Believe it or not, Trauma is back! NBC's paramedics drama has been through a few TV traumas of its own, including near cancellation and a looong winter hiatus, but with a little triage and tender loving care, the series returns Monday with 10 all-new episodes.
We just caught up with creator Dario Scardapane for an exclusive chat to find out how the near-death experience and drastic budget cuts actually resulted in a more creatively sharp and successful series; why the show went back—way back, like to the 1970s—to get in touch with its roots; and what's in store for Rabbit, Nancy and the rest of the gang in the weeks to come. Here's what we learned:
Trauma has been on such a roller coaster. What has that experience been like for you as a show runner, to constantly be dead, then alive, dead, then alive?
It's been amazing overall, but what people don't understand is that at every signpost along the way, when we were on the brink, we lost more resources to do the job.
In the first run, we got about four or five weeks into airing the episodes, and it wasn't delivering the numbers that were getting the network as excited as they were when they were keying us up to be the next greatest thing since sliced bread. So there was this first rumor that we were going to be done at 10 episodes. So some of the writers go and take other jobs.
Then, NBC says to us, "OK, you're going to do your order of 13 and that's it." So at that point, we're like, cool. It was liberating; that's when the stories shifted. A few different things happened that I think saved the show. The numbers didn't come in great up top, so in order to stay alive we cut the budgets—and we cut the budgets a lot. In the course of doing that, the stories start to land on the characters more. This show was always conceived as a story about people, not explosions. Trauma started out so bombastic that we all knew it wasn't sustainable, and then we got into a more character-based storytelling and at that point we hit our stride.
For the people looking over our shoulder, the network, we started getting the episodes in a hell of a lot cheaper than anyone expected and that was good. We began rotating between our two standing sets—the hospital and the fire station—and the storytelling got to be about the job and people inside the job, and we have such an amazing cast that the show went pretty cool places.
And then you got all those incremental orders for more episodes, right?
Yes! I went up to visit the set and they're bummed—everybody's convinced we're toast. But right before we were going to go off the air with episodes nine and 10, the ratings went up! They scheduled to take us off the air for a break at number 10, and we turned upward. At that time, we were the only NBC drama that was headed upward.
Then I sat down to write number 13 as the season finale, and I'm literally up there writing it as the finale and we get three more. Then flash-forward a few weeks: I'm up in San Francisco, we're winding down, I'm sitting in a hotel writing episode 16 as the season finale, and I get a phone call: "We're putting you back on the air in March"—which we didn't even know, because when they took us off they didn't give us a comeback date—and "we're ordering four more episodes."
That was the best call. A lot of it came from having the real estate to fill since the Jay Leno situation was changing. I don't think they wanted to build anything from scratch. They wanted to have some things people were familiar with.
Kevin Tighe from Emergency! pops up in a couple of weeks. How did that come about?
It was just a phone call and that was pretty easy. The people of my generation and a little older are the only people who are going to get an Emergency! reference, but we had to do it! So many paramedics got into the field from watching Emergency!, so we knew from the first episode that we wanted to get Randy Mantooth or Kevin Tighe. Trauma is the great-grandson of Emergency! Granted we are a grandson with ADHD, but the DNA of that show and the DNA of our show are the same. There is a throughline, and we are really trying to head more in that direction.
Tell me about the credits, because they're among my favorite credits on TV.
That's Bear McCreary and he comes from Battlestar Galactica; Bear does our score. We just got so lucky with the type of people who got involved with this show, because it's a different aesthetic. It's a little more rock 'n' roll, irreverent, edgier. Kevin Rankin, c'mon! Kevin Rankin is in a network television show as one of the leads. That's the best thing ever. And we have Linda Lowy as our casting director, she's from Grey's and she's the best thing on the planet. The influence of Peter Berg from Friday Night Lights is fantastic. It's made the storytelling that's a little less presentational, a little more documentary. We don't answer every question every time. I think that's fun. Literally so much television is directly in front of you. Staged, center screen, keyed up on a silver platter, here's what it's all about. It's been a conscious choice to dirty that up a little bit.
I've heard talk that the EMT community reacted really negatively to the show at first, and you've made some adjustments based on that response. Tell us what's changed.
People in the EMT or EMS community were really up in arms about the pilot, and rightly so. That's fine and dandy—the pilot is not the series. The funny thing is, the one thing that sent everyone through the roof is the one part I had corroborated from like 10 different sources, which was having sex in the back of an ambulance.
The treatments of paramedics and EMTs in the pilot and the incredibly bombastic, superexplosive storytelling, that wasn't built to last. It's a pilot. But as soon as we kind of got into the guts of the show and started really doing the storytelling we wanted to, people calmed down, the show calmed down, and it got into a groove that I think is really great.
Our concern now is to tell stories about characters faced with a very, very grueling, very intense job. Now, are there also those Final Destination moments of "Oh my god, those people just went over the side of a bridge!"? Sure. The second you see a character you haven't seen before, you know something bad is going to happen.
NBC Photo: Chris Haston
Where do you get the trauma stories from, like people being impaled by rebar or patients jumping out of the back of ambulances?
A lot of them are taken from real calls, from advisors, from anecdotes, from EMS journals. We do work really, really closely with the San Francisco Fire Department and the San Francisco Police Department, and there are a few real fights of fancy, but we try to have most of the calls have one foot in the call as it really happened, and then we run from there.
There's a call on an episode coming up where a news van runs into high power lines—it happened in Atlanta! Ours turns out a little better than that one.
There's a car launched off the Bay Bridge, and that happened, although it was really a truck, and again our outcome ends up a little better than that.
It's great when you get to have the rush of a huge stunt, but where the early episodes had four huge stunts and the storytelling rested on "What kind of cool s--t can we blow up?," the new episodes put a lot of weight on Rabbit (Cliff Curtis) and his story. The next 10 ones are so much about the fall and rise and perhaps fall again of Rabbit.
Tell us about the character work you get to do in the next 10 episodes.
I'm sitting here doing a pass on the 18th episode and sometimes it's just like, I have so many different characters I can go to, to get an emotion or a joke—it's really great.
The first three episodes back are about Rabbit—his backstory and moving him forward. We see why Rabbit is the way he is and get a few explanations, including the name! And then the last three episodes of the 10 new ones are really about Nancy (Anastasia Griffith). There's a moment where she stands there going, "I went to medical school 10 years ago, and now I'm standing here with a nutcase of a boyfriend and blood on my shoes. How did I get here?"
What are you most looking forward to people seeing when they come back to the show?
I'm really looking forward to people seeing the episode that gives across the origin of Rabbit. There's an arc to Boone (Derek Luke) and Tyler's strange, odd-couple story that I think is amazing.
And I am incredibly proud of the last two episodes, what happens to our characters, where they go and just the last five minutes of the last episode.
The next 10 hours are a lot different than the first 10 hours. I think there's going to be something in it for the people that have watched it since the beginning and hopefully there will be some things for people watching going, What's all the fuss about?!
What's your goal for the last 10 episodes, in terms of growing the show?
I hope that we can get enough people to watch this run, because I think they'll get hooked and we'll be around for a while. We have a great lead-in and a great lead-out now [and we didn't before]. I'm not trying to be irreverent. This network has given me so many opportunities, there's no way I'll ever get angry at it. You know, NBC has had its troubles, but the problem is you can't program for timeslots, you have to program for nights. You have to build three or four hours of television and have somebody settle into kind of a ride with you. Taking away an hour across the board of prime time, that really hurt everybody.
Preach it, brother.
If you're new to the show, will you consider taking a look at Trauma, which airs at 9 p.m. between Chuck and Law & Order beginning this Monday? And if you're already a fan, what are you most hoping to see from the new episodes? Hit the comments!
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