Matt Nix, the creator of the new USA drama “Complications,” may be best known as the guy who invented “Burn Notice,” a charming twist on the spy genre that ran for seven seasons. “Burn Notice” never took itself seriously, with a cube or two of spoof always stirred into the heated-up crime plots. Lead actor Jeffrey Donovan delivered wry second-person voice-overs with relevant spy tips, and the supporting cast, including Sharon Gless, Gabrielle Anwar, and Bruce Campbell, was endlessly idiosyncratic and amusing. The show, which helped USA extend the brand of breezy drama that it established with “Monk,” was a tonal triumph.
“Complications,” not so much. The show, which premieres with two episodes on Thursday at 9 p.m., is gloomily sincere and uneven. USA has begun to move away from its blue-sky approach, with the likes of “Dig,” and “Complications” is a clear marker of that shifting compass. But its gray sky mood is overdone and at times oppressive, and the lead performance, by Jason O’Mara of “Life on Mars,” “Terra Nova,” and “The Good Wife,” is suppressed almost out of existence. He’s a broody introvert whose psychological motivations are by turns inscrutable and simplistic.
O’Mara’s John Ellison is an ER doctor in Atlanta who is meeting with a therapist after having had a violent episode in the hospital waiting room. Their session in the premiere flashes back to what led up to the incident, and it involves Ellison’s impulsive decision to save a wounded 11-year-old child after stumbling across a gang shooting in a playground. By saving the little boy, he has inserted himself into a battle among gangs that takes over his life. Simultaneously, he and his wife, Samantha (Beth Riesgraf), are grieving for their 8-year-old daughter, who died from leukemia a year earlier. Clearly John finds some satisfaction in helping the child as emotional compensation for the loss of his daughter.
One of the plusses of the show is that it is not another hospital drama with cases of the week and staff melodrama; we’ve been swimming in those for years. The focus is clearly on John and his extracurricular activities, as he continues to protect the boy. His initial act of heroism turns into a high-stakes obligation, as the boy’s father, a gang leader who is in jail, forces John into service.
Nix avoids a number of clichés by averting the formulas of MD TV. I’m not sure these characters are interesting or detailed enough to fill the gaps left by the absence of the cases-of-the-week, but at least “Complications” is aiming for something ambitiously driven by character and a serial arc.
Another plus: Jessica Szohr as a cynical nurse who becomes John’s partner in crime. She was a breath of fresh air on “Gossip Girl” as the artsy, independent Vanessa. Here, she helps to give the show’s somber atmosphere a very much-needed bit of color and vitality.
Starring: Jason O’Mara, RonReaco Lee, Beth Riesgraf, Chris Chalk, Jessica Szohr,
Time: Thursday, 9 p.m.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.