The Daily Stream: In A Young Doctor's Notebook, Misery Loves Comedy

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The series: "A Young Doctor's Notebook"

Where you can stream it: Tubi

The pitch: Based on the short story collection of the same name by Mikhail Bulgakov, "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is a limited British television series about a freshly graduated doctor (Daniel Radcliffe) working at a rural hospital in Russia who is visited by visions of his older self (Jon Hamm). The first series/season is set in 1917 during the Russian Revolution, while the second is set a year later, during the resulting Russian Civil War. The doctor, Dr. Vladimir Bomgard, struggles with both the challenges of running a remote hospital and the horrors caused by the revolution and civil war. In addition to fighting with his patients, who are uneducated and set in their ways, the young doctor also must contend with his ego as the rest of the hospital staff constantly compare him to the former head doctor, Leopold Leopoldovich. 

The older version of the doctor visits his younger self as he reads through his old notebooks and reminisces while he's being investigated by the Soviet regime just prior to the Great Purge in 1936, when at least 750,000 people were executed and another million were sent to the gulags, or prison camps, for life at the behest of dictator Joseph Stalin. As the elder doctor tries to prove that he isn't an enemy of the state, he also revisits the decisions that brought him to his current position. He tries to argue with his younger self, who he can somehow revisit through his diaries, and set him on the right track. While the series is a meditation on regret, it's also a darkly hilarious view into one man's miserable life.

Why it's essential viewing

Sometimes things are so bad, you just have to laugh. It's a deeply human trait, one that Captain Pike (Anson Mount) recently taught Spock (Ethan Peck) on "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds." Some situations are so truly terrible that the only way to keep from cracking up is to let out a little pressure with a laugh. Most of the humor in "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is gallows humor, so anyone expecting to watch the silly medical misadventures of Harry Potter and Don Draper is going to be in for a bad time.

The series is the bleakest of the bleak, in part because Bulgakov's short stories were heavily based upon his own experiences working as a new doctor in a remote Russian village. Modern medicine was still in its infancy in the 1910s, and many of the techniques and treatments seem barbaric by today's standards. There's definitely some shared blood between "A Young Doctor's Notebook" and the cancelled-too-soon Cinemax series "The Knick," as both tackle addiction, post-traumatic stress in medical professionals, early modern medicine, and the dangers of class divides. The biggest difference, besides the young/old doctor conceit, is that "The Knick" takes place at hospital in the heart of New York City, and the tiny local hospital in "A Young Doctor's Notebook" is miles from civilization.

There's a claustrophobia that's hard to explain but is exhibited beautifully in the series as the land around the hospital becomes a snowy waste, ensuring certain death to anyone who wanders too far. The horror and humor are in constant balance, and the tension between them is tight; sometimes it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Life is pain, so you might as well laugh

Being alive in 2022 is one helluva thing. None of us signed up to live through this much chaos at once, and sometimes things can feel a little hopeless. In times like these, fluffy and lighthearted comedies can sometimes feel grating, reminding the viewer that things could be better but aren't. Fictional happy endings can feel like salt in the wound, but laughter is still important for our mental health, so what's a person to do? 

"A Young Doctor's Notebook" is a nasty little piece of work about regret, but it's also a comforting escape when times get hard. I rewatched the series during the early days of the pandemic and found catharsis in the tiny moments of humor in a situation that were significantly more dire than my own. Hamm and Radcliffe both give great performances, and their back-and-forth is exactly what you'd expect from someone dealing with their younger self. Bomgard's realization over the course of the series that he can't go back and fix his mistakes, and watching his younger self make them all over again, is a very poignant representation of what many of us do in our own minds. In the end, the biggest enemy in "A Young Doctor's Notebook" isn't the revolutionaries, the royal army, the cold, or even infection; it's Bomgard's inability to cope in the face of such horror, despite the fact that the rest of his hospital staff manage just fine.

So if reality feels a little too bleak to laugh about, check out "A Young Doctor's Notebook" and try to remember: it could always be worse.