Decades before Neil Patrick Harris was Barney Stinson, the prodigal, he played Doogie Howser, the prodigy.
Since late last year, lucky viewers have been learning that -- hot as How I Met Your Mother may be -- Harris shined even more brightly in his first series, the 22-year-old Doogie Howser, M.D. (shown, in sequential order, weeknights at 9:30 on The Hub cable network). The entertaining and thoughtful writing, bullseye casting and enlightened production of this four-season comedy about a boy-genius physician give it a singular spot on the list of extraordinary TV.
Had there been a fifth season, fans of the show would have gotten to see Howser's genius follow another path -- but more about that in a moment.
The series is part of a Hub prime-time lineup that also includes Family Ties and The Wonder Years. It's a trio that, in the mind of many fans of high-quality television, constitutes Must-See-Again TV.
(If you're not in one of the 61 million U.S. homes said to have access to The Hub, and you remember those series as gems, apologies that they're in a virtual vault. All of Doogie, most of Ties and only a few episodes of Wonder are available on video, and episodes of all three can be found on the Web -- the former source being expensive, and the latter inconsistent with, and second-notch to, the way television works best.
(If you're too young to recognize those titles, run them through your search engine; if you truly are interested in TV that's worth watching, you'll love what you find.)
Watching Doogie almost two decades after it disappeared from prime time has been even more fun and rewarding than expected. Steven Bochco created and carried it through four brilliant seasons after his first big TV creations, Hill Street Blues and LA Law, had won plenty of fans, ratings races and awards during their NBC runs. It was his second half-hour comedy after those dramatic hits, but the first he really ran (he created and consulted and wrote for Hooperman, his first comedy, a John Ritter-starring series that also shined).
Each Doggie Howser episode is as crisp as it was when first aired: the kind of perfect blend between smiles and serious that used to be so hard to find on a TV show -- and it's even rarer now. The stories are amusing, believable and touching. Each half hour's resolution is as new and effective as it was when ABC served it fresh.
Each ends with Doogie at his computer, writing a personal-journal entry on his home computer. (Its MS-DOS platform and the bulkiness of the occasional cell phone are the only items so far discovered that date the stories.) Each journal entry, only a couple of lines long, sums up what he's just experienced and delivers a touching insight into the character.
Two lists can be found on the Web of these closing lines., which you can read by clicking HERE and HERE.
Wonderful as it is that two industrious people compiled them, these closing journal entries are best enjoyed in context, after watching the show that led up to that part of the script.
For example, these words at the end of a Thanksgiving episode -- an episode showing serious friction between Doogie's maternal grandfather and father -- aren't nearly as nice to read on their own as they are to experience at the believable denouement of a several-layer, artfully written story:
Thanksgiving. Had turkey and pumpkin pie. Grandpa ate crow. Dad sampled the fruits of victory. Vinnie tasted sweet satisfaction. I hope the leftovers last all year.
The computer-screen reflections were a show trademark that viewers at the time seemed to keep with them and talk about later. It was easy to think then, and similarly so now, that it had to be just as difficult to get those few parting sentences right as it was to put together the rest of the script.
More than just an insight into the Howser character, those lines also were an insight into Steven Bochco. In a phone interview from his California office this week, Bochco told how he claimed those few sentences for himself: "I, generally speaking, always wrote those 'computer lines'."
Not only was he wrapping up each week's package just perfectly with that ending -- in showcasing the young man's writing, he also was developing a story line that never had a chance to unfold.
"I had an idea how I wanted to end the series, but ABC canceled us before I could do it in the fifth season," Bochco said. "(Doogie) would have left medicine and become a writer... if we had been able to grow the series organically through a fifth season."
Doogie probably would have gone on to write fiction, Bochco said. He said he hadn't shared those details with the rest of the company. So the idea of seeing Doogie spending more time with words than medicine is one that might come as a surprise even to people once connected to the series.
Bochco still thinks well of Doogie Howser M.D., which ran on ABC from 1989-93, but hasn't watched any of the episodes, ever.
"I always loved that show and always thought it was an underrated show," Bochco said, explaining that many judged it by his earlier series and these people "always looked at it as below the standards" he had set in the earlier shows. But it isn't such criticism that has kept him from watching his work once it has been delivered.
"I'm not tempted to watch anything I've done again," he said of all his work. He explained that by the time an episode is completed, "you're sick of it," and watching would force him to spend too much time thinking "how you would make it differently."
It's a safe bet a lot of other people, who don't have the same deep investment as Bochco has in the series are pretty sure they can't watch too much of this very special series and wouldn't change anything about it.
[Doogie Howser, M.D. is televised weeknights at 9:30 ET on HUB. A complete series collection on DVD, and individual season collections, can be purchased by clicking HERE.]