be: I was especially moved by the scenes between PC Penhale and his brother Sam (played by Marquez's real-life brother Martin) in the third episode of Season 4, where you sense something greater (the conversation the two have as Sam paints--and the emotions you can see on their faces--is powerful stuff); it's a note the show needs to hit more often. Instead, so much feels superficial, the series content to ride the cruise control button down the middle--it's not aggressively funny, thought-provoking or sincere enough to leave a lasting impression. It's enjoyable and funny enough in spots, but not as a whole. I want more.
Maybe I'm being too tough, or maybe I'm just in a grumpy mood like Martin. Perhaps with lowered expectations, I might have appreciated the series a little (but just a little) more. But for someone who has a lot in common with the good ol' Doc--I can be an ill-mannered bastard if I want to, and have a healthy aversion to idiots--my disappointment speaks volumes.