Television, like the movies, seems never to tire of new interpretations of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 horror novella, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Spencer Tracy, John Barrymore and Fredric March created memorable portrayals for the big screen. TV viewers embraced performances by Jack Palance in a 1968 TV movie and James Nesbitt in the BBC's Jekyll (2007), written by Steven Moffat (Dr. Who, Sherlock). NBC even tried its hand at a looser and short-lived spinoff, Christian Slater's My Own Worst Enemy, aired on NBC in 2008.
Now comes the split personality's latest branch: NBC's Do No Harm, starring Steven Pasquale (Rescue Me) as Dr. Jason Cole/Ian Price, premiering Thursday (10 ET/PT). The show also stars Alana de la Garza, Phylicia Rashad and Michael Esper.
"Stevenson's story has clearly touched a nerve in the psyche of every human being who's read it, otherwise it wouldn't be around today," says writer and creator David Schulner. "It's as classic as you can get."
Do No Harm is not a literal interpretation. In Stevenson's tale, Dr. Jekyll uses a drug to delve into his dark and evil side, while in Do No Harm Cole uses a drug to suppress it. This is a new version "that steals the best parts of it and absolutely re-imagines it for today," Schulner says.
And then there is at least one 21st-century improvement: Cole and Price communicate through modern devices. "Thank God for the iPhone, right?" says Pasquale. "That's a great storytelling element. "Oftentimes Jason will wake up or Ian will wake up, and there will be a video message waiting for him on the cellphone or the laptop or the iPad. It's a great way to have them interact, and also, as you can imagine, it's really fun for me acting with my weirdo self."
The series will make occasional subtle references to the source material: "J. Cole" is emblazoned on Jason's lab coat. In one episode, Ian, sitting next to a kid reading Treasure Island, another Stevenson classic, asks him how he likes the book. The kid shrugs his shoulders, and Ian says, 'Yeah, guy's a hack.' "
Episodes follow the mild-mannered Cole who, every night at 8:25, turns into the havoc-wreaking Price. At 8:25 a.m., he turns back into Cole. (Schulner says the number 825 has a symbolic meaning whose significance will be revealed at the season's end.)
For five years, Cole has been able to suppress his worst half with the help of that experimental drug. But the drug's no longer working, and Cole and Price are waging all-out war against each other.
"Dr. Jason Cole is a classic hero. He's a successful and charming neurosurgeon. He's a do-gooder and earnest and interested in helping people. And Ian Price, who comes every night, is a sociopathic drug addict, sex addict and master manipulator, but crazy fun," Pasquale says. "So they couldn't be more opposite in how they're wired, personality-wise. They just happen to inhabit the same body."
And in this new Jekyll/Hyde story, unlike most earlier interpretations, Pasquale doesn't wear makeup or prosthetics to differentiate between Cole and Price.
"We're making a contemporary version that's very loosely based on that story. We didn't want to make it a classic 'one personality is all evil and one is all good,' " the actor says. "We wanted there to be a lot of gray area, so that when Jason/Ian interacts with our peripheral characters, that's where all the drama and interesting storytelling lies."
So it's not so much about Pasquale playing two sides of one character, but two different characters. "There's a Jason story, and there's an Ian story, and I have a gang of writers and directors making sure that behaviorally we don't bleed too much from one into the other."
Schulner promises that in the season's final episodes (should, of course, the show survive that long), viewers will find out how Jason and Ian came to inhabit the same body. "That's what we're building to. As Jason gets closer to finding the drug that will get rid of Ian, he gets closer and closer to finding out why Ian is there and how he got there. In our last two episodes, the big reveals take place."
NBC is heavily promoting Harm throughout its prime-time schedule. "Thursday night is a big night, a historic night, for NBC," says Schulner, "and even though the quality of the shows has continued to be extremely high, the ratings have absolutely fallen. So I think if you're going to put anything on Thursday night now (Harm inhabits Rock Center's time slot), you have to make a lot of noise and remind people that NBC is the place to go on a Thursday night."