Sometimes something comes along that is well written, beautifully cast, well directed and it…doesn’t get on the air.
What: The Eastman Institute, long a landmark in this mid-sized city, is thought to be the best facility for cardiac surgery in the world, or at least in the United States, according to the stuck up French surgeons at the Georges Pompidou Hospital. Cutting edge techniques and skill are the stock in trade.
Who: Dr. Charles Eastman, grandson of the founder and present-day leader of the medical staff, all of whom are his children, has recently won the St. Andrews Genius grant for his pioneering heart stent, invented over twenty years ago. The only question in his mind is why did it take so long? While being interviewed by an extremely attractive journalist 30 years his junior, he decides to show his power and the loyalty of his family by paging them to his side. Receiving the doomsday page, each of the Eastmans, with the exception of Charles’ wife Emma, a nurse at the adjacent hospital, drop everything and come running - Peter, a cardiac surgeon in the operating room ready to commence surgery on the Vice Chancellor of England; Anna, a pediatric neurologist, in the middle of counseling anxious parents convinced that their normal child is suffering from developmental delays; Seth, the bad boy surgeon now chiropractor who is on a medical board-mandated “hiatus” because of his past prescription drug habit and rehab stay; James, a cardiac surgeon at a command performance with his wife and a couples therapist trying to save his marriage; and Sally, a pathologist and Seth’s twin, all of whose “patients” can wait, on ice, until she returns. Each, arriving quickly, is definitely annoyed by yet another narcissistic power play by their controlling father; more so because their mother was able to discern that this was no emergency.
There is, however, trouble in paradise. The marriage of James and his wife Maddie is on the rocks, and unbeknownst to James, one of the reasons is an affair between Maddie and Peter; Anna’s marriage to Rick is collapsing under the weight of their son Tommy’s autism, a disease that Charles refuses to acknowledge; Sally has created a cocoon of isolation in her pathology lab; Seth is not sure he wants to resume his practice once the ban has been lifted; and Emma, soon to celebrate her 40th anniversary with Charles, weary of the daily battles with her husband’s oversized ego, may be about to leave him for a man 25 years her junior, Jack O’Brien, a paramedic and childhood friend of Peter.
And there are always the patients, one of whom ends up being Charles. Burned earlier in the day with a fake doomsday page, none of the younger Eastmans respond to the real thing; only Emma, who was in the middle of a tryst with her paramedic lover, recognized the page for the actual emergency it was. Rushed to his Institute in Jack’s surprisingly “at-the-ready” ambulance, Charles is diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurism (the Triple A). All take a hand in saving him. It is medicine that brings them together and medicine that tears them apart.
No Meaner Place: At its heart, and it is an oversized one, “The Eastmans” is a medical soap opera about an overachieving but wonderfully dysfunctional family (in the same way that “The Sopranos” was a soap about the mob). The characters have depth, the medical situations have promise, and the conflict is already built in; Nagle is a very accomplished writer who injects substance into what, in the hands of someone less accomplished, is a hoary medium.
In most cases I don’t have the opportunity to see the produced pilot, but I was lucky enough to see this one. It was well directed by Jason Ensler, one of television’s most accomplished pilot directors; and the cast was stellar. Led by Donald Sutherland, capable of turning a flash of anger into a twinkle in his eye in a heart beat (I am never able to avoid the bleeding obvious), and Jackie Bisset who has been given one her best roles in years and devours it deliciously; the younger members of the cast are also quite good, allowing Saffron Burrows another chance to show the character complexity she demonstrated in “The Bank Job.”.
What led CBS to pick up “Three Rivers” instead of “The Eastmans”? Realistically, the issue at hand is not about content, it’s probably about economics; in other words, vertical integration. CBS Studios produced “Three Rivers”; Warner Brothers produced “The Eastmans”. All new television shows are a crapshoot; there are no sure things, so, in this case they went with what they owned, (and in the unlikely event it succeeds, they will profit more) rather than with what they didn’t. Knowing that the biggest hit on CBS is the CSI franchise and that CBS obtained this good fortune due to the shortsightedness of some execs at ABC where it was developed, obviously CBS would never like to be the dog in that kennel. Still, if they’re not going to use it, why can’t someone else. Maintaining an ownership position could help offset any embarrassment they would face if “The Eastmans” became another network’s “Gray’s Anatomy.”
Life Lessons for Writers: Pray for a second bite and, in an isolated negative thought, the demise of a lesser show. A second bite, where the actors are all held loosely under contract for an additional 6 months in case the show comes back to life, allows the powers-that-be to think again on a project they might otherwise have killed (or in this case allowed to bleed to death).
Neely: Margaret Nagle just finished working in the LA writers’ room for HBO's new series "Boardwalk Empire." She is currently writing a sequel of her Emmy winning movie "Warm Springs" called "The Defining Moment." Her feature script "The Goree Girls" begins shooting in January.
Margaret, tell us about “The Eastmans.”
Margaret: This one was a heartbreak. The idea was that I wanted to write “The Royal Tenenbaums” CBS style. “The Lion in Winter,” “King Lear” were also inspirations. An intimate epic about a crazy but brilliant family.
Neely: I definitely see parallels. As the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine said in “The Lion in Winter,” “What family doesn't have its ups and downs?” I'd like to know about you and your experience. Do you come from an overachieving family with a domineering patriarch? In other words, where did this come from?
Margaret: My grandfather was a very prominent neurologist and had five children. He was brilliant and wanted his children to succeed no matter what. He was worshiped and feared by his family and loved by his patients and colleagues. All three of his sons became talented doctors in their own right. He was my inspiration for this. Doctors deal with death every day yet they still fear their own. And medicine is an ever evolving science so one generation may practice quite differently than another. There is inherent conflict there.
Neely: What was the Network’s reaction to the script? What kind of notes did you get?
Margaret: The studio (Warner’s) had me do a rewrite of my first draft before it went to the network. They had very specific notes. TV is so different from film. Particularly network TV. I needed to raise the stakes. They pushed me and I'm glad they did.
The network was fantastic. The CBS notes were about Anna and her character’s struggle with her autistic son, her career, her marriage. They wanted me to go farther with her struggle. The development team understood what the show was. That is always a huge victory with a network and studio if everyone wants to make the same show.
Neely: How involved were you in the casting and production? What did you think of Jason Ensler as the director of the pilot? What was the Network’s reaction to the produced pilot?
Margaret: I was the sole exec producer so I hired practically everyone. I had a team of designers I had worked with before on a previous show I created. I also used the costume designer from a movie I wrote. I knew how I wanted this to look and to sound.
Jason Ensler, our director, and I had a unique connection from the minute we said hello. We clicked creatively right away on a deep level. Colors, lenses, music, editing, casting... we agreed. People thought we had known one another forever. But it was creative kismet. I loved his work on the finished pilot. He is so talented with music and editing as well... he just brought his whole game to this piece. He understood it on a deep emotional level. The actors loved him. I am forever grateful to him and I just hope we get to work together again soon.
Casting was a long process. I hate casting because as a former actor it makes me deeply uncomfortable to watch actors audition. That said, our casting directors were amazing and we got a terrific cast. Actors really responded well to the script. Gaby Hoffman and Jesse Bradford were absolutely terrific. Donald was heartbreakingly funny and warm. He did remarkable work. Jacqueline Bisset was so captivating. The camera just loves her. She is like a powder keg on screen. The actors brought so much to this. It was very exciting to see their work onscreen.
The network’s initial reaction to the finished product was fantastic. Love. Joy. Total enthusiasm.
Neely: You may not be aware of this, but I read your script because of a comment one of the readers made on the site. I quote: “You must watch THE EASTMANS (CBS) at some point. Incredible pilot and script. Beautifully directed. Tested through the roof. Quotable. Well acted. I could have seen some recasting for series. Women loved it. Several characters tested through the roof. Like “House” numbers.” The reader then went on to speculate on why “Three Rivers” got on the air instead. So what do you think happened?
Margaret: I just don’t know. So many people have wanted to see this show succeed. It strikes a chord.
Neely: “The Eastmans” is that dying breed of beautifully drawn, character-driven drama; pure and not so very simple.
Margaret: You can never underestimate an audience’s response to watching an adult depiction of family. We all have parents and brothers and sisters and stories. It is why we are who we are.
Neely: Is there a second bite? Could CBS conceivably pick this up for midseason?
Margaret: I honestly don’t know.
Neely: You know, in the end, cable may be the right place for this, say on TNT. TNT has spent freely for big stars but have nothing on right now with this level of writing, with the possible exception of “The Closer.”. Many actors who have refused series roles on network television are willing to do the limited episodes shot for cable. I think anyone who has read the script and/or seen the pilot would agree that this deserves to be on the air.
Next up – “What’s Your Story?”