Young doctors try to heal patients, themselves in 'Off the Map'
Sappy situations abound in the South American jungle where the expatriate doctors ply their trade in the message-laden ABC series.
By Mary McNamara
Alas, it all plays just as sappy as it sounds, even with the gorgeous and ridiculous distractions of make-do medicine—after Lily treats a patient mid-zip line, Ben transfuses him with coconut milk when the blood stores run low (kids, don't try this at home); Tommy saves a medicine-wary tubercular family using only the power of his voice and the soulfulness of his eyes (he speaks no Spanish); and Mina deals with the ho-hum-until-it's-not nature of clinic work.
Off the Map is intentionally vague about where it takes place: "somewhere in South America." It's about like having white settlers meet anonymous Indians somewhere in the Wild West. It's an excellent example of how the lack of details makes a show bland and generic.
Let's look at where the show should be situated, but isn't:
So people hike 200 miles through the jungle to reach topless beaches where the slightest accident could kill them? And no tourist resort, seaside port, oil company, or village on an Amazon tributary is close enough to offer help? That's flatly ridiculous.
Culture and language
The setting's culture is about as vague as its location:
Moreover, the Americans seem to be the only employees. One nameless Latina nurse does get a few of seconds of screen time, but that's it. This ensures that the heroic whites will solve every problem themselves.
Basically the story is about the great white doctor Keeton and his three white acolytes. Despite all the brown background characters, it's one of the whitest shows I've seen.
Worse, when an old woman keeps showing up at the clinic, new doctor Minard tells her to go home. Minard emphasizes this by speaking slowly and clearly in English. Despite having three doctors and an unknown number of others who are bilingual, she doesn't ask for help. Not until the woman keels over does Minard think, "Hmm, maybe she was actually here for a reason. She wasn't just sitting here to annoy me like some ignorant welfare recipient who wants a handout."
It's ridiculous for a show set in a South American jungle, the home of many Indian tribes, not to mention Indians. It's also ridiculous not to mention any of the possible political or cultural conflicts. Are ranching, mining, or oil-drilling operations intruding on the local residents? How do the residents even earn a living: by subsistence farming or working for a mega-corporation? Are any drug lords or anti-government militias operating nearby? What's the unnamed government's position on economic development, environmental protection, and indigenous rights? Does the government lean to the left or right? Is it pro- or anti-American? Etc.
Off the Map doesn't answer or even ask these questions because they'd intrude on the show's theme. Which is that Keeton the great white "humanitarian" is going to save the primitive brown-skinned people from their own folly. The locals have no healers, no leaders, no authority in their own homeland. They're merely suffering subjects for the white doctors to cure.
Alvarez the lone Latina seems to be more of an administrator and a scold than a doctor. She disappears for long stretches while the white doctors handle the most pressing cases. Her big moment comes when the black doctor Cole tells her to chill out because
Cole doesn't have much more to do than provide bits of POC wisdom. When Fuller reports that his patients are dying, Cole's big moment is telling Fuller to go back and cure them. In other words, giving the white doctor his big chance is more important than saving lives at risk. If the brown-skins died, Cole presumably would tell Fuller: "Try harder next time, white boy."
The whole setup is incredibly paternalistic. Even though Off the Map is about "ugly Americans" learning to be better human beings, it handles the subject in an ugly fashion. The great white doctor has all the answers; the people of color serve him as flunkies or patients.
The show's worldview is rooted in the early 20th century, when white missionaries and doctors were the only ones who could save the "dark" regions of the world. It's an insult to all the Latino and Indian people in South America who are taking charge of their lives. Who don't need Americans to help them.
Forty-five years ago, the TV series Daktari had a similar premise. But the black characters in Daktari were more fleshed out than the nameless South Americans who serve as patients in Off the Map. Off the Map is a big step backward in the portrayal of indigenous peoples and cultures.
For more on what Off the Map missed, see Amazon Indians Weren't Savages, Cameron's and Weaver's Anti-Dam Films, and Amazon Indian Students on the Net.