It’s a bad sign when a show has to contort itself to make its premise work. Such is the case with The Mob Doctor, the drama that premiered on Fox last night about a young Chicago resident who finds herself doing medical work for the mafia to save her brother, who’s run afoul of them. Given a chance to leave Chicago and her debt at the end of the pilot, Dr. Grace Devlin (Jordana Spiro) insisted, against all the evidence, that she couldn’t leave town. But while I may have been frustrated by the contrivances that will keep the show going, it was hugely refreshing to see The Mob Doctor‘s utter lack of ambiguity on an issue where more coherent television shows so often demonstrate moral cowardice and contortions of logic: abortion.
As Grace struggled to decide whether to kill a patient on the order of the mafia don to whom she was indebted, the B plot of the pilot concerned Grace’s boyfriend’s patient, a 14-year-old girl Grace has known since she was a small child. Admitted after collapsing, Suzy turned out to be pregnant, despite the fact that her hymen was intact. While the way she came to be that way was a typical medical procedural gambit, both Grace and Suzy were adamant about the right decision going forward. “My dad is going to kill Johnny. And I have a swimming scholarship to Saint Catherine’s. If I’m knocked up, I lose it,” Suzy told Grace. And Grace, in discussing what to do with her boyfriend, who was reluctant to perform an abortion on Suzy in violation of the state’s parental consent laws, which would have required Suzy’s father to sign off on the procedure, was clear about the cruelty the law was enforcing. “That scholarship is her one shot at making something of her life,” Grace said. “It gives her options and you’re standing in her way.”
Obviously I don’t think it’s good or realistic policy to ask doctors to violate parental consent laws. But there was something breathtaking in The Mob Doctor‘s presentation of the situation. Suzy is a smart young woman. She took precautions and ended up pregnant anyway. The show treats her as if she’s intelligent enough to know what’s best for her. And it framed her getting an abortion as important not simply as a one-time choice, but as a portal to other kinds of self-determination, to other choices and chances to make a better life for herself. The episode didn’t dwell on whether it would be viable for Suzy to carry the pregnancy to term because it self-evidently didn’t make sense for her health, her family situation, or her education. And the dilemma wasn’t resolved with a Convenient Television Miscarriage, the tool of showrunners who lack the courage to actually follow through on their intentions. It just argued that parental consent laws or the unavailability of doctors willing and able to perform abortions can be ruinous for young women, and that young women who find themselves in need of abortions are neither sluts nor idiots.
We live in a pop culture universe where if a married woman gets an abortion, as on Grey’s Anatomy, she must do so in a storyline that emphasizes the emotional turmoil of the decision; where teen motherhood can be a path to tabloid riches via MTV or gauzy, twee romanticizations of what it means to interrupt your adolescence with a pregnancy; where there’s got to be something in the water or a plague of irregular menses to explain why so many pregnancies spontaneously end so early in term; where seeking affordable birth control can get a young professional woman labeled a whore by a powerful media figure. It’s kind of remarkable that the two people who have given us relatively straightforward abortions in their television shows in recent years are Josh Berman, the gay man who created The Mob Doctor, and tough guy Kurt Sutter in his biker show Sons of Anarchy. In that context, if not any other, it would be nice if other people making television shows—this especially means you, Mindy Kaling—took The Mob Doctor as a model and rediscovered a little bit of their courage, and the reality of women’s lives.