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June 8, 2011

Combat Hospital premieres June 21 on Global

Playback - Etan Vlessing

Combat Hospital aims Canadian drama at the world 4 hours ago

Canadian producers Julia Sereny and Jennifer Kawaja aim to do more than launch a TV drama about a military medical unit in Afghanistan when Combat Hospital debuts on Global Television and ABC on June 21.

The Sienna Films principals want to make history by producing a collaborative TV drama with universal storytelling themes that overcomes the inherent challenge of Canadian TV: depending on American broadcasters that drive the creative.

“It’s a Canadian initiated and led project, but with a view to creating something that is for the world, not just for Canada,” Kawaja, who along with Sereny have executive producer credits on Combat Hospital, tells Playback Daily.

“It wasn’t an ABC-led project, but without ABC, without all of the parts of the puzzle, without Sony or our British partner, none of it would be the same,” she adds.

That’s a lot of creative balls in the air for a fictional medical procedural from Sienna Films and UK’s Artists Studio, structured as a British-Canadian coproduction.

Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions is on board to sell the series outside North America, a key move given the traditional Canadian industry model for a TV drama where Hollywood calls the tune.

With Combat Hospital, Jinder Chalmers and Douglas Steinberg created the series before Global Television brought Sienna Films on board and financed four one-hour scripts about a 2006-era battlefield medical facility set in southern Afghanistan.

“Global Television had the courage and vision to say, ‘we’ll step up and finance four scripts, so we can get a real handle on what the show will look like,’” Julia Sereny recalls.

Based in part on ABC’s success along with Global Television on Rookie Blue, the American network acquired Combat Hospital for its summer schedule.

But the series’ producers weren’t about to trade creative control of Combat Hospital in return for ABC’s license fee, especially when series like The Listener and 18 To Life illustrated how an American broadcaster can easily slip in and out of a Canadian-made TV show.

“Global Television is essential to the series and ABC – I can’t begin to explain its importance. But if we were to lose them [ABC], we would be able to make up the gap,” Sereny said of the series spreading its financial risk among many partners.

Combat Hospital’s ace in the hole is a multinational military hospital — with doctors and nurses from Canada, the U.S., the UK, Holland, Australia, Rumania and other allied countries at war in Afghanistan — that is uniquely suited to an international TV audience.

“What we had going for us was in real life the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar airfield in Afghanistan was exactly that: multinational,” Combat Hospital showrunner Dan Petrie Jr., who headed up the series writing room, explains.

Such a diverse cast facing relentless life and death battles in a war zone helped the series’ writers avoid making a TV show that has the potential to work in Canada, the U.S., Britain and elsewhere internationally, and yet feels contrived.

“A lot of the time that people produce TV work that hopefully is aimed at the world, it’s imposed on the story,” Sereny said.

“In this context, it is an organically internationally flavor, but with all the essential elements that people relate to the world over,” she adds of Combat Hospital.

Chris Kaye, the medical military consultant on the series, insists that authenticity comes from reflecting a war not led by the U.S. army, as in Second World War dramas, but one where coalition forces came together to work under a NATO alliance and build a multinational medical team.

“In other wars, sometimes militaries worked together, but they did not cross boundaries like this. That’s why this show is unique,” Kaye said.

Sereny said broadcast partners on Combat Hospital have struggled over how to represent the coalition struggle in Afghanistan, especially when the portrayal of the medical facility includes healthy doses of humor that helps true-life nurses and doctors get through their daily life and death battles.

“We’ve had hours of conversations, and all broadcasters felt that it was a great risk, but a challenge that everyone has to meet,” she said.

Such headaches and hurdles are also part and parcel of the search for a high-concept TV drama structured as an international coproduction and aimed at the world market.

“When we explore everyone searching for their humanity in an inhuman situation, hopefully you have something universal. That’s where it will touch people and connect with people,” Sienna’s Jennifer Kawaja argues.

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