August 13, 2020

The Doctors of Our Dreams

In the time of Covid, what more could we want to hear from our lab-coated healers than “How can I help?” On NBC’s New Amsterdam, the devoted doctors say that — and mean it. And though the creators never conceived of the coronavirus when the series debuted, they now find themselves with one of the most relevant shows around.

Jacqueline Cutler

Imagine the hospital of all our dreams…. its heroic doctors and nurses go to extreme measures to help all patients. no one is turned away, and the impoverished receive the best care, with dignity.

Now, imagine no longer. That hospital is New Amsterdam. Modeled after Manhattan's Bellevue, the country's first public hospital, it is at the center of the NBC drama series New Amsterdam.

Bellevue also houses a jail, a school and a psych ward, and the writer-producers of the series draw from all those settings for their topical stories.

Due to the coronavirus, New Amsterdam had an abbreviated second season. Even so, some 45 million viewers tuned in, landing it in the top 20 network shows.

Now — as a nation anxiously watches nightly statistics of new infections, ICU bed count and ventilator usage — the series heads into its season three, with an additional two-year commitment.

"We certainly had no foresight we would be arriving in this moment, with a pandemic," says executive producer–director Peter Horton, reflecting on life before Covid-19. "But having a show that is predictable and comforting may be what people need and want."

That predictability and comfort stem from knowing the harried doctors are good people determined to do good. While New Amsterdam provides solace, it also tackles hot-button issues, including opioid addiction, immigration, poverty and racism.

Although a broadcast-network series is an unlikely platform for subversion — especially one that's oddly reassuring — that's what Horton wanted to achieve.

That's why he and fellow executive producer David Schulner, who is also creator and showrunner, weave in current events. (Also executive-producing are Michael Slovis, David Foster and Aaron Ginsburg.)

An episode in season one, "Cavitation," told of a police shooting of a Black and a Latino child and the subsequent death of one of them, despite the best efforts of the hospital staff.

Weaving a discussion of guns, policing and racial injustice into an hour-long entertainment series "is really tricky," Horton allows. "Network shows are not known for wanting to be controversial. But because it is in the context of a hospital show, of people wanting to do the right thing, we are able to tell that story and have it get out there and have its impact."

In the coming season — expected to start sometime this fall — the producers plan to take a hard look at the health effects of climate change. They're also rescheduling an eerily prescient episode, "Pandemic," about a killer flu in New York City.

It was postponed because its original April 7 airdate found New York City in the grip of Covid-19. While Horton calls that the right decision (after all, this series is about making the right decisions), he acknowledges it was difficult to yank what he considered one of the best episodes.

"The challenge for us and the network was: is this perfectly unplanned timing a gift from the gods, with New Amsterdam stepping in to say, 'It's going to be okay,' and doing what we do well?" Horton asks. "Or is this exploitive?"

That episode was supposed to introduce the series' newest doctor, Cassian Shin, played by Daniel Dae Kim.

In a scary example of life imitating art imitating life, Kim contracted the coronavirus during shooting. He has since recovered. Dr. Shin — "this great cowboy of a surgeon," as Horton describes him — joins the ensemble cast, which is led by Ryan Eggold as Max Goodwin, the hospital's medical director.

Goodwin is the physician everyone wants. Despite shortages of time, staff and funds, he always puts patients first, taking on hospital administrators and insurance companies. As Eggold explains, "Max is willing to break the rules to get someone cared for."

Indeed, if Goodwin's signature line, "How can I help?" were the trigger for a drinking game, viewers would be tipsy by the end of each hour.

In the real world, the doctor's aggressively unorthodox style might not be received so benignly, but he remains a force for good.

Meanwhile, Eggold's laid-back manner belies the character's own life experience, which sounds like the makings of a country song. The doctor was recently widowed, fought cancer and has a newborn to care for, while his job is a daily reminder of the world's ills.

Though its plots and characters are fictional, the show strives for accuracy. Some scenes are shot in Bellevue's striking atrium, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei. Real Bellevue physicians have spent time with their TV counterparts, and some even appear onscreen as extras.

Like its TV doppelgänger, Bellevue stands as testament to a society that cares for all.

It dates to the 1660s, when it was an infirmary for soldiers in a city then called New Amsterdam. The hospital moved to its current location on the East Side of Manhattan in the 1790s. Plagues that ravaged New York over the centuries — scarlet fever, the 1918 flu, AIDS and now coronavirus — have all filled its beds.

The show's inspiration was Twelve Patients: Life and Death at Bellevue Hospital, the 2012 memoir by Dr. Eric Manheimer, who was medical director of Bellevue for 15 years. To understand him and the show, you need only consider this paragraph:

"How people die and how we participate in their deaths is as much about us as about them. Our own humanity is at stake. In a society that is increasingly mesmerized by efficiency, measurement by numbers, and a bottom-line mentality that extols profit and wealth over any other human value, the risk is clear to everyone I work with. When healthcare is now measured by 'medical loss ratio,' and the percentage of spending on healthcare is considered a 'loss,' then we are really lost."

Schulner brought Manheimer's memoir to Universal Television in 2016 when, he notes, all conversations revolved around immigration and health care.

"I thought, 'Why would I want to write about anything else?'" he recalls. "These conversations were passionate and angry and full of personal anecdotes and personal connections. The one thing missing was a sense of hope.

"Everyone agreed the health care system was broken, and no one had hope we could get out of it. I wanted to write about that."

Worried that the medical chief might seem saintly, Schulner made sure that among Goodwin's foibles is an inability to devote energy to his own life. "Max can't give anyone 100 percent except, of course, his patients," Schulner says. ...

For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of the latest issue of emmy magazine HERE

This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2020

 For a peek under the cover, click HERE


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