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Possessing a genius intellect and an eidetic memory, Howser participates in a longitudinal study of child prodigies until his 18th birthday. He earned a perfect score on the SAT at the age of six, completed high school in nine weeks at the age of nine, graduated from Princeton University in 1983 at age 10, and finished medical school four years later. At age 14, Howser was the youngest licensed doctor in the country. As a newspaper article (one of several noting some of Doogie's aforementioned accomplishments that are shown in the series' opening title sequence) stated, he "can't buy beer... [but] can prescribe drugs".
The series begins on Howser's 16th birthday; the cold open of the pilot episode shows him stopping his field test for his driver's license to help an injured person at the scene of a traffic accident. Howser is a second-year resident surgeon at Eastman Medical Center in Los Angeles, and still lives at home with his parents. His best friend and neighbor, Vinnie Delpino (Max Casella), is a more typical teenager--climbing through Howser's bedroom window to visit--and connects him to life outside of medicine. Howser has kept a diary on his computer since 1979; episodes typically end with him making an entry in it, making observations about the situations he had experienced or learned in the episode.
Howser seeks acceptance from both children his age, and his professional colleagues. Many episodes also deal with wider social problems: AIDS awareness, racism, homophobia, sexism, gang violence, access to quality medical care, and losing one's virginity are topics, along with aging, body issues, and friendship.
Howser initially has a girlfriend, Wanda Plenn (Lisa Dean Ryan), but they break up after she leaves for college; he also begins a trauma surgeryfellowship and moves into his own apartment. Bochco intended to end the show with a "season-long story arc for Doogie where he becomes disaffected with the practice of medicine and quits medicine to become a writer". ABC abruptly canceled the show due to low ratings, preventing Bochco and the show's writers from implementing the storyline other than Howser's resignation from Eastman and departure for Europe in the final episode.
The weekly, half-hour dramedy was created by Steven Bochco. He originated the concept and asked David E. Kelley to help write the pilot, giving Kelley a "created by" credit. Harris was the first actor the show's staff had found that could convincingly play a teenage doctor, but ABC executives opposed his casting. Bochco's contract required that the network pay an "enormous" penalty if it canceled the project, so ABC was forced to let him film the pilot. The network still opposed Harris's casting and disliked the pilot, but after positive reception during test screenings, ABC greenlit the show.
From left to right, Lawrence Pressman as Dr. Canfield, Neil Patrick Harris as Doogie Howser, Mitchell Anderson as Dr. McGuire and Kathryn Layng as Nurse Spaulding.
Max Casella as Vincent "Vinnie" Salvatore Delpino, Howser's best friend since they were five years old. A typical girl-crazy teenager, Delpino resists his father's demands to join the family business and instead attends film school to pursue a career as a film director.
Lisa Dean Ryan (seasons 1-2, recurring in season 3) as Wanda Plenn, Delpino's high-school classmate and Howser's girlfriend. After her mother dies in an automobile accident, Plenn's relationship with Howser suffers. After she leaves for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago they end their relationship.
Lucy Boryer (seasons 1-3, two episodes in season 4) as Janine Stewart, Delpino's girlfriend and Plenn's best friend. She drops out of college and becomes a buyer for a department store.
Lawrence Pressman as Dr. Benjamin Canfield, head of Eastman Medical. Canfield is an old friend and classmate of David Howser, and persuades him to join the hospital to run its family practice.
Mitchell Anderson (seasons 1-2) as Dr. Jack McGuire, a resident at Eastman and Howser's friendly rival. A visit to rural Mexico inspires him to leave the hospital to serve the poor overseas.
Kathryn Layng as Mary Margaret "Curly" Spaulding, a nurse at Eastman. Spaulding occasionally dates McGuire and, briefly, both Canfield and Howser.
Markus Redmond (seasons 2-4, guest star in season 1) as Raymond Alexander, an orderly (and later an EMT) at Eastman. While he was a gang member, Alexander meets Howser after taking him hostage during a convenience-store robbery; after finishing his sentence, Howser helps him get a job at the hospital as an orderly.
Rif Hutton as Dr. Ron Welch, a fellow doctor who is also friends with Howser.
Robyn Lively as Michele Faber (seasons 2 and 4), a nursing student. She becomes Howser's girlfriend shortly before he decides to leave Eastman and go to Europe.
Barry Livingston as Dr. Bob Rickett (seasons 2-4), a fellow doctor working at Eastman.
According to Metacritic, Marvin Kitman of Newsday gave season 1 of Doogie Howser, M.D. a 40/100 score and commented: "What a wasted childhood my kids have had, I got to thinking while watching this otherwise normal Doogie Howser. It makes you look at your kids differently. What lazy bums they must be, still in high school at 16." Scott Weinberg of DVD Talk recommended season two: "It's not high art, but it's a heckuva lot better than what generally passes for your average weeknight sitcom." Christopher Smith of the Bangor Daily News gave season three a "C" grade and commented: "No classic, this series. [...T]he show has become gratingly cute, particularly in the episodes "Doogiesomething," "Double Doogie with Cheese," and "Lonesome Doog." Doog, I'm Dooged out."
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy Series or a Special
Joe Kenworthy (production sound mixer) Bill Thiederman (re-recording mixer) Dean Okrand (re-recording mixer) Mike Getlin (re-recording mixer) (for the episode "Lonesome Doog")
Outstanding Cinematography for a Series
Michael D. O'Shea (for the episode "Summer Of '91")
Golden Globe Award
Best Performance by an Actor in a TV-Series - Comedy/Musical
Neil Patrick Harris
Young Artist Award
Best Young Actor Starring in a Television Series
Best Young Actress Co-starring in a Television Series
Lisa Dean Ryan
Primetime Emmy Award
Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Comedy Series or a Special
Joe Kenworthy (production sound mixer) Mike Getlin (re-recording mixer) Dean Okrand (re-recording mixer) Bill Thiederman (re-recording mixer) (for the episode "Doogie Got a Gun")
Neil Patrick Harris has satirized his years playing a teenage medical doctor several times:
In an episode of Roseanne, Roseanne Connor (Roseanne) has a dream after having undergone breast reduction surgery. She goes to the mirror and realizes that her breasts are comically larger than before. Doogie Howser (Harris) comes in and asks an upset Roseanne if they were supposed to be bigger than they are in the dream. Roseanne screams, but then is woken up by her husband Dan. To make sure she was dreaming, she looks under her bedsheet, sees the surgery went as planned, and sighs, "Way to go, Doogie!"
In the 2004 comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Harris - playing a fictionalized version of himself - claims to have "humped every piece of ass ever on that show" (except the hot nurse, over whom he expresses regret). Harris is referred to as "Doogie Howser" while stealing Harold (John Cho)'s car from the convenience store. In Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, Harris remarks, after taking psychotropic mushrooms, "Dude, I was able to perform an appendectomy at 14, I think I can handle a few 'shrooms".
In 2008, Harris appeared in commercials for Old Spice deodorant, claiming to be an expert because he "used to be a doctor for pretends".
During the opening of the 2009 TV Land Awards, Harris, who hosted the show, travels through "The TV Land Zone" (a spoof of The Twilight Zone), where he finds himself the star of TV classics. At one point, Harris walks into a doctor's office, dressed as Doogie, while the Doogie Howser, M.D. theme plays. After realizing where he is, he storms out, saying, "No no no, not gonna happen! Check my contract!"
On the January 10, 2009 episode of Saturday Night Live, an "SNL Digital Short" featured Harris, the episode's guest host, leading a full orchestra version of the Doogie Howser theme. When the song concludes, he turns toward the camera and sheds a tear.
On the March 14, 2011 episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a "real doctor" played by Harris endorses Kimmel's Jim-Miracle Diet, as the Doogie Howser theme plays.
Harris in 2017 joined other actors from medical television shows in Cigna's "TV Doctors of America" advertising campaign for annual checkups.