“…she basically put a scalpel in the hands of Indiana Jones.”
–Shonda Rimes, on Creator/Producer Jenna Bans of Off the Map
I’ll be honest… I don’t like to take my medicine. In this case, though, I’m talking about medical shows. They aren’t really the kind of shows for me, as this is the first real “medical drama” I’ve covered, and I’ve been writing these articles for a year and a half. Even if they’re a staple of television (thanks to a new story walking into the hospital every week, and a procedural-type mystery waiting to be solved), there’s never been much difference to me from Medical Center in the ’70’s to ER in the ’90s, all the way through to House and Grey’s Anatomy currently on the air. But there is one recent show I really liked in this vein (so, of course, it only lasted one season). Ironically, it was called Off the Map.
Airing on ABC in the spring of 2011, Off the Map was different from the ordinary medical drama in many ways, but most of those differences sprung out of its setting: the South American jungle. Three young doctors, each running away from something in their past, end up becoming the newest staff at a remote overseas clinic, far away from all the gleaming hallways and fancy equipment they are used to. Without access to so-called “modern” medicine, there are new dangers, and new solutions, which are discovered every day.
“Practicing tropical medicine in a third-world country is a different game… You don’t have high tech, you don’t have big pharma – you have your brain, you have your instincts.”
–Dr. Ben Keeton, founder and head of the clinic
The new recruits are Dr. Lily Brenner (Caroline Dhavernas), who’s looking for a new start after the death of a loved one back home and, although she’s extremely bright as a medical professional, she’s had a crisis of confidence after those previous events. Dr. Tommy Fuller (Zach Gilford) has no lack of confidence, but what he does lack is ambition. He skated through medical school and plans to become a plastic surgeon rather than deal with disease, and sees this time as a tropical vacation. He’s forced to deal with the reality of medical practice and the humanity of suffering, both of which he’d preferred to ignore… until he can’t any longer. The last of our trio is Dr. Mina Minard (Mamie Gunner), a relative “loner” who also doubts herself, as her lack of personal skills had caused her to misdiagnose a young patient, resulting in a death that could have been prevented. Although she comes from a family rooted in the medical profession, it’s exactly the “profession” part she needs to escape, and instead come to terms with what “healing” is about, both for herself and her patients.
The clinic’s current staff includes their leader, Dr. Ben Keeton (Martin Henderson). Described by Lily as “one of the world’s greatest humanitarians”, his passion is medicine… but his demons do exist, and his choices often cause moral dilemmas in both keeping the clinic open and deciding who gets treated, and how. Dr. Otis Cole (Jason George) seems to be a laid-back, easy-going soul, but has a past as a drug user and an uncertain future due to his indecision over a serious relationship. The romance in question is with Dr. “Zee”, Zita Alareina Toledo Alvarez (Valerie Cruz), his co-worker and peer. An expert in local botanical medicine, she watches over the others with a fierce protectiveness. She expects maturity in both the newbies and her current staff, and when Cole doesn’t seem serious about their personal relationship, she has choices to make.
“Zee” isn’t the only one with choices. Dr. Ryan Clark (Rachelle Lefevre) has been in an intermittent relationship with her boss, Ben Keeton, and we first meet her when she’s choosing to leave the clinic… only to come back, and then decide to leave again. Her mercurial nature is challenged when a threat to her own health is discovered, forcing her and Ben to confront their feelings for each other, and the secrets Ben hides.
A young local teen, Charlie (Jonathan Castellanos), serves as translator for these doctors and their patients. While he’s very interested in becoming a doctor someday, he’s only 14, much too young for any actual structured medical education… but that doesn’t stop him from trying. Of course, developing a crush on one of the new doctors doesn’t help matters any, but he is a vital window into the local culture and a guide to more than just the aches and pains of the citizens. And his background has a few surprises for the new doctors, especially Tommy….
There’s a lot of soap opera here, but all of it is told around the very different medical dramas found in the uncharted wilderness of the jungle. When the first day’s rounds are spent high on a zip line, trying to save an unconscious man whose arm has become mangled in his rope/pulley system, Lily realizes all too well that life at the Clinic is nothing like any medicine she’s ever practiced. Facing issues like dealing with the corrupt local government, where payoffs are the norm for needed drugs (and even local drug lords are necessary “friends”), it’s a different world from anything she, or the viewers, expect.
“They don’t have the technology and resources at their disposal that they have on Grey’s (Anatomy) or Private (Practice) or ER or really any other medical show that’s been on TV in the last few years. (That) really allows us to sort of delve into stories that no one else can really do, and I think that’s what makes the show so exciting.”
–Creator/Producer Jenna Bans
Mina’s struggle with the locals and the language barrier, and Tommy’s dealings with the long-held superstitions and methods of the populace, created a new and rich world for a medical drama, even without the soap characteristics. Cases included a man who was literally enveloped by a giant snake… which had to remain wrapped around his body while the doctors transported him back to the clinic, as the pressure of the snake squeezing the life out of the victim was also the only thing holding his vital organs together until they reached treatment.
Distrust of “new” medicine in favor of old wives’ tales and tradition also led to the discovery by our characters of what nature provided instead, and these remedies were used repeatedly when the modern-day miracles weren’t available. Native methodology wasn’t seen to be “old,” just different.
And did you really know that coconut water was a great temporary substitute for saline solution when someone is dehydrated? The new doctors didn’t. So imagining a coconut hanging in place of an IV bottle is strange enough. And climbing up a tree in an emergency to cut down young coconuts and save someone’s life doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched when you realize why. This is medicine the hard way. Amputating a leg is difficult enough… having to do it underwater offshore is just crazy. Yet that’s what they did.
In Off the Map, nature was found to often be a substitute for technology, as far as the medicine was concerned But making an hour-long medical drama is still difficult for television, no matter how much easier it is for storylines. As noted above, even though new plots are available with every guest character shown, the problem becomes one of both time and clarity. Medical shows are hard to film, especially on location.
“You have to understand the mechanics of shooting a scene. The O.R. is just a hole because you have to shoot what they call the master, which is the big, wide shot which has everybody. Then you come in close for everybody’s original coverage: my close-up, Martin [Henderson’s] close up, Caroline [Dhavernas’s] close-up, Rachelle [Lefevre’s] close-up. The close-up of the people, the close-up of the prosthetic. There’s so many different shots… Friday becomes what we call Fraturday because we’re there until really early Saturday.”
Adding to all that the matter of very specific medical terminology, plus the need to present it to an audience in a way that seems natural but also doesn’t fly over their understanding, means medical dramas are far more complex than most realize.
As if this wasn’t enough, Off the Map also added the burden (or advantage, depending on your point of view) of filming almost entirely in remote locations. Utilizing the crew and sites for the recently ended series Lost, the clinic was built in its entirety in Hawaii (which doubled for the unnamed South American country), complete with examination rooms, offices, and operating theatre used for filming. A soundstage was seldom used. Much of each week’s story was told in the wilderness, and the 100 or more cast and crew on site obviously had to do their work in the “pristine” jungle, with little access to usual amenities. Even the bathrooms were glorified Port-a-potties (which also had to be hauled in). Now try to film the O.R. scene Jason George talks about above, plus outdoor night shooting on occasion and other distractions. Medical shows are hard enough, but with all these extras it is amazing any of the actors even survived.
Off the Map didn’t survive as a series, of course. ABC was initially excited about the show, increasing their original order of episodes from 7 to 13 for its summer run. Part of its pedigree was Shonda Rimes, who’d brought the network success with medical dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. But audiences didn’t respond to the combination of exotic locales and soap opera characters, and the series wasn’t long for this world, especially with the costs involved. Despite the terrific cast and the unique setting, by the end of summer the show really was off the (television) map for good.
CAROLINE DHAVERNAS (Lily Brenner) is a welcome sight and a favorite here. Her performance as the lead in Wonderfalls is remembered very fondly. A native of Montreal, she is fluent in both French and English, and has provided her own voice when her performances have been dubbed for foreign release. She is active in French, English, and Canadian productions, and in demand all over the world.
ZACH GILFORD (Tommy Fuller) starred as quarterback Matt Saracen in the critically acclaimed TV series Friday Night Lights. He was a perfect fit for Off the Map, as he leads adventure trips for youth in locations like Alaska, Hawaii, British Columbia, and the South Pacific.
MAMIE GUMMER (Mina Minard) comes from an acting heritage, the daughter of famed actress Meryl Streep. In addition to a recurring role on The Good Wife, she’s made headway in the theatre world, winning awards in Los Angeles, and performing earlier this year Off-Broadway in The School for Lies.
MARTIN HENDERSON (Ben Keeton) was born in New Zealand, and began his career in Australia. A well-known actor down under, he starred on TV in Shortland Street, Home and Away, Sweat, and Big Sky, constantly working for over a decade. After coming to America, he landed a leading role in the box-office success The Ring and the movie Smokin’ Aces before traveling to Hawaii for Off the Map.
JASON GEORGE (Otis Cole) Is a veteran of numerous TV series, his first being the soap Sunset Beach. (He was only a few credits shy of his Masters of Fine Arts degree at the time, and his college counted the gig as “Independent Study” and awarded him the diploma anyway!) Since then, he’s been a regular on Titans, Off Centre, Eve, What About Brian?, Eli Stone, and Eastwick before joining Off the Map. He’s also well-versed in stage fighting and combat choreography.
VALERIE CRUZ (Zita Alareina “Zee” Toledo Alvarez) has also been featured on this site before, as police detective Connie Murphy on The Dresden Files. She’s been seen on Nip/Tuck, Hidden Palms, Dexter, and True Blood. Currently a regular on the SyFy series Alphas, she will be back for its recently announced second season.
RACHELLE LEFEVRE (Ryan Clark) is also bi-lingual, and she and cast mate Caroline Dhavernas would sometimes fall into French language conversations on the set together. She was part of the successful Twilight movie series, but had to drop out of the recent third movie due to scheduling conflicts. Currently, she’s again playing a doctor, this time on the new CBS series A Gifted Man.
JONATHAN CASTELLANOS (Charlie) was only 15 when filming Off the Map, but he’s already had a recurring role in the police drama Southland. Other guest star appearances included Rules of Engagement, Side Order of Life, and Boston Legal. An avid musician, he plays both guitar and drums when not involved in acting.
Off the Map was released on DVD in August of 2011, containing a few behind-the-scenes featurettes and some outtakes as well. Individual episodes are also available in HD for purchase through Amazon Instant Video (or for free, if you’re a member). Although full episodes aren’t available for general streaming anymore (thanks to the DVD release), there is the usual selection of clips promoting the series at TVGuide.com. Marketing has gotten to the point where even network promotional posters are sold, and the very recent Off the Map was no exception.
“Ask, and the jungle provides. It has everything you need.”
The jungle does provide everything, except perhaps for more than 13 episodes. Off the Map really was a different way to present a medical drama, and yet it probably tried too hard to be much like its forebears, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. There were times when Off the Map lacked a solid direction, veering between the drama of the regular characters and the complexities of medicine in a new and different frontier. Fans of one may have been turned off by the other, and the result, like the medicine, was just too different for most to take.
But I loved it, and followed the show faithfully. I believed the new and unusual miieu was intriguing, and the actors were terrific. Even the soap plotlines were varied enough, thanks to the setting, for me to feel like I was watching something interesting and different. Something you wouldn’t find on a normal television series. Something Off the Map.
13 episodes aired — none unaired (All available on DVD)
First aired episode: January 12, 2011
Final aired episode: April 6, 2011
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No, but it might have stood a better chance of survival there. ABC aired it on Wednesday nights at 10/9 Central, against Top 20 CBS show Blue Bloods and with the soon-to-be-also-cancelled Mr. Sunshine as a lead-in.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.