TELEVISION

Medical alert

DIANE TURBIDE August 29 1994
TELEVISION

Medical alert

DIANE TURBIDE August 29 1994

Medical alert

Television producer Brenda Greenberg gives her mother some of the credit for the new CBC medical drama series, Side Effects. “She always has a hundred things wrong with her, and I hear about what doctor she’s gone to and how much things cost,” says Greenberg, whose mother lives in New Jersey. “She’s sort of the ideal worst patient she’ll be given a prescription and then not fill it because it’s too expensive.” As well, Greenberg, 41, is married to an eye surgeon, Robert Wagman (they have a 3V2-yearold son, Jake), and she says he gave her several ideas for scripts, which she later developed with co-creator Guy Mullally. Both Greenberg and Mullally were part of the creative team of Street Legal, CBC’s popular lawyer series that ran for eight seasons before it ended in February. With only one new dramatic series being offered by the network this fall, and thousands of Street Legal loyalists looking for an entertaining replacement, a lot is riding on Side Effects. Greenberg is optimistic. “There hasn’t been a doctor series in Canada, unless you count Wojeck, the 1960s show about the coroner,” she says. “And health care is certainly a hot topic right now.”

The series, now being shot in Toronto, makes its debut on Friday, Oct 14, at 9 p.m. and will continue over 13 one-hour episodes. With an ensemble cast of TV newcomers—except for Albert Schultz, who played Rob Diamond in Street Legal, and veteran Elizabeth Shepherd—it centres on an inner-city clinic staffed by family practitioners. Understaffed and underfunded, the clinic offers non-emergency health services, everything from checkups to methadone programs. The mul-

The CBC plays doctor this fall in prime time

tiethnic staff—which includes five doctors, an administrator, a nurse and a receptionist—battle disease, ignorance, burnout and bureaucracy. And of course, like most TV dramas, the characters’ private and professional lives intersect frequently. The results should quicken a few pulses. Side Effects will be competing with two other new doctor series appearing this fall, reflecting how health-care concerns top the social and political agendas in Canada and the United States. NBC’s new fall lineup includes ER, a one-hour drama about the workings of an emergency room in a large urban hospital. A production that involves Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and best-selling author Michael Crichton, ER promises to be a heavy contender in the ratings war. The show, which will be carried by CTV in Canada, airs on Thursdays at 10 p.m., the same time slot as CBS’s Chicago Hope, another hospital drama, which stars E. G. Marshall and Broadway musical star Mandy Patinkin and which will appear on the CanWest-Global network in Canada. But Side Effects enjoys certain innate advantages, its creators believe. Greenberg, who admits to being “more curious than nervous” about the other two shows, points out that the CBC program deals with the unique Canadian system of socialized medicine. “We show the doctors contending with all these levels of bureaucracy and having to make difficult decisions about what programs to sacrifice in an era of severe cutbacks. And our show is set in a clinic, so there’s a closer connection with the street.”

Deborah Bernstein, CBC senior director of arts and entertainment, worked closely with Greenberg and Mullally for most of 1993 when the two were developing and writing scripts. She points to their successful track records on Street Legal, where Greenberg worked for sk years, four of them as executive producer, and Mullally was executive story editor for four years. (Mullally was involved only in developing Side Effects.) At Street Legal’s peak, in the 1992-1993 season, the show reached an average 1.6 million viewers (in its last season, 1993-94, viewership had declined to an average of 984,000). As to why CBC decided to cancel the show, Bernstein explains that the network wanted it “to go out on a high. It was still doing very well, but there was a possibility of it sliding. The characters and issues had been explored from so many angles.”

Another Street Legal veteran, 31-year-old Schultz, played corporate lawyer Rob Diamond for three seasons. His light brown hair dyed almost black for his new role as Dr.

Noah Knelman, Schultz pulls a mock hurt face when asked if he fears viewers will still identify him as the young lawyer. “Hey, nobody said anything when James Garner switched from Maverick to The Rockford Files,” he says, feigning deep seriousness. “And look, just look, at Buddy Ebsen: who’d have thought he could go from playing Jed Clampett to Bamaby Jones, private detective. The depth, I mean, who’d have thunk it?”

In fact, Schultz already seems completely at home, on set or off. For an interview with Maclean’s, the actor is not so much sitting in his dressing room as ensconced in it, wearing a smoking jacket and playing the genial host to anyone who enters. Schultz has transformed his cramped, windowless quarters into a shrine to singer Dean Martin. The room looks like a cheap 1960s lounge bar, with stools covered in fake leopard skin, cheesy knick-knacks and framed photos of Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.

Frank Sinatra croons in the background from a CD player. The actor says the room is partly a reaction to the sterility of the CBC building, where the series is shot. The other part is a fascination with the era and those performers—“Half of it is ironic, half of it is sheer hero worship.”

Schultz’s character is an ambitious womanizer who wants, as one episode will reveal, to strike it rich as a cosmetic surgeon. He is the resident cynic, the image-conscious self-promoter who dislikes some of the clinic’s down-market clientele, specifically the heroin addicts on a methadone program run by his moral opposite,

Dr. Jim Barkin (veteran Canadian stage actor Joseph Ziegler). Ziegler, 40, describes the idealistic Barkin as “awkward, passionate, stupid sometimes, and he definitely has a thing for Diane, the director.”

Recently on the Side Effects set, Ziegler and Nadia Capone, who plays Dr. Diane Camilleri, were rehearsing that very “thing.” The scene, from episode 5, takes place in the clinic reception area, where Camilleri has been surprised by a boyfriend who arrives with flowers. Barkin,

fiddling with paperwork, can’t help eavesdropping as Camilleri gives her suitor a gentle brush-off. The sequence, which develops into a low-key confrontation between the two doctors, requires several takes because of minor technical problems. A file slammed on the desk muffles some of the dialogue. One of the actors turns away from the camera too quickly. The flowers are obscuring Capone’s face. But after about half an hour, director Tim Bond gets what he needs.

Each episode takes about eight days to shoot, at a cost of slightly under $600,000 per show, according to CBC director of in-house production Jane Fairley, who hastens to point out that the figure is “way, way, below what a comparable American drama would cost” The days start with 5:30 a.m. makeup calls for some and often end at 9 or 10 p.m. Capone, a 28-year-old Toronto-born actor who has been based in

Los Angeles for the past five years, says that a six-month stint on the U.S. soap The Guiding Light helped her on the set of Side Effects. “On a soap, you have to learn to work fast, and deal with a lot of technical instructions being thrown at you,” says the soft-spoken Capone. Still, she said, one scene involving a six-week-old baby in the first episode made her a bit nervous. “We have doctor consultants who show us how to do things properly— in this case it was a birth scene—but still, it’s very stressful to handle someone else’s tiny baby. She was wailing, and I kept thinking, ‘God, what if I drop her.’ ”

The search for verisimilitude ^ also included research trips for 8 the actors to several clinics, including Toronto’s Broadview Community Health Clinic, run by the city’s St. Michael’s Hospital. Elizabeth Shepherd, who plays nurse Judy Owens, says she was extremely impressed by the “strong, wonderful women” she met there. “Nurses are drawn to the profession for the encompassing aspect of it, the caring for and nurturing of the whole human being,” says Shepherd. “They take the human aspect of their role very seriously, and it’s part of what they’re fighting for in the health-care system. I think we’ll see that reflected in the show.” And, adds Shepherd, who is in her 50s, she is particularly pleased that there is a role for what she calls “the experienced woman. Most of the parts available are either Golden Girls-type parts, or for much younger women. It’s good that there’s such a mix of ages.”

And with characters of Jewish, Greek, Italian, Asian and Jamaican descent, there is also a mix of cultural backgrounds. “This simply reflects a multiethnic reality here in Canada,” says Greenberg. “And, of course, it greatly increases the kind of stories you can tell about each character.”

The creators of Side Effects have tried to get in sync with the pulse of the country’s television audience. And they have adopted the winning formula of Street Legal—a mix of issue-oriented drama and steamy soap opera—in the hopes of finding a secure spot on the TV screen. Now, it’s up to viewers to decide whether they like the taste of the CBC’s new prime-time medicine.

DIANE TURBIDE