Sunday, June 19, 2011

Combat Hospital: Canadian TV Worth Watching!

The press bus takes a turn and suddenly the Etobicoke skyline disappears.
We're smack dab in the middle of an emergency hospital situated at Kandahar, Afghanistan, and it all seems so terribly real.
In the background there are gigantic hills of gravel and dirt.
But nothing is real. It only seems so.
Welcome to the Toronto set of Combat Hospital, a new hour long series debuting on Global TV and ABC Tuesday June 21 at 10 p.m.
Look : there's a sign pointing out the distances to the great world capitals: the arrow points to Ottawa and the distance is "only" 10,600 km.
Concrete blast walls surround the compound but the sprawling hospital was actually built from shipping containers and is plywood.
There's a helicopter landing pad where wounded soldiers can be swiftly transported into three emergency operating chambers.
And inside is a fully functional; hospital --the equipment is even better than in most Toronto hospitals.
"The time frame is 2006," says executive producer Dan Petrie Jr. who also wrote the script for the first hour.
"In 2006 nothing had been set up and then the Canadians came in, introduced state-of-art techniques and helped save the lives of soldiers as well as Afghan civilians. This is their story."
"Yeah, it's only a replica," insists busy actor Arnold Pinnock who plays Commander Will Royal." But I tell ya, hours in that operating room where everything seems real, that when I leave I'm tense, I have to unwind. It's all very real to me."
Petrie says he wasn't sure the experience could be replicated in a Toronto suburb.
"But we've done it. It will be compared with M*A*S*H, I know that. But it's very different, for one thing no humor like in M*A*S*H. And no condemnation of the conflict. But very dramatic and, yes, comedy and romance at times, too."
In fact Petrie's script resolutely tries to skirt most cliches of the medical series genre.
We are first introduced to the two new doctors who have just arrived. There's Canadian Major Rebecca Gordon (Michelle Booth), a hotshot operating veteran who is fleeing a dissolving romantic relationship and American import Captain Bobby Trang (Terry Chen).
They are quickly in the middle of the fray: mopping the floors to clear up the blood, puncturing a lung with a pick to clear blood from a soldier's cavity, losing bodies on the operating table, going day and night when the casualties come flowing in.
Canadian commander is Col. Xavier Marks (Elias Koteas) who must be tough and sensitive at the same time.
Also co-starring is Luke Mably as British doctor Simon Hill and Deborah Kara Unger as the on-site psychiatrist Maj. Grace Pederson.
In others words this is not the soapy romantic world of Grey's Anatomy. Actors are pressed in every scene and the series should quickly become compulsive viewing.
I asked Eleas Koteas, a regular in David Cronenberg films and such hits as Shutter Island why Combat Hospital is his first ever TV series.
"I wasn't sure I could work that quickly. But I've adapted. The material is unrelenting. I feel I'm under constant pressure. We all do. As a Canadian --my parents still live in Montreal --I just wanted to be a part of that."
Koteas with his shaved head and intense appearance jokes he always wanted to play the romantic lead. "But this may be even better. I'm leading these doctors through sheer guts. From time to time he'll break a bit, show his human side. If he falters the whole operation could crumble."
And Unger is equally committed. "You have to shine in as few takes as possible. It's an intense acting workshop. I can't think of any other network series I'd want to be on. I played Ava Gardner in the Rat Pack but that was a miniseries. My character must look out for the medics because they burn out so quickly.
And Unger adds: "It's not TV heroics. All the characters seem so real to me, the greys are shown. As you get to know the characters more you'll be drawn into. Such an acting feast should not be missed."
Unger's character must know when a medic is on the ropes. ready to break. "And I have to get them out as quickly as possible. Nobody last more than a few years at best including my character. Because the deaths keep coming, day after day,"
Under laughs when I say I didn't know she was a Canadian. "Yep. From Vancouver. Because I usually work in the U.S. doesn't mean I'll pass up this chance for quality work. It's like every few weeks we make another feature length movie. The pace is amazing."
Petrie says he wasn;t sure Toronto had enough Afghanis to play the extras in scenes. "Turns out there's thousands here from this war and they're separated into two linguistic groups so we have to hire both.
"Then there was the weather. The day we started in April there was this huge snow dump. Well, it does snow in Kandahar but not in such quantity so we had to get all that white stuff shoveled out of view. This current weather with bright sunshine suits us best."
The press tour of the ERs was indeed impressive --everything worked. There was the prop blood, the rubber body parts and the fully funftioning medical machines.
"But it's the stories that must bring viewers back every week," Petrie insists. "And we think we can deliver on that front."
The 13-hour series is a co-production between Canad's Sienna Films fr Global and Artists Studio and Lookout Point in the U.K.
"We concentrate on human emotions," Petrie says. "We don't take a moralistic viewpoint about the war, it is simply not part of our story. It's happening and we are pinpointing a medical team that saves lives. Don't forget ER wasn't set in the middle of a developing war. Our doctors have to deal with badly injured soldiers and civilians and at times they even become targets. There's drama in all that, enough to last for seasons I'm hoping."
MY RATING: *** 1/2.

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