HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- The set for Three Rivers Regional Medical Center, the fictional Pittsburgh hospital that serves as the setting for CBS's fall medical drama "Three Rivers," is so large it takes up two soundstages on the Paramount Pictures lot.
Production designer Philip Toolin designed a set that connects stages 19 and 20, requiring set builders to cut corridor-sized holes in the wall between the two. This allowed Toolin to create long, winding, river-like corridors for the doctors to stride down during those all-important hospital walk-and-talk scenes.
"Three Rivers," which premieres Oct. 4 in its 9 p.m. Sunday time slot, stars Alex O'Loughlin ("Moonlight") as lead organ transplant surgeon Dr. Andy Yablonski. The series came about after CBS told its producers, including Carol Barbee ("Jericho," "Swingtown"), that the network was seeking a new medical show. At the same time, an executive at director Curtis Hanson's film company was teaching a seminar at the University of Southern California. Part of the course required students to pitch ideas.
Steve Boman, a former transplant coordinator and Chicago newspaper reporter, pitched a medical drama set at a transplant hospital. Boman was paid for the pitch and Hanson's company contacted Barbee.
"When I heard the thing about transplants, I knew what I'd do with transplants," she said. "I'd watched documentaries about hospitals, and there was a transplant in the documentary. I said I'd do it from three points of view: Donor, recipient, doctor. Each one was so compelling."
That put Barbee in business with Hanson's company, which filmed "Wonder Boys" in Pittsburgh a few years ago. Barbee had never visited Pittsburgh, but when an assistant drew up a list of the top transplant hospitals in the world, UPMC was at the top of the list.
When she broached the notion of the show's setting with Hanson he leapt at the idea of Pittsburgh, calling it a cool city with "great, old architecture" but also a place that's reinventing itself. The city's three rivers also mirror the themes each episode will explore. "I thought that was perfect because the show is so much about second chances and reinventing your life."
Because the new hospital interior doesn't match the pilot -- and because of several roles being recast (Julia Ormond is out as Dr. Sophia Jordan; Alfre Woodard is in) -- the pilot that was shot in Pittsburgh will not air as the first episode of the series. That's probably a good thing: Critical reaction to the initial pilot has been largely negative. In an interview with Broadcasting & Cable, USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco called the "Three Rivers" pilot "shoddy and incompetent"; Matt Roush of TV Guide said, "The idea of a show built around somebody having to die each week is a downer."
A new premiere episode is in production and will include a shout-out to Primanti Bros., Barbee said, which was also in the Pittsburgh-lensed pilot. Some scenes and stories from the Pittsburgh pilot will air in a later episode.
Series stars O'Loughlin and Katherine Moennig ("The L Word") will return to Pittsburgh Aug. 17 to film two scenes to insert in two upcoming episodes. A scene for the new first episode features Yablonski playing rugby with some old neighborhood buddies in a park; another scene for the show's fourth episode features Moennig's Dr. Miranda Foster and Yablonski having a conversation with Downtown Pittsburgh in the background. (Information on filming locations is not available.)
"We're going to shoot up there and show the inclines," Barbee said. "We're going to find places where you really get to see Pittsburgh."
A flyover scene for the premiere -- shot from a helicopter -- will follow an ambulance as it enters the Fort Pitt Tunnel from the Parkway West and emerges on the other side for the beauty shot of Pittsburgh's Downtown. Producers hope to make a second trip to shoot local scenes during the first 13 episodes; if additional episodes are ordered, cast members will ideally return for one more filming trip in the show's first season.
After a press conference on the show's set, new-to-the-cast Woodard stayed behind for a photo shoot in her character's office, located just off the ICU. During the press conference, she teased Australian actor O'Loughlin, saying, "Let me just say how freaked I am to hear you talk like an Aussie. What is he doing faking over here? We just met on Monday. And he's such a believable Pittsburgh boy."
Maybe not to Pittsburghers, who often wonder why characters on Pittsburgh-set series never evince a Yinzer accent. Barbee said a scene was shot for the "Three Rivers" pilot using a local actor that got cut.
"There's a scene where Andy is paged to come to the ER and there's a guy from the neighborhood -- Eddie, a working-class guy -- who got in a bar fight and figured if he asked for Andy he'd get seen sooner," Barbee recalled. "It was a wonderful scene that gave a sense of Andy's connection to Pittsburgh and this one neighborhood. We cast a guy from Pittsburgh and he did the whole Yinzer accent and he was hilarious, doing the whole Yinzer thing. But once we got into editing we found it slowed the pilot down."
Barbee hopes to re-film the scene for a future episode. O'Loughlin is less concerned with attempting a Pittsburgh accent than he is with correctly pronouncing medical terms.
"You study and read a lot and practice: Hypertrophic myopathy, hypertrophic myopathy," O'Loughlin said, reciting a term from the episode currently in production. "There's so much to learn, even just to get off the ground and be convincing when you say the words. And, you know, the whole time we were in Pittsburgh, and before that as well, I was into medical journals and I was on the phone, and I was researching all night."
Woodard, a veteran of the 1980s' medical drama "St. Elsewhere," said she still recalls a term she had to learn for that show.
"Let me say this to you: Salpingo-oophorectomy, [from] 'St. Elsewhere' 50,000 years ago," she said. "I fought Denzel [Washington] over it one night. We both learned it because we thought it was our line. I said, 'Oh, no. That's mine.' He said, 'That's mine.' I said, 'No. I learned this. I have to say that word.' It has something to do with the wonderful female body."
(In case you're wondering, it's a procedure involving removal of one or both of the fallopian tubes and ovaries.)
Barbee and O'Loughlin both did research for "Three Rivers" at The Cleveland Clinic, which made an impression on the show's star.
"I didn't sleep very much at all in Pittsburgh," O'Loughlin said. "And I was back and forth from Pittsburgh to Cleveland. I spent a lot of time flying and driving over there, and I spent a lot of time in the OR. [Dr. Gonzalo "Gonzo" Gonzalez-Stawinski] is the surgeon who my character is based on, and the surgeon that I studied with. And now I'm obsessed with it. I've chosen the wrong profession. I'm so boring. I should have been a doctor."
Post-Gazette TV editor Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Follow his updates throughout the day in Tuned In Journal blog. You can reach him at 412-263-1112 or firstname.lastname@example.org .