Tag Archives: medical

“…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.

Off the Map: a patient room with a jungle view

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

Mina, Lily, and Tommy

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.

Drs. Zee and Cole, together (?)

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.

Ryan and Ben

“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.”
–Jason George

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.

Not your ordinary house call... or filming experience

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  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.

Vital Stats

13 episodes aired — none unaired (All available on DVD)
ABC Network
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.

–Tim R.

OK, so you’re hurting.  You need a doctor.  But which kind?  Well, it depends.  You may have stomach problems, or heart problems.  You may just want a little superficial nip-and-tuck to make you feel younger.  Or it may be really serious, and a trip to the Emergency Room is in order.  But perhaps, all that’s wrong is an emotional thing, and maybe a therapist is the right one for you.

the Barnes family: Regina, Oliver, Stewart, Lydia, and Ben

In any case, you want to be paging Dr. Barnes… well, at least one of them anyway.  Any of the five will do.  Because they all should provide the best medicine on television:  laughter.

Out of Practice premiered on CBS in the fall of 2005.  It was about the Barnes family, each of whom had gone into the healing arts… and each of whom were comically broken in some way.  Our lead is youngest son Ben (Christopher Gorham), a marriage counselor who fixes relationships, and might be just the thing this busted family needs (if they’d ever give him some respect, instead of treating him as “less” of a doctor because he has a psych degree instead of a biological one).

His parents are divorced, but still tend to their grown children despite their antipathy for each other.  Mother Lydia (Stockard Channing) is a heart specialist with little “heart” of her own, worried more about social-climbing and being a miracle worker than she is about the individuals whose hearts she repairs.  Father Stewart (Henry Winkler) is a gastroenterologist who can’t stomach dealing with the confrontations forced by his family, yet loves them anyway (well, most of them… he and Lydia are still at odds, on principle if for no other reason).

Eldest son Oliver (Ty Burrell) is just as superficial and vain as the women he specializes in “perfecting” with his plastic surgery skills, and would just as soon chase after any of them as work on them; and daughter Regina (Paula Marshall) might beat him in the skirt-chasing, as she’s a lesbian and thrill-seeker who works in the E.R. at the same hospital with her parents.

trying to unite for Ben

Together, there’s a prescription for laughter here that could, with half a chance and a little work, turn out pretty well.  Which means, of course, that it didn’t last all that long.  It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.  The show had an excellent pedigree, with Channing, Winkler, and Marshall being experienced comedy hands in both movies and television.  Gorham and Burrell had great futures waiting after their experience on Out of Practice, showing they also knew what they were doing.  The show was co-created by producer Christopher Lloyd, known on TV for being the comedy mind behind successful series Frasier and Wings.  So, there were definitely people around this show who knew how to land a joke or two.

But those jokes were what needed the doctoring on Out of Practice.  While the actors gave their roles some depth (more than was originally written, really), the actual laugh lines weren’t necessarily fall-down funny.  And that’s being generous.  If you look at modern comedies, and the scripts they use, there had better be a joke on at least every half page (and more near the finish) or the show plays comparatively slowly.  If the jokes aren’t at least good, if not great, the entire thing grinds to an unfortunate halt.

And in Out of Practice, you had five characters who should have had plenty in comedic ammunition, but actually didn’t.  Different styles and practices of medicine may as well be different planets as far as mining laughter, and I would hesitate to hear funny emergency room comments from a plastic surgeon, or marital advice from a gastroenterologist.  Family and professional conflict can create decent drama, and sometimes decent comedy too, but in the case of Out of Practice (at least early on), all it did was kind of grind.

“You work in the ER, dear.  People die there.  You really want that hair to be the last thing they see?”
–Lydia to daughter Regina, with her typical “mom” bluntness

Proud of you (even if you're not a "real" doctor...)

On Out of Practice, it was supposed to be the family creating “the tie that binds”… but it didn’t.  Lydia and Stewart were divorced, a fact which was played up consistently as repeated squabbling (despite the fact that these two people apparently loved each other enough to raise three grown children).  Stewart was trying to have a relationship with his receptionist Crystal (Jennifer Tilly), even though she was the same age as his kids.

Oliver, the plastic surgeon, went through women quickly in both his dating and professional life  (and when you have a character who’s supposed to be shallow, you’re not getting much to dig into).  Daughter Regina wasn’t relating to the family that much either, as she was looking for excitement, both at the ER and in her relationships (and never finding enough).  And that left our central character of Ben who, in the pilot, has his marriage end when his wife leaves him.  While his family tries to rally around to help, we see that it’s really the family that needs him.

But the way the show is presented, the other characters don’t realize this, even if we do.  They’re the broken ones, really, although they think they’re whole.  They’re the individuals who need the tender loving care and help of a doctor the most, and it’s a situation where the idea of “physician, heal thyself” is the one thing these doctors just can’t do.

Now, actors love playing “broken” characters.  Channing was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Lydia on the show.  But while those roles may be excellent drama, audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at a family full of them, especially when the one person who might be able to “fix” them to some degree was the one they gave the least respect to.  The other characters all danced around the fact that they were broken in the first place, and believed Ben wasn’t a “real” doctor anyway… so why would they ever improve?  And if his family didn’t respect Ben, why should we?  It’s hard to root for someone when everyone we see is too preoccupied to listen to him

So, not just the characters, but Out of Practice itself might be in need of medical help.  What to do?

Five different doctors, but we need to heal the show

The concept of a “script doctor” has been around a long time.  These writers’ sole job is, not to plot out stories, but to “punch up” a script, to make it better.  Some are like general doctors,  polishing entire scripts, creating (hopefully) more sparkling dialogue or better transitions and situations.  Others are surgeons, adding humorous lines here and there.  In the specific case of a situation comedy, these “script doctors” are on staff simply to make already plotted stories as funny as possible.

Out of Practice needed a script doctor… stat.

Most modern sitcoms shoot an episode a week, but the finished script for that episode isn’t really “done” until the evening of the shoot… and sometimes, filming is even stopped because a new joke is found on the spot.  Writers go through multiple sets of changes, all in search of better jokes, funnier bits, words and situations that will leap off the page.  Many times, ideas are formed during the rehearsal process, with writers seeing actors on stage and getting a better idea of how things “play” instead of “read”.  Scenes, and sometimes entire scripts, are rewritten to take advantage of these possibilities, and this is where a comedic “script doctor” earns his or her money.  Because they have to be both quick and funny, every time.  These kinds of “script doctors” are rare and valuable people, the ones who can literally be funny on demand, and they get paid a hefty sum to do so… but they’d better produce, or else.  Like a real doctor, they have a show to save, and humor is the medicine used.  And if the patient (show) dies on the table, then lots of people are out of jobs.

"Hello? Give me something funny here!"

Sometimes, a mid-episode rewrite (or multiple rewrites) aren’t enough.  Significant changes have to be made, and shows are taken off the air while producers, writers, and cast all try to hash out possible ways to become funnier, better, more watchable.  This happened in the spring of 2006 with Out of Practice.  But sometimes, despite the best efforts of all, the patient is just not able to be saved.

CBS tried to work with the show.  It ran from September 2005 until March of 2006, when it was replaced (for what was supposed to be only a short time) by The New Adventures of Old Christine, starring Seinfeld veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Old Christine garnered a significant ratings bump compared to Out of Practice, which had been replaced temporarily to try to “fix” some of the perceived problems it had attracting viewers.  After the numbers came in, CBS simply decided to go with the new show rather than try to heal the previous one.  The network pulled the plug, and Out of Practice never returned, leaving eight episodes unaired in its network run.

CHRISTOPHER GORHAM (Ben Barnes) has starred in numerous series, including Popular, Odyssey 5, Jake 2.0, and Harper’s Island.  He played boyfriend Henry to Ugly Betty, and is currently seen on the USA series Covert Affairs.  An incurable romantic, he proposed to his college sweetheart after a picnic outside Tiffany’s on Rodeo Drive, just before going in to pick out rings.

STOCKARD CHANNING (Lydia Barnes) is a veteran of stage and screen, known to a generation as Rizzo in the movie version of Grease.  She played First Lady Abigail Bartlett on The West Wing, as well as starring in two short-lived self-titled situation comedies (The Stockard Channing Show and Stockard Channing in Just Friends).  She’s appeared on Broadway numerous times, in the musicals Pal Joey and They’re Playing Our Song, and dramas The Lion in Winter and Six Degrees of Separation.

HENRY WINKLER (Stewart Barnes) essayed television icon Arthur Fonzarelli, better known as Fonzie, on the classic sitcom Happy Days.  He also did a turn as a lawyer in the cult TV hit Arrested Development.  He branched out into television producing, as one of the creative minds behind the long-running MacGyver.  Diagnosed with dyslexia, he’s co-written children’s books featuring the character Hank Zipzer (also dyslexic), a 4th grader characterized as “the world’s greatest underachiever”.

TY BURRELL (Oliver Barnes) was a regular on Back to You, also created by Christopher Lloyd.  His major claim to fame is on the current smash Modern Family, where he’s garnered Emmy nominations each of the past two years for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

PAULA MARSHALL (Regina Barnes) has been featured on this site previously for her work in the original Cupid (1998).  A TV veteran whose closest thing to a hit was the two-season Gary Unmarried, she nonetheless has been a regular actress in half a dozen series and a recurring character in many more.  She may get the chance to try again this fall in a new Fox comedy called Little in Common.

JENNIFER TILLY (Crystal) is a multi-talented star, with an Oscar nomination (for Bullets Over Broadway) and stage credits (The Women, a Broadway show that was taped and later shown on PBS).  She’s lent her voice to numerous projects, including Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (and its upcoming sequel, Monsters University), the Chucky horror series, and TV’s animated Family Guy.  She’s an accomplished poker player, having earned a silver bracelet for winning an open event at the World Series of Poker, beating out 600 players there.

The show is available on Netflix for viewing online, and numerous episodes are posted on YouTube.  Although there were places where the series was lacking, you can see possibilities along the way, and how the show grew with time.  The performance of Stockard Channing is worthy of her nomination, even if some of the early scripts weren’t the best possible vehicles for her and the rest of the cast.  Given the setup, and some of the later tinkering, the show actually ended up pretty good…

the family that laughs together

… but it was just too late.  Audiences just really didn’t tune into Out of Practice.  The show lost a pretty good size of the audience from its lead-in series, although it did finish second in its time slot (only behind ABC’s farewell season of Monday Night Football).  Perhaps the reason it didn’t continue really was the “doctor” process after all.  When Out of Practice took a break to “heal”, The New Adventures of Old Christine gained a million viewers more than Out of Practice had produced in the time slot.  CBS simply went with a show that apparently was more popular… leaving another to fade away.

But things like that happen all the time in television.  Shows are saved through heroic measures (ask any Chuck fan about Subway sandwiches and you’ll see what I mean).  Shows also die for the most absurd reasons (be it petulant actors or just whims of the powers-that-be).  It’s kind of like life, in that you really can’t predict with any certainty whether a show will die quickly or run forever… but with the right doctor in your corner, the odds get a little bit better.

Vital Stats

14 aired episodes — 8 unaired — all available online
CBS Network
First aired episode:  September 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 29, 2006
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Mondays at 9:30/8:30, between Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami.  Both of these shows were in the top 20 that year, Out of Practice didn’t make the top 30.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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