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'Doogie' Is Back. This Time, She's In Facing Down Sexism And Racism

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. From 1989 to '93, ABC presented a half-hour comedy drama series called "Doogie Howser, M.D." It starred Neil Patrick Harris, then 16 years old, as a teen genius who tried to cope with being a doctor and growing up at the same time. The original series was co-created by Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. Bochco's widow Dayna and son Jesse are among the executive producers of a new, significantly different remake premiering today on the streaming service Disney+. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The original "Doogie Howser, M.D." premiered on ABC more than 30 years ago and, at the time, was quite ahead of its time. "Hill Street Blues" co-creator Steven Bochco, who died in 2018, had changed TV cop shows with that program's freewheeling approach. Then he hired young attorney David E. Kelley to work with him to do the same for TV legal shows with "L.A. Law." Then Kelley and Bochco co-created yet another groundbreaking series combining comedy and drama to present a half-hour TV show without a laugh track. It followed a teenage medical prodigy as he lost his first patient, kissed his first girl, and wrote it all in his diary typed into this relatively new invention called a personal computer. That was then in 1989. This is now. And for 2021, a lot of changes have been made. It's set in the present day, and Doogie is still recording diary entries on computer. But now it's with a built-in video camera. And the series is now set in Hawaii, which allows the original theme song to be played on a ukulele.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DOOGIE KAMEALOHA, M.D." THEME)

BIANCULLI: The biggest change, though, is that this new Doogie is female and multiracial, the daughter of a Native Hawaiian dad and a white mom. The overall tone and flavor of this new Disney+ series is a bit closer to Disney Channel than primetime ABC, but it all works nicely. And while this new show is sweet, it also has some bite by having someone with her background as the leading character in a TV show and by openly exploring such topics as sexism, racism and ageism.

Members of the surviving Bochco family, Steven's wife Dayna and son Jesse, are on board as executive producers to protect the fidelity to the original series.

And this new version, called "Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.," is indeed satisfyingly faithful. The new series, like the old, swings between broad humor and gentle drama. The parents, played by Kathleen Rose Perkins and effortless scene-stealer Jason Scott Lee, once again are presented as real people, not caricatures. And the gifted young doctor, this time named Lahela Kamealoha, is just as instantly endearing, an energetic mixture of confidence and insecurities. She's played by Peyton Elizabeth Lee - no relation to the actor who plays her dad here. But very young viewers are quite likely to recognize her as the star of a recent and very popular Disney Channel series "Andi Mack." The Disney empire knows how to foster and promote its young stars, and Peyton Elizabeth Lee is sure to be the latest in that long line. Here she is in a scene from early in the premiere episode. A staff doctor is taking the residents on their daily rounds, and they all take great pride in introducing their 16-year-old colleague to a new patient. The first impression is a bad one. But because of Lahela's personality and obvious intelligence, that doesn't last long.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOOGIE KAMEALOHA, M.D.")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Dr. Kamealoha will be taking care of you.

PEYTON ELIZABETH LEE: (As Lahela) Aloha, Mr. Lim (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mr. Lim) Is this some kind of practical joke?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) She may be 16, but she is a doctor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You know who she's like?

LEE: (As Lahela) Here we go.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Remember "Doogie Howser," that show from the '90s? She's like a real-life Doogie Howser. That's why we call her Doogie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Oh, I never made the connection.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Girl, why did you think we called her Doogie?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) She is every Asian mom's dream. I mean, to them, the only thing better than being a doctor is being a doctor faster. Some moms like to brag about their kids being doctors, but they're, like, 27 - losers.

LEE: (As Lahela) Is the wound anesthetized, cleaned, irrigated?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Yes, Doctor.

LEE: (As Lahela) Great. Mr. Lim, if you could just hold still.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mr. Lim) You'll be holding still for a lawsuit in federal court. Only 16 years old? I'll add a count for infliction of emotional distress.

LEE: (As Lahela) I'm sorry you feel that way, sir. I can tell you're an attorney, so you must know that there's no duty owed by the hospital with respect to the age of its doctors, nor is there any proximate cause connecting my age to the harm suffered. And even if you could make out a prima facie case of negligence, you do not have the diversity of jurisdiction to get this into federal court. Besides which, I am done.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mr. Lim) You're done?

LEE: (As Lahela) Nice and neat - shouldn't be much of a scar.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mr. Lim) Oh, maybe I won't sue.

LEE: (As Lahela) Oh. Well, if you change your mind, the statute of limitations for malpractice is actually three years. I thought about going to law school when I was 9, but then I got really into rainbow loom.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Mr. Lim) Thanks, Doogie.

BIANCULLI: The creator of this new "Doogie" reboot is Kourtney Kang, who also wrote the pilot. Her most recent credit was on ABC's "Fresh Off The Boat," a sitcom about Asian Americans. And before that, she was a writer and producer on the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," working for years with the former Doogie himself, Neil Patrick Harris. I wouldn't be surprised if down the road, she finds a way to enlist Harris to guest star as himself on this new "Doogie" series, like he did in the movie "Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle."

But don't expect an episode about the pandemic hitting the hospital in Hawaii this season. Kang says she and her writing staff decided not to go there for now. Doogie, it seems, has enough problems as it is dealing with her patients and her parents and adolescence.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the Supreme Court's ruling on the Texas law effectively banning abortion after six weeks and what it says about the future of abortion and the future of the court. My guest will be Ian Millhiser, who covers the Supreme Court for Vox and is the author of "The Agenda: How A Republican Supreme Court Is Reshaping America." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "MAIDEN VOYAGE/EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering today from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "MAIDEN VOYAGE/EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.