David E. Kelley and Dr. Sanjay Gupta Talk MONDAY MORNINGS and What Makes This Medical Drama Different

     February 4, 2013

david-e-kelley-sanjay-gupta-monday mornings

Based on Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s acclaimed novel, the TNT drama series Monday Mornings, from award-winning producer David E. Kelley, follows the lives of doctors at Chelsea General Hospital in Portland, Oregon, as they push the limits of their abilities and confront their personal and professional failings.  The title refers to the hospital’s weekly morbidity and mortality conference, when doctors gather with their peers for a confidential review of complications and errors in patient care.  The show stars Ving Rhames, Alfred Molina, Jamie Bamber, Jennifer Finnigan, Bill Irwin, Keong Sim, Sarayu Rao and Emily Swallow.

During the TNT portion of the TCA Press Tour, executive producers David E. Kelley and Dr. Sanjay Gupta talked about how this show came about, what makes this medical series different, how everything on the show will be a potential clue for the weekly meetings, how they will collaborate as a team, that there will be longer arcs along with more episodic stories, having to shoot the episodes in seven days, and how close these meetings are to the ones that really go on in hospitals.  Hit the jump for the interview.

Question:  David, the past couple of shows you’ve done have seemed to be dramas, but they’ve also had broader comedic elements in the background, but this feels like a change of pace, tonally.  Does it feel that way to you?

david e kelley monday morningsDAVID E. KELLEY:  I tend to look at all of them a little differently and take each beast on its own terms.  This came to me originally as a book, and I tried to be true to the tone of the book.  It probably is a little more serious than my other projects.  There are certainly comedic beats to it.  But, I look at it as a blank page, starting a new animal with a new saddle. 

Does it feel like you’re flexing different muscles that you haven’t flexed as recently?

KELLEY:  It’s interesting.  At first, I had reservations about the project itself because I had done a medical show before.  And then, I met with Sanjay [Gupta] and he told me about the book.  It sounded great, but the terrain sounded a little familiar with Chicago Hope.  Then, I read the book and saw that it was completely different.  The characters were different.  The stories were different.  The staple of this book was these M&M meetings.  It felt like fertile storytelling ground, and I probably was drawn to it because it was different. 

Is there a certain point where doctors can’t foresee everything, or should all of these things be foreseeable?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA:  That’s a really good point.  You have to pay attention with this show because everything is a potential clue.  Things that you think are inconsequential, like a little gesture or something that no one paid attention to, in the beginning, end up being of significant consequence, and Alfred Molina’s character will really highlight that in the meeting.  That particular meeting is a hallowed space in medicine.  It’s a place that very few people know about and even fewer people ever get to see.  So, what he ends up bringing about and raising as potential concerns is surprising not only to people who know medicine, but certainly the lay audience, as a whole. 

ving rhames sanjay gupta monday morningsMorbidity and mortality reporting is often a place where medical patterns are spotted.  Because of that, will there be longer arcs that the characters spot, in the weekly meetings, or is it going to be a purely episodic approach with a different problem, each week?

KELLEY:  It’s probably a mix of the two.  There are certainly longer arcs.  There are cases that take place over several episodes, and there are histories that we’ll trade on, as we go through the series.  But each episode, in and of itself, should feel somewhat self-contained.  A viewer should be able to start at the beginning, watch until the end, and figure they got the whole thing.  That having been said, I think any series becomes richer when you trade on the histories of your characters and the storytelling, and we certainly intend to do that. 

As the author of the book this is based upon, what will Dr. Gupta’s involvement continue to be with this series?

KELLEY:  We can’t beat him off us with a stick.  He’s probably the highest-paid TA we’ve ever had.  This project only came to being when I got an assurance from Sanjay that he would stay with it.  The book gives away some story points, but it’s a fantastic book where the characters are rich.  It’s what made me want to do the series.  But, I wanted to keep the voice that came with it, being Dr. Gupta.  He assured me that he would not abandon us and that he would stay with us.  He’s lived up to that promise, and it’s been great for all of us.  Any series, at some point, becomes a community.  It’s one of the things that I love about television.  We become a team, and to have Sanjay at the center of this team, has really been something special for us all.

Monday Mornings alfred molinaWere there any concessions or compromises you had to make, doing this on a TNT budget?

KELLEY:  No.  The budgets at TNT are more competitive with broadcast than any of us anticipated.  The bigger challenge for us is seven days versus eight days, per episode.  We’re used to shooting our shows in eight days, and I still write eight-day shows.  But, I think our shorthand helps with some of that.  And a big bonus is having the thoroughbreds [in our cast].  The actors come to the set so prepared.  We’re extremely efficient, once the man behind me yells, “Action!”  We’ve been able to do it, so far, in seven days.  It is a challenge and the days are long, but so far, so good. 

How hard is it to find a balance between making these teachable moments in the weekly meeting, but also not making these people look like they’re horrible doctors because they’re constantly screwing up?

KELLEY:  That is a challenge, and the scene itself is a challenge.  At the onset, I was wondering how viable the M&M meetings would be, over the life of the series.  But, we quickly discovered that it is the staple of each and every episode.  I think it’s a testament to the acting, especially Alfred [Molina], who is at the head of that room.  So much of the tension in those scenes is played with Alfred disguising what the scene is about.  We never know where that character is going.  As a result, the viewer can never be sure that they’re on safe footing, in that scene.  A lot of the tension and a lot of the jeopardy is accomplished that way.  In terms of preserving the credibility of the doctors, but also exposing their fallibility, that’s a dance.  There are some doctors who aren’t regulars that we can string up like piñatas, and there are others that we want to believe in and come back to and invest in, and you have to be more careful with them.

Would a doctor really be as vitriolic to another doctor as we see on this show?

Monday Mornings jamie bamberGUPTA:  Yeah.  I remember during one of my first conversations with David, I told him that these meetings really do exist and that very few people know about them.  But, when I was training, those were some of the most indelible experiences I’ve ever had, in my life.  It is so raw.  It is so human.  It is so candid.  You shut the doors.  The administrators aren’t invited.  The lawyers aren’t invited.  This is about the doctors holding each other accountable.  And what you find is that doctors can hold each other accountable, probably better than anybody else.  In a quest for becoming as good as you can be, this is what it takes.  That stuff does happen.  There are street fights that form, and you really get a glimpse of that.  M&M doesn’t take the place of the legal system.  It doesn’t take the place of administrators sanctioning a physician.  That stuff still happens.  Those are parallel things.  But this meeting is doctors on doctors.  They are colleagues.  The worst crime of all would be that a mistake happens and no one talks about it or learns from it.  So, as unsettling as it is to think about, these mistakes, complications and unexpected outcomes get discussed openly, and everyone hopefully gains something from it.

Monday Mornings premieres on TNT on February 4th.