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New Amsterdam

“Clearly, when it first happened, I thought to myself, ‘They’ve lost confidence in us.  Is the perception going to be that there’s something wrong with the show?'”
–executive producer David Manson

Between November 2007 and February 2008, the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) went on strike.  For our purposes, the reason, or even the eventual resolution of the strike, is irrelevant.  The effect it had on TV production, however, was significant.

Bad shows, well, they would have died anyway.  Good shows, interrupted in their production, lost momentum and many never recovered (Pushing Daisies being the best example, in my opinion).  But some shows, unfortunately, were just plain killed before they even started.  This was the case with New Amsterdam.

Originally gaining a 13 episode order from FOX, and slated for the fall of 2007, this series halted production after only 8 episodes, before any of them had even aired.  Not officially canceled at the time, the show’s fate was very simple.  Unless it performed miraculously (when it finally did air), it would die… which was incredibly ironic, given the premise of the show.

John Amsterdam

John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a New York City police detective, tracking down murderers, like so many TV cops before him.  The difference here, is that “Amsterdam” is just the latest in a long line of aliases for the man originally born Johann van der Zee on June 1, 1607, in Amsterdam, Holland.  In 1642, at the age of 35, he was a Dutch soldier in the colony of New Amsterdam (the original name of New York City).  After saving the life of a Native American girl, and being fatally wounded in the process, those natives blessed him (and ultimately, it seemed, cursed him) with the gift of immortality.  He would continue, never aging, until he found his one true love, which would then render him once again mortal.

With a new police partner, Eva Marquez (Zuleikha Robinson), they solve cases, many times using the unique insight brought by John’s knowledge (and experience) of the history of New York, and of the many other lives he’s led along the way.  These “lives” include everything from having served in the Armed Forces multiple times (in different branches under different names), to being a doctor during the American Civil War, a lawyer prior to WWII, and a furniture maker at the turn of the century.  John has married many times, outlived his own children, and by now can’t even be bothered to name his pet dog anymore (actually, he just numbers them–currently on #36).

John’s secret is kept by Omar (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a bartender/owner of a small jazz club.  The club is also the access to John’s hidden loft, in which he lives and keeps what few possessions he has from his past lives.  The reason Omar is John’s confidante is revealed in the second episode of the series, “Golden Boy” (which I won’t spoil here).  Suffice to say that this bond is tested, and ultimately strengthened, and is shown throughout the series to be an interesting juxtaposition of what John has gone through, and what he might soon discover.

John and Sara: Destiny? or maybe Death?

During the pilot episode, John, to his surprise, suffers a heart attack, and dies… and promptly revives in the morgue.  This is a revelation to him, as it seems he may have actually met the woman who is to be “the one”, but at that point, has no idea who it could be.  Later in the series, it is revealed to be Dr. Sara Dillane (Alexie Gilmore), a cardiac doctor who attempted to treat him (not knowing she may have actually been the trigger).  The irony of the character is that, although she saves lives daily, she may ultimately be destined to bring John’s life to an end.

Friends and Partners

Prior to this, John has wanted to die.  Eva’s description of John from his previous partners refers to his “death wish”, as he will take (normally) unnecessary chances in the line of duty.  Now, however, we have a man who has to face his own mortality for the first time.  And with it, the possibility of one, true, final love.  As John says to Omar in the pilot, “Time will have value.”

Other shows have dealt with the idea of immortality before (Forever Knight, and, most especially, Highlander).  But the idea of New Amsterdam isn’t just the life and knowledge gained through this immortality, but an examination of what happens when that idea of immortality is no longer true.  For many, many years, John was an alcoholic.  It was the only way (at the time) he knew of dealing with the continual loss and pain of outliving those he loved.  Now sober, he still deals with that constant knowledge of existing forever, until the possibility of it ending presents itself.  And so, the real question of this show is, does a life truly have meaning only when it might end?

The ultimate irony, of course, is that a show about the ending of immortality was never allowed to live.

Heading into the fall season of 2007, FOX was aware that the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) was likely to go out on strike.  The previous contract with the union was ending, and FOX and other studios were in large conflict with the demands of the union concerning compensation for, among other things, DVD’s, internet broadcasts, and other alternative media that had emerged over the last several years.  Knowing that the strike could end up impacting TV schedules for a long-term (perhaps indefinitely), FOX adjusted their fall schedule significantly, moving or delaying several shows, including New Amsterdam.

Originally scheduled to air in the fall on Tuesday nights, it was now delayed until mid-season, to air in February on–guess when?–Friday nights.  Previews began to air in January, but with only a “Coming Soon” label on them.  Therefore, there was no surprise when the show was delayed yet again, and finally aired first on Tuesday March 4, then Thursday March 6, before finally settling into its regular time slot on Mondays for the following six weeks.  The Monday slot was brutal, up against three shows rated in the top thirty:  Dancing with the Stars, Deal or No Deal, and Two and a Half Men. No one was left to watch New Amsterdam.

FOX had really decided that New Amsterdam was going to die anyway, they just didn’t tell anyone publicly.  Originally given a 13-episode order, that order was shortened to 8, and production was halted on the show back in October, well before any episodes had aired.  If the show had achieved blockbuster ratings, it could have been brought back into production after the strike, but that simply wasn’t going to happen in that Monday time slot.  FOX knew they essentially had to kill time until after the strike and its aftermath, and new shows could get into production.   New Amsterdam was used for that purpose.  A complete waste of a potentially good show.  In this case, time didn’t have value.

Watching over his city

Although the show was really given no chance to succeed, that didn’t stop the creative personnel from trying to make the best show possible.  Again, from David Manson, executive producer:

“…we’re approaching this as realistically as we can.  Obviously, we’re talking about a world that’s imaginative, because this man is immortal, but we’re trying to explore what it would really feel like to be 400 years old, and to carry the burden and the pleasures of knowing that you’re immortal.  So we’re investigating that with as much depth as we can muster.”

NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU (John Amsterdam) is a native of Denmark, and had a significant movie career there.  English-speaking movie roles included Black Hawk Down, Wimbledon, and Kingdom of Heaven.  After New Amsterdam, he appeared in the FOX sci-fi pilot Virtuality, and will star in HBO’s coming show based on the George R.R. Martin book series A Game of Thrones.

ZULEIKHA ROBINSON (Det. Eva Marquez) first appeared to genre audiences as a regular in the X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen, and had a supporting role in Rome.  She most recently was a regular on Lost, playing Ilana.

STEPHEN McKINLEY HENDERSON (Omar) is primarily known for his stage work, having appeared on Broadway in a number of productions, including as Van Helsing in Dracula, the Musical.  He is currently teaching in the Drama department at the University of Buffalo.

ALEXIE GILMORE (Dr. Sara Dillane) has been seen in many TV guest roles, including episodes of Rescue Me, Hope & Faith, Private Practice, and Grey’s Anatomy.  Most recently, she has appeared in episodes of Ghost Whisperer and Medium.

Executive producer and show-runner DAVID MANSON has been involved in a number of series, most of them eligible for inclusion in this blog (fortunately for this blog, unfortunately for him).  These include producer credits on  John Doe, Big Love, Thief, Saved, and Life.

Show co-creator CHRISTIAN TAYLOR has also been involved as a producer on such shows as Six Feet Under, Miracles, and Lost, showing that death is a consistent theme in his television work.

New Amsterdam never received a DVD release, but is available in streamed form online at hulu.com.  Hopefully some writers will gain some measure of income from this, as spoils from their strike.  More information, from a fan point of view, along with a description of the unfortunately failed attempt to revive the show, can be found on the New Amsterdam Forever website.

The cast of New Amsterdam

David Munson’s ultimate description of the show is very straight-forward:

“I would say that New Amsterdam is a romantic procedural.  It’s about a New York City homicide cop who is, in fact, immortal, and he’ll stay immortal until he finds the one woman he is meant to be with.  John Amsterdam is a man for whom the past is very present.”

Let us hope that, somewhere, John Amsterdam is living, in love, to a ripe old age.

Vital stats:

8 aired episodes – no unaired episodes exist
FOX network
First airdate:  March 4, 2008
Last airdate: April 14, 2009
Actually aired at Friday, 8/7 Central?:  no, but its actual timeslot was worse, if that’s possible….

As always, comments are welcome.

–Tim R.

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