It’s lights, camera and life-saving. BFTV recently visited the set of TNT’s upcoming medical drama Monday Mornings, to walk the halls of the fictional Chelsea General Hospital and get introduced to the show’s cast and creative team.
The man running the show on a daily basis is executive producer and director Bill D’Elia, who’s no stranger to the task. “I’ve worked on a lot of medical shows and in fact was executive producer on Chicago Hope,” he said. “David [E. Kelley] and I have been working together for a very long time and we’ve done quite a few shows together. This one is a little different because it’s based on the book by Sanjay [Gupta]. David adapted it, and then when he finished the script, I started working on putting it together as a production and directed the pilot.”
Unlike other series where some producers may not be hands-on all the time, D’Elia explained that he, Kelley and Gupta work as a unit on Monday Mornings. “The three of us are executive producers together on this each with very specific functions,” he continued. “Sanjay was the guy that got it all started, David is the brilliant mind behind the scripts that come out every week, and I’m the one that is here making it work on a daily basis.”
“I believe you actually watch this show in a different manner than you watch most medical shows,” he said of the series, which has a ten-episode order from TNT. “As you watch the show, even if these doctors are successful, there’s something to be learned from what they did, or the way they did it, or what they could have done differently. You’ll watch this show and see success and wonder, did he do the right thing? Even though the patient lived, did the right thing happen? If the patient died, did they still do all the right things? It’s an interesting way into a medical drama.”
Gupta, who is also CNN’s chief medical correspondent, spoke about translating his novel into a television series. “As a surgeon attention to detail is the most important thing,” he said. “I thought making a television show about this, there’s not going to be that same level of diligence because it’s a television show. but the amount of prep and diligence that goes into every part of the show was surprising to me. There’s a lot that goes into even a very simple scene.”
“Everything that’s done on the show, it’s real. This is stuff that’s really happening,” he said of the medicine that’s depicted, though he added that when it comes to what makes it into an episode, “The operations really follow the storyline more. Just about any operation that we want to do, from pretty sophisticated brain surgery, to transplants, we can do.”
He also expressed how Monday Mornings functions as more than just a piece of entertainment. “It’s a television show that’s supposed to be entertaining and engaging,” he continued, “but I think there’s an educational component to it. Speaking truth to power is a real theme of the show. The idea that doctors hold each other accountable in a really no holds barred way is part of that speaking truth.”
That’s a reference to the morbidity and mortality (M&M) conferences that are a key part of the show, and having been in the real-life ones, Gupta explained just how serious they can be. “No one wants to be at the lectern in that spot, but everyone has been,” he said. “Academic wars are waged in these rooms. Sides are picked. You’re dealing with some very, very strong personalities as well, arguably over the most important things.”
While Chelsea General Hospital is said to be in Portland, Oregon, Monday Mornings actually shoots on soundstages in Manhattan Beach, California. That may be the most unrealistic thing about the setting. The hospital is incredibly accurate, with operating rooms so realistic that production members quip that they could be used in an emergency. What’s it like for the cast to step into them? Stars Jamie Bamber and Jennifer Finnigan, who play neurosurgeons Tyler Wilson and Tina Ridgeway, weighed in via phone.
“[It’s] very empowering,” said Bamber. “Everything in those rooms is real. Sanjay [Gupta] has told me and others that were anybody to have an aneurysm on the set. he could do everything in that room to get in there and solve the problem. They’re not sterile, that’s the only difference.
“Knowing that we have that level of reality – and we also have real OR nurses working with us, so when an instrument is handed to Jen or I it is done by someone who has been operating the day before in exactly that situation – that’s very empowering.
“I find it exciting. It’s a challenge because you wear all this gear, and it’s uncomfortable after a while, and it takes hours, probably as long as the surgical procedure would, but with timeouts between takes, which are frustrating, because you can’t eat anything or drink anything, because you’re covered in masks and gloves and surgical gear.
“But you get a buzz. You get a buzz about being the center of that theater. You’re at the heart of the theater, you’re the lead. You’re the practitioner. It’s where the God complex comes from for these surgeons. They are making life and death motions with their hands and decisions, and the acting is very interesting because it’s all eyes only, you can’t even see their mouths move.
“It’s a real thing and you have to take a deep breath in and be up for it, but it’s an aspect of the show that I actually have really learned to enjoy.”
“It is interesting being in there,” agreed Finnigan, whose character has a personal storyline with Bamber’s this season. “It’s fascinating because we really do get a sense of what actual surgeons experience while they’re in there, from all of the instruments and the procedures – which are heavily choreographed by the way, because prior to doing these scenes we rehearse them over and over again.
“We get our movements right, our positioning right, everything has to be just so because on Monday Mornings they’re really big on very close shots whether it’s of our eye, whether it’s of our hand, everything is very measured. So those movements have to be down pat.
“And then we get the feeling that these doctors go through when they’re wearing all that gear and standing on their feet for six, seven hours. Sanjay has even spoken about doing procedures for eight hours straight without taking a bathroom break, and here we are complaining that we can’t get to catering because we’re wearing a face mask. So it’s definitely eye opening.”
The pair are joined by an impressive ensemble, who shed some light on their characters. “What attracted me to Sydney was just how much of a spitfire she is,” said Sarayu Rao, who plays Dr. Sydney Napur. “I think what’s really great about her is she is a spitfire because she loves her job and cares about it so much, not because she’s just competitive. She’s driven by heart, ultimately. I just was in love with her and i was in love with the story.” Speaking of love, Sydney will also have a romantic interest.
“It’s fun to play characters that aren’t super polished or nice necessarily,” explained Keong Sim, who plays Dr. Sung Park, originally from Korea and with a wife and children who like him more than some of his patients might. “I’m super-smart, I just haven’t figured out the language very well nor the bedside manner,” he laughed, adding that “The language stuff ends up being a source of some comedy for the other characters.”
Then there’s Dr. Michelle Robideux, played by Emily Swallow. “[She’s] the only one of the main crew who’s still a resident, and that’s a really fun thing to take on,” explained the actress. “She’s very smart, she’s very capable, but she’s surrounded by giants. She’s trying to kind of claim her space and learn what she can. She has a number of missteps along the way. but I liked that she just keeps trying.”
Several of the actors also spoke about how Monday Mornings provides a certain insight into the medical profession. “What is so incredible about David’s writing and Sanjay’s is the characters,” continued Swallow, “all of their idiosyncracies and the way that they butt heads and the way that they come to life. In these [M&M] meetings, they can speak completely candidly. They can’t get away with anything because they’re being grilled by people who are just as smart as them, and who’ve been in similar situations, and who know that they all need to get better at what they do. Ultimately they’re challenging each other to do that.
“I think it’s sort of strange that we expect [medicine] to be perfect,” she added, “because ultimately it is run by humans, and humans have imperfections.”
Agreed Rao, “The thing about the meetings that’s so great, and the show that’s different, is the culpability factor and how much that humanizes the characters. A lot of times with medical dramas, we see these doctors sort of like superheroes, and now we watch these superheroes flailing, or we watch them fall.”
“What I love about it is the truth and honesty of the show,” said actor Ving Rhames, who plays chief trauma surgeon Dr. Jorge Villanueva, divorced and estranged from his son, whom something happens to this season. “This is better than 95 percent of movie scripts I read. To be part of a show like this with the writing, and even the chemistry of the actors, I think this show is really trying to say something about mankind. I think it will make you think, and that’s really what drew me to this.”
Monday Mornings premieres on Monday, February 4 at 10 PM ET/PT on TNT – but you can read BFTV’s early review of the series now.
For more from Brittany Frederick, visit my official website and follow me on Twitter (@tvbrittanyf).
(c)2013 Brittany Frederick. Appears at Examiner with permission. All rights reserved. No reproduction permitted.