Doogie Howser, M.D.

1989 | United States

In America, "Doogie" has become shorthand for someone who is considered to be too young to handle responsibility. That's a rather unfair slap to the television "dramedy" (comedy-drama) where the term originated.

Doogie Howser, MD seems to be implausible on the surface; a teenager who's a licensed doctor - but there is quite a bit of reality in the situation, and it was helped by the show's two famed creators; Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. But credit must also be given to young actor Neil Patrick Harris, who turned Doogie into a flesh and blood character stuck in that space between adulthood and youth.

Bochco and Kelley created Doogie Howser" as part of Bochco's multi-series deal with ABC. Doogie (Douglas) Howser was a gifted child who finished high school in nine weeks, graduated from Princeton University at age 10 and became the youngest practicing physician in the U.S. by the age of 14. His biography was summed up in the opening credits, complete with a synthesizer music theme by Mike Post. And yes, there was a real-life Doogie Howser - sort of. His name was Howard Zucker, and he became a doctor at the relatively young age of 22. Zucker reportedly had a cousin who worked as an ABC programmer. Bochco has also said the show was inspired in part by his father, who was a violin protègè.

Doogie Howser MD

When the series premiered in September 1989, Doogie was 16 years old and practiced medicine at Los Angeles' Eastman Medical Center. He lived with his parents Katherine (Belinda Montgomery) and his father, Dr. David Howser (played by James B. Sikking, who also portrayed gun-ho SWAT Lieutenant Howard Hunter on Hill Street Blues). Yet while Doogie had adult responsibilities, physically and emotionally he was a teenager - too smart for his age group yet too young for some adults to take seriously. And as with most teens, Doogie experienced the ups and downs of love and adolescent lust. Each episode concluded with Doogie typing the lessons he had learned in that episode into his computer diary. Done on an early IBM PC clone, Doogie's "journal" was an early example of blogging (before the Internet, no less!)

Doogie Howser MD

Doogie Howser, MD was a moderate hit but ran for just four seasons; Bochco later said he was unable to write a series finale because ABC abruptly cancelled the series. If he had the chance, Bochco would have created a storyline where Doogie becomes disillusioned about being a doctor and switched careers to become a writer. As it was, the final episode was shown to American audiences 24 March 1993.

Harris took on various roles in television, stage and film after "Doogie;" he parodied his television persona in the 1994 movie comedy Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle (aka Harold and Kumar Get The Munchies) by playing himself as a drug addict who steals the main characters' car! In 1999 Harris returned to television with the short- lived NBC comedy Stark Raving Mad and later guest-starred on Will & Grace as the head of a group for "former" homosexuals. But in 2005, he came back to TV with a very funny performance as womanizing Barney Stinson on the CBS ensemble comedy How I Met Your Mother.

In 2006, a Canadian website reported that Harris was having a relationship with a fellow actor. A day later, Harris confirmed to People magazine that he was a "very content gay man living my life to the fullest." Harris has hosted the Tony Awards in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013, for which he won four special class Emmy Awards and in 2010 he was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

Yes, "Doogie" remains a negative shorthand in US pop culture. What should not be forgotten is that Doogie Howser was a few steps above the typical TV portrayal of a teenager, and was a well-produced series with its heart in the right place. 

Published on June 8th, 2020. Written by Mike Spadoni for Television Heaven.

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