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"Private Practice": Not the Worst Show on Television, But You Can See it From There

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | March 30, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | March 30, 2011 |

When judging any work of art, there’s a fuzziness to the process. If there were just one dimension of quality, handing out a number of stars would work just fine, but how do you reconcile The Godfather and Ghostbusters? They just don’t aim to accomplish the same thing. Along one dimension The Godfather is the best, but if you want to laugh, it’s just not as good of a movie as Ghostbusters. Subdivide the judgment too much and it’s pointless, then you just get the car industry, where everything that’s got four wheels is the best-in-class according to J.D. Powers. But stick to too monolithic a measure and you’re stuck trying to compare Ghostbusters and The Godfather and nobody ends up winning except my right shift key and the letter “g.”

But there is one dimension that we can agree on: fundamental story-telling competence.

In other words, there is a fundamental difference between a car that has less horsepower, doesn’t have as many airbags, or isn’t as luscious a shade of red, and a vehicle for which the designer neglected to include wheels. At some point, it’s not a car anymore, it fails the basic test of automobility. Is it pretty? Does it have a lot of airbags? These things don’t matter when there aren’t any wheels.

“Private Practice” is that automobile.

“Grey’s Anatomy” is not good television, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to accomplish and does so with a basic level of competence. Stories have beginnings and endings, characters are written more-or-less consistently yet evolve over the course of stories. It’s just a soap opera, but it doesn’t aspire to more. Congratulations, here is your tiara of mediocrity.

Its spin off, “Private Practice,” is now in its fourth season, which is an astonishing fact given just how abysmally bad this show is. Take it from someone who has inexplicably seen every episode of the show. You do not want to subject yourself to it.

It’s about rich beautiful doctors in Los Angeles, and the terrible difficulties they face in their day to day lives running their fancy private wellness clinic. I deeply hope that the show ends with the destruction of all life on Earth. It would be an improvement to the show’s fictional universe.

Nine out of ten episodes follow the same formula. Two or more contrived moral quandaries are set up, characters will be randomly assigned to take opposite sides, and a thumping bit of bass will sound to make sure you are absolutely signaled that DRAMA is happening. That serious sounding bass line is the melodrama’s equivalent of a laugh track: it reminds you when you are supposed to feel emotions and such, since the story telling doesn’t actually invoke any emotion other than blind hatred for the characters. Tragedy will occur by the end of the episode to demonstrate which character was wrong wrongedy wrong.

None of these are actual moral quandaries. Each has either an obviously morally correct part, or has an obvious compromise. For example, a veteran who lost her sight to shrapnel in Iraq comes into their clinic (because most unemployed disabled veterans can afford to get their routine medical care at private wellness clinics) with her newborn baby, the father of whom was in said veteran’s unit and died in the same explosion that took her sight. It’s difficult to take care of a baby when dealing with PTSD, widowhood, and blindness, so the mother-in-law does the only logical thing and tries to take the baby away and threatens to get lawyers involved. Now you or I might protest that somebody being a douchebag does not actually amount to a moral quandary, but then we are not Oceanside Wellness Clinic material.

No matter how absurd the position, one of the characters will take it. This is not determined by something like actual characterization or previous story development, but by picking apparently by coin flip which doctors will support the douche-of-the-week. Oh and don’t jump to the conclusion that at least this forces some devil’s advocation, because both sides of any quandary use the exact same argument every single episode: “We’re talking about a life (or any other suitably vague thing that no one is actually against) here.” There really should be a moratorium on any dialogue that begins with the words “we’re talking about.”

Then the doctors will either arbitrarily make out with each other, drink wine on the beach, or both. At this point, they’ve paired off so many permutations of the characters either in relationships or illicit encounters that I’m pretty sure that the writers are just churning the characters through a round robin tournament. It’s like adulthood as imagined by adolescents. No depth, no intimacy, not even good rousing sex, it’s falling in love with a different person every month, over and over again. Tense looks and making out is not love. It can lead to it, but not when it happens to the same person three times per month. That’s not love, it’s just tongue. Get over it.

The way the show really sears itself into your brain, though, is the way that it makes sure to have at least a couple very special episodes each season. They have extra dramatic bass beats to make sure you don’t miss just how very special they really are. They include the death of a starring character, brutal rape and beating of a starring character, and just to really make sure you’re paying attention, the psychotic patient cutting a starring character’s baby out of her womb in a living room c-section without anesthesia in order to steal the baby. Nine episodes of insipid faux drama and terrible writing lull you into complacency for the tenth episode knock out of a Lifetime movie on a cocaine bender.

The problem with starting to watch a bad show is that it’s too easy to just click on the new episode every week on Hulu. You know that you should find something actually good to watch, but the new episode pops up on the main page … and before you know it, you’ve watched 70 episodes of the worst television show that you could possibly imagine just because you couldn’t be bothered to take two minutes at some point to actually find something worth watching while you cook breakfast. Take the two minutes. Just because you’ve watched the first 70, doesn’t mean you need to watch the 71st.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.