'Monday Mornings' author Dr. Sanjay Gupta: 'It was surreal sometimes'

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If you dread Monday mornings, you might feel better upon seeing how the doctors in a new drama series start their weeks.

Based on a novel by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, TNT's "Monday Mornings" -- executive produced by David E. Kelley ( "Boston Legal," "Ally McBeal") and appropriately premiering on a Monday, Feb. 4 -- centers on a ritual for the surgeons at a Portland, Ore., hospital. Each Monday, Chelsea General's quietly fearsome chief of staff (played by Alfred Molina) cross-examines them about operations they've performed ... with the questioning particularly intense if they were unsuccessful.

Jamie Bamber ( "Battlestar Galactica") and Jennifer Finnigan ( "Better With You") portray two of the doctors, whose personal involvement makes them even more a mutual support system in the face of being interrogated on their professional decisions and actions. Ving Rhames ( "Pulp Fiction") also stars as the hospital's trauma chief, with Bill Irwin, Emily Swallow, Keong Sim and Sarayu Rao as other doctors.

"It was surreal sometimes," Gupta -- who worked visits to the "Monday Mornings" set into a hectic schedule also including frequent CNN appearances and "Sanjay Gupta. M.D.," his weekend program on the cable news network -- tells Zap2it. "When you write a fiction book, you feel like you really know the characters you create. I think everybody reads a book differently, but when you're doing television, you're giving them another layer and filling in some more details.

"There's ambiguity in here," Gupta adds, "because you're talking about doctors who might make mistakes or have unexpected outcomes. It's a hard thing, and it's provocative, and David Kelley is one of the guys who can do it."

Most often based in legal shows -- as proved again recently by NBC's "Harry's Law" -- former attorney Kelley has dramatized the medical arena before, with the CBS series "Chicago Hope." He says he wasn't sure he wanted to enter it again, though he professes to be a fan of Gupta.

"I had a meeting with Sanjay," Kelley says, "and he had an idea for a medical show, which I was not really predisposed to like or do. That's no judgment on his idea, but I had done that."

Reading Gupta's book ultimately made the difference to multiple Emmy winner Kelley.

"I was so taken with the characters," the producer recalls, "and was convinced so immediately that this world was new and fertile in a way that I had never explored, it was an easy sell. When doing any television series, it's about audiences wanting to come back and spend more time with the people. At the end of the book, I wanted to, and that was a good sign."

Molina felt the same way in taking the role of Dr. Harding Hooten, whose methodical, low-key manner of getting to the truth convinced the stage and screen veteran to give series work another whirl after his single season on NBC's "Law & Order: LA."

Also well-known as villain Doctor Octopus in the movie "Spider-Man 2," Molina explains "Monday Mornings" has "all the usual and expected tropes of a medical show, just the right amount of procedural and the required gore and viscera, but there's also this other element ... Room 311, where the Monday morning meetings happen. And suddenly, we're into something that's almost like a courtroom drama."

Not only is that turf Kelley clearly knows well, it lets Molina play doctor, lawyer and detective simultaneously.

"In the middle of this medical drama, there's this sense of something slightly different," the actor says. "There have been plenty of wonderful medical shows over the years, but we've never quite seen this side of the profession. I worried at first that the Room 311 idea might lose its novelty value, but I think it's become an integral part of the hour."

It's also a big reason actress Finnigan switched back to drama from comedy. A three-time Daytime Emmy winner for her stint on CBS' "The Bold and the Beautiful," she was the first "Monday Mornings" star cast, and she appreciates being able to show her alter ego - neurosurgeon Tina Ridgeway - as someone doing well in her career but not so much in her marriage, thus drawing her ever closer to Dr. Tyler Wilson (Bamber).

"In the pilot, there's one glimpse into her home life, which I really put so much importance on," Finnigan says. "I remember watching that scene and thinking, 'Oh, this really came together,' and we do understand who she is. There's the juxtaposition between how happy and authoritative and confident she is at work and how much pain she's in at home."

Finnigan has an extra reason to be happy in her own work: Her husband, Jonathan Silverman ("Weekend at Bernie's"), has a recurring role as another "Monday Mornings" doctor. He made an earlier pilot for Kelley and fellow executive producer Bill D'Elia that didn't sell, and as soon as they realized he was Finnigan's husband, they became determined to find a place for him in the new show.

"Sometimes, he'd bring the dogs with him," Finnigan muses of being on the set with Silverman, "then I'd bring the dogs home because he was still working. And then it got to a point where I wasn't seeing him enough, because on my days off, he was working."

Since "Monday Mornings" revolves around an on-trial concept, Kelley feels at home with it.
It certainly has that element of cross-examination, which I always gravitate toward," he says. "The other common denominator between this and some of my legal shows is that we're constantly mining ethical terrain.

"We're seeing these doctors as clinicians and scientists, but at the end of the day, most of the conflict is rooted in the value judgments they make -- how they behave not just as doctors but as people. And it's those gray areas that I've always loved to explore."
Photo/Video credit: TNT
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