Doogie Howser MD: Surprisingly Real, and Really Good Medicine

Doogie in his hospital attire

I watched Doogie Howser, MD as a kid when it was on the air, but to be honest, I hadn’t thought about it in years. I remembered enough to be in on the joke when How I Met Your Mother made a reference to it in a tag one time, but that was about it. I remembered that Neil Patrick Harris was cute (but I had already known that back in the day from Clara’s Heart), and I remembered the basic premise.

Fast forward to 2020 quarantine viewing, and I’m scouring Hulu for something that will hold my interest, but not be super heavy, because I don’t know about you, but my pandemic viewing has needed to be things that are going to be kind of gentle with my brain. You know, nothing too traumatic. That said, I can’t do straight up fluff either. I’m very picky when it comes to sitcoms in my old age. There’s something about the half-hour format that makes me impatient (yes, I see the irony there), and while obviously I want my comedies to be funny, I like there to be some teeth there too. Back in the ’70s and ’80s when half the sitcoms you watched were either a spinoff of All in the Family or Happy Days, I was and am solidly on Team Norman Lear. And that’s no diss to Team Garry Marshall, the guy who said “if television was the education of the American public, then Happy Days was recess.” Who doesn’t like recess? But I digress.

I decided to reacquaint myself with Doogie Howser MD, and almost right away, it knocked my socks off. It wasn’t too long before I started thinking of it as Hill Street Blues Jr, (it’s probably closer to ER or some other hospital drama, but I’ve actually seen Hill Street, so I feel more comfortable making that comparison) and it was exactly what my pandemic brain needed. It was teenage antics, sure, but it also got real. I mean, damn.

I don’t know why I was surprised, once adult me read the names in the opening credits. Creators Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues) and David E. Kelley (Chicago Hope) don’t screw around. I had done a Hill Street watch-through a couple of years prior, and I was particularly familiar with Bochco’s tendency to show his teeth. Added to this was Neil Patrick Harris, who was enough of a veteran in the biz at this point (and let’s face it, the guy’s got chops) making choices like an adult actor.

You know how child actors can be great, but it’s almost like they aren’t thinking about it? It’s because they usually aren’t—it’s just happening organically, like a game of pretend (not always, of course—there are some child actors out there who are scary skilled). Harris was doing the work, he was doing it like an adult, and he was making it his bitch (Max Casella too, by the way—he’s another one whose baby face kept him playing teenagers way longer than I’m sure he wanted to be, but he was doing the work like a grownup).

The show impressed the hell out of me the way it wasn’t afraid to tackle real plots alongside the expected “teenager trying to get along in an adult world” thing of a sixteen year old genius doctor. It’s cute to watch Doogie being a social doofus with his girlfriend when he was just being Captain Competent five minutes ago at the hospital. The first episode that really had my jaw on the floor was toward the end of Season 1—Doogie and Vinnie get caught in a botched robbery in a convenient store.

The would-be thief is a Black kid their age from Compton who is trying to make his bones with his own crew, but when the robbery goes wrong, the thing turns into a police standoff. The boys get to talking, eventually make friends, and realise they have more in common than they thought…they like music, video games, and each has tendency to make kind of unfair assumptions about the other. Doogie goes home thinking more than he ever had about race relations, if he himself is more racist than he thought he was, and what he can do to be better about that.

If this had been Hill Street Blues, or any adult show, the standoff probably would have ended with the kid they had made friends with getting shot by the cops as he was trying to surrender, or similar. I was braced for that. But (and this was what made Doogie Howser perfect pandemic viewing for me) we’re talking kids’ demographic here. I had a safety net. It wasn’t too long before I learned that nothing too horrible was going to happen, no matter how real it got. The worst of the punches would be pulled, and I was grateful.

As it turned out, Raymond (that’s the kid from the holdup, played by Markus Redmond) comes back in Season 2. He’s done his time in juvie and wants to try going straight, and was Doogie serious when he had said he would be willing to help him? When confronted with having to put his money where his mouth is, Doogie isn’t sure, and I appreciated the honesty of that. He follows through and hooks Raymond up with a job as an orderly at the hospital, but the hesitation makes it very human. Doogie’s a kid, after all, and not a saint.

Furthermore, even though Raymond has paid his debt to society and Doogie has put the convenience store behind them, Doogie’s mother (Belinda Montgomery) isn’t quite ready to have the guy who pulled a gun on her child as a guest in her home. This isn’t a race thing, this is a mom thing, and I couldn’t really blame her—I would have felt some hostility toward anyone who had done that to my kid, no matter what they looked like. Even Raymond understands. Eventually Raymond and straight work get used to each other (it takes some doing), and I was delighted to see Markus Redmond become a regular on the show.

Raymond's hand holds his new EMT ID card

The realness continues. Doogie is naturally always dealing with ageism because he’s younger than everyone else, but the show often flips the script and makes you look at the other side. Doogie’s own parents have an age gap, with his father being 15 years older than his mother. They’ve been happily married for many years, but her father has never really approved. At the same time, Doogie has no problem dating older women…but when he starts to fall for one who has a young son, what holds Doogie off isn’t the girl, it’s the fact that at 17, he’s not ready to be a dad.

Doogie himself is sweet, even when you want to smack him for being a bit of a butthead. He’s a teenager, it’s not his fault. And honestly, more teenagers should journal and soul-search the way he does. He’s usually the voice of reason with his friends, but not always—he is at his most teenage, predictably, when it comes to dealing with his girlfriend or his parents. He doesn’t handle jealousy well, has trouble seeing his parents as actual human beings as opposed to parents…the usual teen stuff. But he’s always expected to do everything better because he’s a genius, and he expects it of himself too, and he gets more frustrated than anyone else when he’s not good at it.

One last hardcore installment of Hill Street Jr rocks up in Season 4. It was the fall of 1992 and the LA riots happened. Just like a TV show like The West Wing couldn’t let 9-11 happen without making some sort of episode to honour it, Doogie Howser MD joined a bunch of other shows in using the Rodney King awfulness as a plot device, and hopefully a teaching moment. They did a terrific job with it, in my opinion. They stayed true to the premise of the show, they didn’t beat you over the head with preachiness, but the gravity of the situation came across bigtime.

The most effective part was probably when Vinnie wound up playing babysitter to a bunch of daycare kids who are stuck in the hospital while their teacher is in with burns. The kids are young, they’re scared, and they want to know what is going on around them. Vinnie has to figure out a way to both answer their questions and keep them calm at the same time. It’s sweet, sad, and real.

I hear that Disney has a Doogie reboot in the works, this time with a Hawaiian girl in the title role. The remaining Bochco family is involved at least enough to give the venture their blessing as producers, which is encouraging, but I hope that becoming a Disney property won’t rob the show of its teeth. True, I’m hardly its target demographic nowadays, despite it having served as perfect pandemic viewing. I’ll check it out when it drops, though, and I certainly wish it luck.

Written by Cat Smith

Cat Smith is the reigning Miss Nerdstiles, having inherited the crown from absolutely no one, because she made it up. She is an actor, a musician, a cosplayer since before they had a word for it, and a general nuisance (General Nuisance *salute*). She and her ukulele have charmed the collective socks off of LI Who and LI Geek, ReGeneration Who, WHOlanta, Potterverse, Coal Hill Con, Time Eddy, MISTI-Con, Hudson Valley Comic Con, Wicked Faire, SqueeCon, The Way Station, and The Pandorica Restaurant . She has written for "Outside In" and "Why I Geek" (among others), and you can find her music on bandcamp at Consider supporting her continuing adventures by becoming a patron at

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