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Just What the Doc Ordered

Apr 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It’s the prescription that every Sunday night almost 2.5 million viewers take-with seemingly unlimited refills.
Lifetime’s original one-hour drama “Strong Medicine” is a show that speaks to its audience through the trials and tribulations of its two lead women doctors. The program is going into its fifth season this fall, during which it will air its 100th episode-a milestone in the world of original cable series that very few others have achieved.
“While there are a number of medical shows on television, the reason we’ve had longevity is we’ve been unique in the marketplace,” said Kelly Goode, Lifetime’s senior VP of programming, who has shepherded the show from its beginning. “The enduring thing is the fantastic characters and story lines that tap into something important for the viewer-real issues that affect women’s lives.”
It was just such a dose of reality that inspired the original idea for the show. Whoopi Goldberg was at a Los Angeles hospital attending her grandchild’s birth when she noticed many more female physicians than when she herself had been pregnant.
“She thought it would be a great topic for TV,” Ms. Goode said. “Sony put her together with Tammy Ader, the other executive producer, and the two worked together on the initial concept. We knew from the beginning this would be right for us.”
Ms. Ader was a writer on “Party of Five” at the time. “I got a phone call that Whoopi wanted to meet me,” she said. “She told me about her experience at the hospital of seeing all the women doctors. With the incredible advancements in medical science, there was nothing on television that focused on women and gender-specific medicine, and I was interested in creating a show about that.”
The process went smoothly. “I brought back the characters and the story to Whoopi,” Ms. Ader said. “She loved them and we both knew instantly the place for it was Lifetime. We sold it in the room … They sensed they would have a hit and they were right.”
Social and government agencies have responded as passionately as viewers. The show has won honors from the Entertainment Industries Council, The Foundation of American Women in Radio and Television, Excellence in Media, The Media Project, The White House Project, The National Council of La Raza, The Imagen Foundation, The California Governor’s Committee for Employment of Disabled Persons and the American Red Cross and many other organizations.
“Strong Medicine’s” two lead characters are on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum and have divergent attitudes and opinions on dealing with their patients’ medical issues. “While they differ economically, a woman is a woman,” Ms. Ader said. “A socialite and a homeless women have everything in common in terms of their bodies and their health. That’s really what became the core of the series.”
Dr. Luisa “Lu” Delgado, played by Rosa Blasi, is a young single mother whose inner-city clinic is merged into the prestigious Rittenhouse Hospital. “She’s the type of doctor who would steal medical supplies if it came down to that,” said Ms. Blasi. “She’s one to bend the rules, someone who works from the heart-someone who cares about right now, rather than down the road, and acts with guts and her heart.”
For the first two seasons, Ms. Blasi’s co-star was Janine Turner, who played Dr. Dana Stowe. Ms. Turner, a single mother, left to spend more time with her daughter. On the show, art imitated life and Dr. Stowe exited to raise her adopted child in the city where her parents live.
The departure of one of the series’ two leads presented a creative challenge for Ms. Ader. “I needed to create a new character who was also the opposite of Delgado but at the same time different than Dr. Stowe,” Ader said. Thus, Patricia Richardson, playing Dr. Andy Campbell, began making her rounds on the set.
After “Home Improvement,” Ms. Richardson did not want to do another sitcom and was looking for a dramatic series. “I get a call that Patricia read the role and her father is military,” Ms. Ader said. “Since Dr. Campbell comes from a military background, this role was tailor-made for her. While Delgado believes no rules should be left unbroken, Campbell believes rules are there for a reason, because in the military when you break the rules, people get killed.”
“It’s been a complete 180-degree turn with Patricia,” Ms. Blasi said. “You have me going through rape, and she’s getting used to a new job and going through a divorce. We have cutting-edge medical stories, yet what’s going on medically doesn’t affect our character’s personal lives.”
Issues Education
Ms. Blasi said the rape of her character on the show and her subsequent medical treatment in an episode called “Rape Kit” was one of her proudest moments, in keeping with the show’s penchant for educating and informing women about medical issues. “In episodic television, it’s almost like a factory, but that stands far and above anything I’ve ever done,” Ms. Blasi said.
“My acting coach and I went to a rape-crisis center, and I read some books and had meetings with the director. It was a really big deal because I thought I had an obligation to people to whom it had happened. I wanted to not just be an actress.”
The drama often uses story lines torn straight from the headlines, focusing on topics such as conjoined twins and women smuggling drugs in balloons inside their bodies.
Viewer feedback is intense and emotional. “I get letters after every episode from women who have thanked me profusely because they’ve seen something on the show,” Ms. Ader said. “We’re not doctors, we don’t diagnose, but it’s medically accurate. Women have spoken to their own doctors and have often caught disease early.”
The show’s medical consultants vet every script, and there is always a doctor on set.