We visit the set of Monday Mornings, debuting Monday, February 4 at 10 PM ET on TNT
Monday mornings are the bane of every working man and woman's existence. It doesn't matter what job you have, it just doesn't get any worse than waking up early after a relaxing weekend and going back to the daily grind. Now, imagine, if you will, that you had to go into work on a Monday only to get in front of your peers to discuss your mistakes every week? This is how the work week starts for the doctors of Portland, Oregon's Chelsea General Hospital on TNT's new drama series Monday Mornings, debuting Monday, February 4 at 10 PM ET with the "Pilot" episode. The show follows the lives of these surgeons, as they endure weekly morbidity and mortality conferences, where the complications and errors that have arose within their patients' care are discussed. That's one hell of a way to start your week, right?
I was recently invited to Manhattan Beach Studios in Manhattan Beach, California to visit the set and speak with some of the cast members and executive producers. Leading the cast are two men known almost exclusively for their roles on the big screen: Ving Rhames and Alfred Molina. Ving Rhames plays Dr. Jorge Villanueva, who also goes by El Gato. He is considered one of the top trauma chief's in the country, whose snap diagnoses are considered the stuff of legend at Chelsea General. Alfred Molina plays the hospital's Chief of Staff Harding Hooten, who was given the less-than-flattering nickname Hardly Human, due to his punishing methods during the weekly morbidity and mortality meetings. We got to speak with both of these talented actors on the set, but we'll get back to them, and a few more cast members, a little bit later.
The series is based on the book by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who you may have seen on Anderson Cooper 360°, 60 Minutes, or any number of programs as a medical consultant. While we didn't get to speak with series creator David E. Kelley, who wrote the pilot script and serves as executive producer, we did get to chat with showrunner/executive producer Bill D'Elia, who also directed the "Pilot" episode. Since we have all seen countless medical shows before, Bill D'Elia explained how Monday Mornings takes an interesting route into this kind of series.
"I've worked on a lot of medical shows, and, in fact, was an executive producer on Chicago Hope, another medical show that David created. It's quite different in one big respect, and that is the morbidity and mortality conferences that every hospital actually has, and has even been referred to in other medical shows, maybe even depicted once or twice. It's a central part of this show, those conferences where all the surgeons - and this is a hospital that has some of the best surgeons in the country - all of the surgeons get together and analyze what happened on particular cases. Harding Hooten, as played by Alfred Molina, conducts these conferences. There is a lot of suspense involved, in terms of what goes on, and I believe you will actually watch this show in a different manner than you would watch other medical shows. The basis for most medical shows is, 'Here comes somebody and they're not doing so well. Here's the genius doctor, the flawed doctor. The patient lives, the patient dies, they don't solve it.' That's the story. The drama hinges on that doctor, who is that character. Is he flawed? Is he genius? Who are these patients? What is the case of the week? What we're doing, of course, involves that, but you will watch this show in a different fashion, and by that I mean, even if these doctors are successful, there is something to be learned from what they did or the way they did it or what could have been done differently, which comes up in these conferences. It's almost like how you watch a procedural, where you're looking for clues. You'll watch this show and see success and wonder, 'Did he do the right thing? Even though he lived, did the right thing happen?' It's a very interesting way into a medical drama, that I have not see, or been a part of, before."
Unlike many medical shows, Monday Mornings will hardly delve into these doctor's home lives.
"We'll certainly see a little bit, but, mostly, it's a workplace drama. Mostly, we're in the hospital, and where they hang out. There's a place where they hang out near the hospital that is, mainly, Dr. Villanueva's hangout that they all end up encroaching on."
When asked what notable guest stars fans can expect throughout Season 1, Bill D'Elia revealed that the great Hal Holbrook will be stopping by.
"Hal Holbrook is one of our big guest stars, in the fourth or fifth episode of the season. He plays a surgeon who is past his prime, who is still a brilliant and well-renowned surgeon. At his age, he might be missing a step, and there is concern within the hospital that it may endanger patients. It's a pretty great story."
We were then taken into the dreaded Room 311, where these morbidity and mortality conferences take place. The room itself, with no one in it besides our press corps, actually presents quite a chilling environment in and of itself. Executive producer Lewis Abel explained that the room was modeled after some rather unique architecture.
"This is kind of modeled after the Japanese-American museum downtown. It has this incredibly ornate ceiling, which we couldn't afford to build, but this is basically where the M&M's take place."
Lewis Abel also revealed that Alfred Molina's Dr. Hooten, who runs these M&M conferences, has a tell that every doctor has picked up on.
"His tell is when he lifts his pitcher and pours water, then you know you're in trouble. All the surgeons know that. They know that when he pauses and pours the water, something is going to happen."
We also saw a few of the doctors offices, which are all modulated and can be configured to different offices depending on the production's needs. When we got back to our general press area, we were met by Ving Rhames, donning his scrubs and snacking on some pita bread and hummus during the production's lunch break. Although he is not a complete newbie to the medical genre (he recurred on ER in the mid-90s), he has never played a surgeon like Dr. Jorge Villanueva.
"I made a joke earlier that I think, sometimes, David E. Kelley is bugging our dressing rooms, because now my character says, 'Brother' and 'My man,' things I say. Oddly enough, a lot of the circumstances and situations are kind of similar to things we may be going through in life. Somehow, they wind up in the script, for real. It was almost a little eerie, but I think what he's been able to do is put quite a bit of us as people into these characters."
When asked about the "hangout" that Bill D'Elia mentioned earlier, Ving Rhames told us more about this dive bar, and how his character is a much different person outside of the hospital.
"He's a chief trauma surgeon, but he hangs out in a sleazy bar, outside of work. He's into having one-night stands, he's divorced. We deal with my son in one of the episodes, something happens to my son, who is a little estranged. There are a lot of intricacies with all of the characters, and, especially my character, there are a lot of layers with him, from being extremely vulnerable, to extremely strong. The back stories were already laid out for us. They might have added a few things, but, in general, you get to see how the back stories of the characters affect us at work, my character in particular."
While he is obviously more well-known for his movie work, Ving Rhames revealed that he was offered this show and NBC's Chicago Fire. He chose Monday Mornings mainly because of the writing, but also because of the kind of character he gets to play week in and week out.
"This one, honestly, is better than 95% of movie scripts I read, especially for a black man, an African-American actor. This has many more colors, and, especially where I'm at in my career, they want "Ving Rhames," what that means to them. A lot of times, that doesn't mean a complex character. What I found was, really, the writing was what really attracted me to this, and is why I'm doing it. I think this show is really trying to say something about mankind, man's inhumanity to man, power, are doctor's Gods, in some way? It will really make you think, and that's what drew me to it."
We were then joined by three of the younger cast members on the show: Sarayu Rao, Keong Sim, and Emily Swallow. Sarayu Rao plays Dr. Sydney Napur, a fast-talking cardiothoracic surgeon (English translation: a heart and lung doctor), Keong Sim portrays Dr. Sung Park, a socially-awkward Korean-American, and Emily Swallow plays Dr. Michelle Robidaux, a young resident who is inexperienced but very eager to learn.
With so many medical dramas out there, past and present, Sarayu Rao revealed she was quite surprised with what she took away from the pilot script.
"I was really, pleasantly, thrilled, actually. I read the script and, right away, I just knew this was something special. When I got a hold of the script, it was actually a few months before pilot season. I remember reading it and going, 'That's it. That's the one I'm throwing down for.' I walked into that room and I was like, 'OK, y'all get out of the way now, cause mama's here.' I just was in love with her, and in love with the story. I think it's magnificently different."
Emily Swallow told us that she actually relished the opportunity to play a resident, amongst all these legendary surgeons.
"I'm the only one of the main cast that is still a resident, and that's a really fun thing to take on. She's very smart, she's very capable, but she's surrounded by giants, genius giants. She's trying to claim her space, and learn what she can, but stand up for herself when it's not going to get her into too much trouble. She has some missteps along the way. We talk about people getting 'Robidauxed,' which is not always a good thing. I just like that she keeps trying."
Keong Sim revealed that he likes playing characters that are a little rough around the edges.
"It's fun to play characters who aren't super-polished or nice, necessarily, that kind of have, I want to say an Archie Bunker-esque quality, but not necessarily intentionally. My character is from Korea, it's my second medical school. I'm super smart, super intelligent, I just haven't figured out the language very well, nor the bedside manner, which my character doesn't feel is that important. That's part of it. The language stuff becomes a source of comedy for some, not me. It's something I can really relate to."
When asked if this show will explore flaws in the medical system in general, and not just at this fictitious Portland hospital, Emily Swallow spoke about how it really shows our own expectations about the medical profession.
"It shows it's imperfections, but I think it's strange that we expect it to be perfect. Ultimately, it is run by humans, and humans have imperfections, and cases can vary so wildly. Just because you've been successful treating one particular thing, that doesn't mean the next person who comes in with that is going to have the same results, and yet, for some reason, we expect that. I think it's great that it honestly shows the imperfections."
Sarayu Rao also chimed in about how the show humanizes these doctors who we hold on such a high pedestal.
"It certainly brings to light, too, how litigious of a society we're in, it really does. I think you're right, with the standards and expectations that have developed. The thing about the meetings that's so great, and why the show that's so different, is the culpability factor, how much that humanizes the characters. I think a lot of times, with medical dramas, we see these doctors as superheroes, and now we see these superheroes flailing, and watch them fall. I think it makes them so vulnerable and so very human, and that's something we don't see a lot of on medical dramas."
When asked about what kind of resource Dr. Sanjay Gupta has been on the set, Keong Sim spoke about his interactions with him.
"He's great. He's very approachable, very down to Earth, but you can also see his mind at work. He's probably not unlike some of these doctors, in the sense that he's very driven."
After the cast members had to get back to work, we were joined by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who also serves as an executive producer along with writing the book Monday Mornings is based on. We had been told throughout most of the day that the show is incredibly up-to-date, with some of the most recent medical techniques being put on display. The good doctor gave us a few examples of what kinds of story lines we will see on the series.
"There is a young person who has true movement disorder, like an intentional tremor. It's not Parkinson's, but it's literally so disruptive that anything she does, trying to reach for something, she starts to tremor. Its very notoriously difficult to treat with medicines. This is a young person whose life is going to be completely defined by that. Over the last few years, we've found ways to treat that surgically. That's an example of one of the episodes. Even more on the nose, there is this idea of what has come to be known as psychological surgery, or psycho surgery, the idea of being able to treat things like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, things that were, not that long ago, difficult to treat in any way, and now have actual treatments. I spent a lot of time looking at the literature, to find out exactly where we are, in respect to some of these things."
Despite his appearances on several TV shows as a journalist or correspondent, narrative television is a whole new world for Sanjay Gupta. He broke down some of the things he found interesting about coming to work on a television set.
"As a surgeon, attention to detail is the most important thing, when we're in the O.R. 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. The amount of prep and diligence that goes into every single part of the show, it was surprising, to me. Not to suggest that people in Hollywood are slackers, by any means, but there's a lot that goes into even a very simple scene, or simple part of the show."
As our day was winding down, we were lead into a few more of the sets, particularly the operating room sets that were being used that day. They were incredibly realistic, and, most of all, shiny. Unlike the aura of punishment and just overall bad vibes I got from Room 311, which works so perfectly for that room, the brightness and vibrancy of the O.R. really struck me, in a glass-half-full kind of way.
Speaking of glass-half-full, just as we were about to leave for the day, Alfred Molina came by to chat briefly between takes about his character Harding Hooten. The actor revealed that Harding is not interested in any of the sociable niceties that go along with most jobs. He's there to make sure you do your job right.
"It's nice to play a character who has to walk a fine line between arrogance and professionalism. He's not interested in being liked, he's not interested in being respected. He's interested in doing his job as well as he can, and his job is to make people accountable, because, ultimately, he's Chief of Staff and he's accountable. If you were all my staff, any mistakes you make, I'll tell it to you. He has this odd relationship with everyone. He's not a father figure, necessarily, he's not a mentor, he's a boss."
When asked if any of his past mistakes come to light, he wouldn't give us any specifics, but did tease a few possibilities.
"Well, we'll have to wait and see, but, I suspect, if we stick to the original book, that may well happen. Not too soon, I hope, because I'd like to stay employed. Yeah, he's not above that, by any means."
After a few brief minutes, the actor was summoned to the set, back to cracking that proverbial whip as Harding Hooten and getting these fictional doctors at Chelsea General under control. And with that, my day on the set of Monday Mornings came to a close. The series debuts Monday, February 4 at 10 PM ET on TNT. From what I gathered on the set, this looks to be a show that will give us a fresh take on the medical drama, and not just the same old dose we've been taking for years.