The gratifying sadness of Doogie Howser, M.D.

The summer I was 24, I moved out of a house I’d been sharing with three other women for the past year and half and into a studio apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It was my first time living by myself and for the first few months, it was totally and completely awesome. I spent time at Ikea and Goodwill, looking for the right furnishings for my tiny home. A string of friends from out of town visited and slept on air mattresses on my floor. I rode my bike everywhere. My new boyfriend and I took long walks together, exploring the neighborhood. By October though, I found myself watching a lot of Doogie Howser, M.D. on Hulu. The reason for this behavior: I was very lonely.

It was a natural course of events, for the most part. I finished my nesting project. Friends concluded their summer travels and stopped sleeping on my floor. The weather turned cold and dreary, forcing me to be inside more often. The kicker though was when my boyfriend moved to Portland, ending our relationship. I found myself by myself, with a lot of time on my hands. So I did something I hadn’t done much of in years. I watched TV.

I watched a lot of shows during that fall: Family Guy, Home Movies, The Office, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, etc. But what I watched the most of, by far, was Doogie Howser.

I started watching Doogie Howser because I remembered liking it as a kid. In my mind, it was a cheesy comedy about the antics of a child genius. But through my adult eyes, I found it to be, in fact, a very sad show in a lot of ways. This is why I kept watching it.

There are four seasons of Doogie Howser, M.D., which aired from 1989 to 1993. The fall I was 24, I watched all four seasons. As an elementary school aged kid (I was nine when the show was canceled), I remember thinking Doogie was a totally put-together guy – an almost annoyingly straight shooter. He was smart, he got along with his parents, he helped his friends, and he was a doctor. The dude saved lives! He seemed too good, his life too perfect. I’m not actually sure what I enjoyed back then about his character, expect it is likely that I had a small crush on Neil Patrick Harris.

As an adult, my perception of Doogie Howser changed almost immediately. After watching the first episode, I though, “This isn’t what I remember.” Yes, the show was still cheesy; Doogie, totally cornball in his efforts to do right by his friends, family, and patients. But there was something else. Just like me, Doogie Howser seemed lonely. I found this gratifying.

Think about it: As a child prodigy, Doogie has no peers. He rocketed through school, finishing his medical degree at 14. He only has one friend his own age – his neighbor, Vinnie, who, by all accounts, is equally an outcast. Vinnie is an underachiever from a dysfunctional family. He and Doogie ultimately have little in common. They are friends because they have no one else. As for family, it’s clear Doogie’s parents love him and are proud of him, but they also appear to be the puppet masters behind his every move. Why is Doogie a doctor in the first place? Because his dad’s a doctor. Forced to pick a career as a child, what other choice could he possibly have? The show’s only other regular characters are Doogie’s colleagues at the hospital and a string of girlfriends, none of whom Doogie ever seems to fully line up with. After all, his colleagues are adults. His girlfriends are kids in high school. Doogie is neither. This is to say nothing of the tremendous emotional pressure of working in a hospital. By the end of the fourth season, Doogie is burnt out. The series ends with his giving up medicine to travel, the message: Doogie has never had any space to find himself and now that he’s nearing adulthood, he has no idea who he is as a person. He’s, ironically, potentially years behind other teens his age in self-knowledge and life experience.

This interpretation may seem a little dark, but at the time, that’s how the show looked to me.

Now, I’m not a genius and I’m not a doctor and I’m not a teenage boy. My loneliness was not Doogie’s loneliness, but that didn’t matter. I think what mattered was seeing the murkier, stranger side to a narrative I had previously thought of in an entirely different light. Because the thing is, it’s not like that fall was the first time I’ve ever felt lonely. I was a nervous kid, an uncomfortable teen, and now I’m an introverted adult. I’ve often felt like I was on the outside of things, and I probably will continue to feel this way throughout my life. In fact, that was part of the reason I had wanted my own apartment to begin with – space to be alone. I just wasn’t very good at it at first. And when people asked, “Aren’t you so happy to have your own place?” I found myself lying because I thought the answer was supposed to be “Yes.” I wondered if Doogie would have felt that way too if people in his life asked, “Aren’t you so happy?”

My favorite part of every Doogie Howser, M.D. episode was the end where Doogie turns on his computer, stares at the totally blank screen, and types a few sentences about what he’s learned that day. It’s here that his struggles and sadness are made most apparent, although he still almost always tries to put a positive spin on them. He finds a way to chalk it up to experience. As a daily journal writer myself, I appreciated his efforts in this way. After all, what good is our loneliness if we do not reflect on it and attempt to learn from it?

After a couple more months, I did get used to living by myself, and I ultimately came to really enjoy it (now I’m often nostalgic for my Capitol Hill studio). I became better friends with people I already knew in the neighborhood and made new friends in my own building. I forced myself to ride my bike even when it was cold outside. I found another new boyfriend. I stopped watching so much TV and started writing more. But I’m not embarrassed about having re-watched every episode of Doogie Howser, M.D. during that time. I’m also not embarrassed to have had periods of my life where I’ve felt lonely or sad or displaced even though nothing was really so wrong or terrible – times when I was, for whatever reason, not as content as others assumed I should be. What I learned that fall is that it’s okay to review those narratives in a different light, to reflect upon them, and, as Doogie does, to chalk them up to experience.

11 Comments

  • Monet says:

    You made me sigh.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    Who knew someone could write so eloquently and poignantly about Doogie Howser!? I love when the way you describe him being potentially years behind in self-knowledge and life experience…dont we all feel that way at times. So beautiful.

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    “I think what mattered was seeing the murkier, stranger side to a narrative I had previously thought of in an entirely different light.” And it can be all the more devastating to realize that, as an adult, you’re relating to the existential isolation of a child/teenager. Mmhmmhmm. Like this a lot.

  • Tim says:

    I remember the end of the show having somber undertones, but definitely didn’t tune into Doogie’s loneliness. Cool spin. Who’s the hunk in the photo?

  • In 1989, I was a high school exchange student in Texas who couldn’t figure out the world around her, or the people. Never mind the language. I felt like an outsider–but then every high school student does–and Doogie’s trials and tribulations really spoke to me. I cried at the end of each episode when he was typing his poignant thoughts on the blue computers screen.

    Your post makes me feel less alone. Thanks for not making me the only one who saw the darker side of Doogie. ;-)

  • Joseph C says:

    Oh my… I am going through the same experience! I watched the show as a kid, and saw parts of him in me. I am now in France studying med school as a foreign student, when i have the time i rewatch some episodes. Being in med school there is an extra motivation, and at the end of the day it helps to know that even geniuses like dougie has a hard time, and continues living his experiences in a positive way.
    Thank you so much for creating this blog, your thoughts and feelings are truly inspiring. Long live doogie…

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