Series comes from the heart of local medicine

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It's been three years since Mt. Lebanon native David Hollander's first Pittsburgh-set series, CBS's "The Guardian," ended its run. Now he's back with another show and it doesn't stray far from the Three Rivers: The new TNT medical drama "Heartland" (10 p.m. Monday) is also set here.

   
"Heartland"

When: 10 p.m. Monday, TNT
Starring: Treat Williams

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With offices and sets housed in the now-closed Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne, Calif., Hollander creates the world of St. Jude Transplant Center, imagined in his mind in Pittsburgh's Oakland area.

In a phone interview this month, Hollander said he'd been interested in writing the stories of transplant cases for many years, stemming from his fascination while growing up about news related to the pioneering work of Pittsburgh surgeon Dr. Thomas Starzl.

While "The Guardian" was about a young lawyer fighting against his self-destructive tendencies, "Heartland" focuses on Dr. Nathaniel Grant (Treat Williams, "Everwood"), an organ-transplant surgeon with an organ-donor coordinator ex-wife, Kate Armstrong (Kari Matchett, "Invasion"). Dr. Grant has a new girlfriend in nurse Jessica Kivala (Morena Baccarin, "Firefly") and an ailing mentor, Dr. Bart Jacobs (Dabney Coleman, one of Hollander's "Guardian" stars).

"This is a totally different head space to write from," Hollander said of the new series. "'The Guardian' was really me reaching into my youthful experience, not that it was autobiographical, but the emotional stories about loss, about my mother dying, my relationship to Pittsburgh and growing up there. It was very much a coming-of-age story. This show appeals to a different part of me. It comes from a much more emotional world. I love the medicine of it, I love writing for an ensemble."

Hollander explores the gift of organ-donation and transplantation through the experiences of recipients and the loved ones of donors. He said he hopes to explore the idea of second chances and the metaphysics of the process.

Dr. Grant (and viewers at home) literally sees the face of an organ donor over the face of a recovering recipient. That notion came from research trips Hollander made back to Pittsburgh, talking to employees in the transplant program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and at the Center for Organ Recovery & Education, a federally designated, not-for-profit organ procurement organization.

"They were so kind and open, and I spoke to a lot of surgeons and they allowed me to ask open-ended questions," he said, including a request that they recall their most memorable surgery. More often than not, Hollander said the surgeons talked less about the organ recipient than they did about the donor. He said the doctors were "living with the ghosts of the recovery."

The notion of a second chance -- for the recipient and a piece of the organ donor -- struck Hollander as worth representing.

"That was very powerful," he said, "and I realized that if I didn't access the gift in either a beautiful way or a scary way or an ugly way or a fantastical way, I wasn't telling the story."

"Heartland" star Treat Williams said he was attracted to the project by both Hollander's pilot script and the subject matter.

"I'm impressed with this concept," he said. "I haven't seen the spiritual aspects of transplants before. It isn't just one piece of a person going into another person. There are much more spiritual repercussions no one's talked about and David is dealing with that straight ahead."

In addition to the medical stories, "Heartland" also depicts the relationship between Grant and Armstrong. This week's premiere sets up a dynamic where it seems possible they might get back together. Don't bet on it, Hollander said. "I'm in no way writing a series about reconciliation. I'm much more interested in the other side of it."

Because the budget of "Heartland" is significantly lower than "The Guardian" -- "Heartland" is produced for TNT by Warner Horizon, the low-budget TV division of Warner Bros. -- it's highly unlikely the show will ever film scenes in Pittsburgh as "The Guardian" occasionally did. To compensate, Hollander works Pittsburgh references into his scripts and is using establishing shots of the city he filmed here during the run of "The Guardian."

If there's a difference to Hollander's approach with "Heartland," it comes from what he learned while working on "The Guardian." Back then he was a 33-year-old wunderkind playwright who was suddenly expected to manage the business enterprise of a television series while dreaming up 22 weeks of stories a year.

"Heartland" has an initial order of nine episodes, and almost the entire first batch of episodes will be complete by the time the series premieres.

"It's been me having a very close relationship to the evolution of the story without being informed by an audience," Hollander said. "It's like we have a hermetic seal around us."

Last summer, TNT tried another medical-themed show, the EMT drama "Saved," in the post-"Closer" time slot. It didn't hold onto enough of "Closer's" audience and was canceled. Hollander said he's learned better how to accommodate the needs of the network. Knowing his time slot and lead-in in advance -- an advantage Hollander didn't have with CBS and "The Guardian" -- has allowed him to plan accordingly.

"I certainly am thinking about the audience of 'The Closer,' " Hollander said. "The Closer" audience is largely female. "I'm trying to mine stories that are potentially relatable. You learn as you go that every network and every series has a form and the form is relatively rigid. I'm putting a lot of emotion into a particular form and hoping that is something people will respond well to."


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582.


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