Doc Martin: Tactless and smart–lovable

The Oxford American dictionary defines tactless as “having or showing a lack of adroitness and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues.” We’ve all been tactless at one time or another, but as we grow and change, most of us become adept at delivering the truth of what we think in soft ways, especially to those we care about. Some, often very brilliant, smart people never learn tact. As awful as their manner is, there can be something refreshing about someone who gives one bad news or a brutal opinion point blank with no couching or frills attached.

The British show, Doc Martin (2004–?) follows one such brilliant doctor as he runs into one frustration after giving up a great career in the city and moving to a small seaside town. Dr. Martin Ellingham as played by Martin Clunes is a bit of a bulldog in a china shop. He cares more about having things the way he wants them and getting things done than worrying about hurt feelings or social norms. Despite initial appearances, the town of Port Wenn is a perfect match for him–the people there don’t really care much about his feelings, either. They, too, are a tactless lot, though a bit subtler, and Doc Martin’s brashness simply encourages them to be more so, for he is a person on which they can dump their true feelings without worry that he’ll be unrecoverably wounded. Truly, he is a gift to them, and despite the anger that often ensues, there’s something healthy about a group of people who can and do discuss things openly. It’s almost American, except we do tend to paint a veneer of “nice” and “happy” on our honesty.

So far I’ve only watched Season 1, but find both Port Wenn and Doc Martin (everyone refuses to call him Dr. Ellingham) charming in their irritating tactlessness and little quirks. The writing and stories are great, as they somehow manage to touch the viewer’s hearts as well, often hitting more emotional notes than more overly sentimental shows do. There’s something real life about the way the characters go about their business, from the infuriating receptionist, Elaine (Lucy Punch), who wouldn’t know the meaning of professionalism if it knocked her over in the street, to father and son plumber duo, Ben and Al Large (Ian McNeice and Joe Absolom), the first who can’t stop talking and the second who overindulges his father and finds his way in life in jerks and starts. Martin’s Aunt Joan (Stephanie Cole) is a treat, an older independent woman who treats her nephew with a matter-of-fact sort of love and has no problem calling him out when necessary. Martin’s possible love interest, schoolteacher Louisa Glasson (Caroline Catz) while initially appalled by his lack of tact, is tuned into his alpha brashness, and it’s amusing how her obvious fluster around him barely phases Martin. For all his tact, Martin doesn’t quite manage to ask her out, but then he’s got so much on his mind.

Doc Martin is both picturesque and strange–one never knows where each episode is going to go. Its humor is more relatable to me than other British shows, and, again, there’s maybe something similar to American culture in it, though I can’t say exactly what. Initially, I was hoping this was a doc who solves murder mysteries, but the mysteries are more those of the human heart and behaviors and how medical situations bring them to light. As the town is bunched up by the sea it has a contained world feel, and the Britain of London or Jane Austen, or Sherlock seems far, far away. It’s a lovable show with lovable characters who at first seem anything but, but it’s the constant, situational humor that draws one in, that and Clunes’ performance, for he manages to just make Doc Martin just awkward enough in the right ways, a man who cares enough about people’s health to tell them the truth. Martin has a softer side, and an interesting fear of blood for a doctor. As Port Wenn has just as much trouble with tact as he does, it’s easy for viewers to relate to his frustration. He’s less of a jerk than say HOUSE (Hugh Laurie) or Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) are, but just as smart.

Looking forward to continuing the series and enjoying watching a British show that isn’t a murder mystery for once, though I do love their murder mysteries. Up next week: Library Wars manga series–yes, Japan is still following me!

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