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Review: 'Doc Martin' on KCET

October 21, 2010 |  6:37 am

Clunes As KCET bumbles toward a post-PBS identity, due to take full effect Jan. 1, the station already is offering a preview of its future self. The first clear signal, announced even before the announcement of its decision to go "independent," was the transfer of the British-import anthology "Masterpiece" (formerly "Masterpiece Theatre") to Thursday to make room for a low-budget Sunday-night slate of old movies; beginning this Thursday, it will be paired with a separately imported U.K. series, ITV's "Doc Martin," and this, at least, is an excellent decision.

I've watched the four seasons of this delightfully frustrating series on DVD from start to finish over the last year or so -- all have been released domestically by Acorn Media -- and am very much a fan. (A side note: KOCE, which is expected to become the area's primary PBS station, also will begin airing "Masterpiece" on Sunday night, in its usual slot, with the premiere of Steven Moffat's Sherlock Holmes update, "Sherlock.")

"Doc Martin," much of which also has been available online and has previously aired on other public television stations, stars Martin Clunes (Richard Burbage in the film "Shakespeare in Love") as Dr. Martin Ellingham, a brilliant London surgeon who develops a crippling aversion to the sight of blood and retreats to a job as the GP in the Cornish fishing village where he spent his summers. It's easy enough to see it as a replay of "Northern Exposure," another show about a big-city doctor in a remote small town full of oddball characters, with a similar, prickly, opposites-attract tentative romance at its core. But we could as easily jump back to the 1983 Scottish film "Local Hero," or to any number of like comedies.

Created by Dominic Minghella, the series has its origins, obscurely, in the movie "Saving Grace," co-written and starring the man we now know as TV's Craig Ferguson, about a Cornwall widow who grows marijuana to save her home. Clunes' supporting role in that film, also a doctor named Martin, was broken out into a couple of prequel TV movies and then completely remade into the stiff, punctilious, charmless, insensitive but consummately capable character he plays here. He is indeed vexing, and self-defeating, almost to the point of fury -- you want to shake him. But we root for him anyway, because although he's an impossible person, he's a good one as well, in some completely unsentimental definition of the word "good," and because we can see the value of the thing he yearns for, even as he continually kicks it further from himself: the love of schoolteacher Louisa (Carolyn Catz), who, much to her own surprise, likes him too, though she also can't stand him.

This may not sound particularly promising, but it works, even as romantic comedy, because the series -- as written, acted and photographed -- so completely embodies a world, a world of shared experience more lasting than Martin's various dissatisfactions. As did "Northern Exposure," "Doc Martin" gains weight and life from the landscape: The town itself (Port Isaac in Cornwall, here called Portwenn), a web of hillside streets and scenic overlooks wrapped around a natural harbor, becomes a character alongside the people who populate it. These include exasperating and exasperated receptionists Lucy Punch and Katherine Parkinson; Ian McNeice, familiar here as the town crier in HBO's "Rome," as a feckless plumber and entrepreneur; Joe Absolom as McNeice's half-drifting son; Stewart Wright and John Marquez as successive police constables, the former lovelorn, the latter narcoleptic and agoraphobic; and Stephanie Cole as Martin's equally stubborn Aunt Joan. Like Martin, each has his or her own way of getting in his or her own way, but their eccentricities are not presented as a substitute for character, and their flaws are never as important as what they're fumbling toward.

-- Robert Lloyd
twitter.com:LATimesTVLloyd

Photo: Martin Clunes as Dr. Martin Ellingham. Credit: Acorn Media

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