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Sigrid Thornton (Robyn Masterson) offers compassion to a worried family in her guest spot on a revamped MDA. Photo: Greg Noakes

Breakthrough treatment

With its drama production drastically reduced, the ABC is pinning its hopes on a new-look MDA. Debi Enker dons her stethoscope.

The lights went out on MDA in December 2003. And right up to the last minute, what the drama’s modest but dedicated audience saw at  was business as usual.

Perky receptionist Layla (Petra Yared) was back at her desk, having testified in a Supreme Court case involving the fate of her beloved grandmother. She’d argued that the life-support system keeping the ailing old woman alive should be turned off in order to allow her to die with dignity.

The MDA boss, the ironically nicknamed Bill “Happy” Henderson (Shane Bourne), who has to be TV’s grumpiest hero, had just guided the organisation and its doctor clients through a couple of “med-neg” cases (lawyer-speak for medical negligence).

One involved a GP who had given a two-year-old a vaccination, against her mother’s wishes, that might have triggered autism.

“I was trying to do the right thing,” cried the distraught doctor, in what might easily be an MDA refrain. Another case involved an agitated lawyer who’d had electro-convulsive treatment for depression and was now arguing he’d been in no fit state to consent to it.

Both cases brought the MDA staff—lawyer Amanda McKay (Angie Milliken), surgeon Simon Lloyd (Felix Nobis) and doctor Jamie Lawless (Angus Grant)—up against their customary adversary, the sly Richard Savage (Jason Donovan).

He’d just thwarted an attack on his legal career. While all this was going on, Amanda and Simon were managing to find a bit of time to get it on in the stationery cupboard.

Aside from that budding romance, though, this was business as usual, MDA-style. These were the kinds of knotty cases that provided the organisation’s bread and butter, and the medical-legal series’ lifeblood. MDA is an outfit that represents doctors accused of malpractice.

If those loyal viewers from the past choose to welcome back the new-look MDA next Thursday night, what they’ll see is a drama that’s different in style, if not substance.

For starters, Savage is no longer on the scene (Donovan has been busy on the London stage with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

Gone too is his most recent associate, Jo (Marta Dusseldorp). Long gone is Happy’s chess mate, the passionate Dr Ella Davis (Kerry Armstrong), her sister Edwina (Alexandra Schepisi) and one-time MDA staffer Caitlin King (Alice McConnell).

Layla Young (Petra Yared) in MDA. Photo:Supplied

On the other hand, sad-sack Happy is still grumbling at his desk and, with him at neighbouring workstations in a bigger, airier office are Amanda, Jamie and Layla.

It’s a smaller team in a larger space in a substantially remodelled series. This MDA is “a very different beast,” observes Bourne, who’s been playing Happy since the drama’s debut in July 2002. “In a way, it’s like doing another series but with the same cast.”

His character, a father of teenagers and husband of a so-far-unseen wife, is having what Bourne calls a “midlife awakening” others might call it a midlife crisis as it involves a Harley-Davidson, a trial separation and a flirtation with infidelity.

Back at the office, there’s still a lot of dense legal-medical jargon flying between desks and across conference and mediation tables. There’s also more activity outside the MDA offices, with a concerted effort to shoot more walking-and-talking scenes that will be familiar to fans of The West Wing.

Rather than being shot in cramped conditions at the ABC studios in Elsternwick, the new MDA was filmed in the vast old Boeing building at Fishermans Bend, a space that allowed for more of what producer Denny Lawrence calls “continuous camera” work.

There are long hand-held shots, and the use of dolly tracks allows the camera to move fluidly between and around the characters.

“We’ve got more room and we’ve been able to do more long-lens stuff,” says Lawrence.

“We’ve been able to layer it. The building gives us depth, down the hall and through the offices, and I put in rooms with glass, so we can always see other things going on. It creates a more interesting visual picture.”

With the move to the new HQ, there’s been an effort to shift away from the desk-bound, talking-heads look that could make MDA feel visually static.

There has also been a push for more marketable guest stars. Among the actors featured in the upcoming 12 hours are Sigrid Thornton, Lisa McCune, Vince Colosimo, Erik Thomson and Wendy Hughes.

They appear in three self-contained four-hour stories, so that this MDA is less like a weekly series made up of hour-long episodes than a trio of miniseries screening back-to-back.

It begins with Second Chance, directed by Ken Cameron and Roger Hodgman and starring Thornton (SeaChange), Anita Hegh (Stingers) and Aaron Blabey (CrashBurn).

Thornton plays the ambitious Professor Robyn Masterson, a geneticist developing a potentially groundbreaking drug designed to stimulate depressed immune systems.

She’s working to secure funding and medical-board approval to move to the human-trial stage of her research and comes to MDA seeking indemnity.

Second Chance will be followed on July 28 by Departure Lounge, directed by Brendan Maher and Aarne Neeme, and starring Colosimo, Hughes, Jane Allsop and Frank Gallacher.

The final block, A Human Cost (August 25), directed by Daina Reid and Peter Sharp, stars McCune, Thomson, Paul Bishop and Louise Siversen.

The core of all these stories remains the complicated realm of litigation related to medical malpractice, which has always been at the heart of MDA; tales of doctors—overconfident, under pressure, under-prepared, under-resourced—making decisions that are subsequently scrutinised and attacked.

Colosimo’s story involves an anaesthetist forced to consider his career prospects when he becomes suspicious about the high infant mortality rate at his hospital. McCune plays an over-worked intern who has to battle to clear her name when she’s accused of incompetence.

So why the structural makeover? The ABC’s head of drama, Scott Meek, says it was motivated by a desire to accentuate the positive, to bring out the best of MDA and not repeat what had been done before. “The decision was not to do another volume of short stories, but instead to do series of novels featuring the same characters,” he explains.

“Basically, what Medical Defence Australia does is limited: it defends doctors who are accused of something. It deals with medical problems where somebody is dissatisfied and legal action and financial recourse might be needed. Consequently, in many ways, all of the stories have similar elements.

“But where it works well is in the notion of the moral complexity of those cases. Doctors on the whole don’t do things because they are bad people; they do things for different sets of reasons, sometimes accidental, or complicated due to the circumstances in which they find themselves.

“What works best about MDA is moral arguments to which there are not necessarily black-and-white answers, and characters with enough depth that we can see them from different angles . . .

“It seemed that if those were the elements that made the show different, then they would be better serviced by having time to fully investigate them.”

Like Meek, Lawrence, who also produced the drama’s second season in 2003, sees the strength of MDA as its complexity, as well as its credibility.

“One of the things we’ve always prided ourselves on is that it has authenticity. Our medical and legal stuff is spot-on. We don’t fudge it, we don’t play fast and loose. On top of that, people appreciate that the characters have shades of grey, that they’re flawed.

“The MDA characters don’t all get on perfectly happily in the office. All too often in the police stations or the hospitals in our dramas, we have this kind of cosy family that doesn’t always have a lot of friction . . . We have a whole mixture of people who change their minds, who make mistakes.”

With the new batch, Lawrence says, the drama needed to retain the “intelligence” that fans valued.

“We don’t want to talk down to people and we don’t want it to be hard to access. We still want it to have emotional resonance, but there’s an enormous amount to think about. Our stories don’t necessarily have happy outcomes: people die, doctors get struck off, lawyers lose cases. That’s what happens in life. It’s not all going to be tied up with a bow at the end.”

Although cases might not have happy endings, the ABC clearly hopes MDA will give Aunty the injection of good news she urgently needs in the troubled area of drama.

The goal is that the reconstructed series will woo back former devotees and attract new ones enticed by the prospect of challenging stories well told, or interested in the guest cast. Thornton, after all, is firmly associated with a great ABC success, SeaChange.

But to mention the glory days when the adventures of Laura Gibson were water-cooler conversation and the citizens of Pearl Bay were winning a national audience of more than 2 million is to evoke an era when ABC drama was looking a lot happier and healthier.

MDA arrives back on our screens at a bleak and contentious time, a period when the ABC’s capacity to produce drama is being debated, a year when its output in that sphere has been lamentably paltry.

Last year saw the slow death of the small-town series Fireflies, and this year, the local production on offer has amounted to a lone telemovie, Hell Has Harbour Views, in January.

The bounty of the early ‘90s, when David Hill’s ABC saw Australian drama as a vital part of its schedule and aimed for 100 hours a year of it, are a fond and distant memory.

Not all that long ago, the ABC was producing popular, impressive and award-winning series and miniseries, productions such as Brides of Christ, Phoenix, Janus, Blue Murder, The Leaving of Liverpool . There were healthy weekly doses of GP and Police Rescue.

Now the slate is almost bare. Beyond MDA, the only project that’s been announced is a three-hour telemovie, Answered by Fire, about the 1999 referendum in East Timor and starring David Wenham.

So it’s hoped that this burst of MDA will help soothe the pain for viewers who could be forgiven for thinking they had tuned into a Pacific outpost of the BBC when they turn on their ABC.

This is one of the reasons that Angie Milliken believes that MDA deserves support.

“It’s an original idea and it’s a very good idea,” she says.

“I think more credit needs to be given to that. It’s an idea that’s not happening on television in Australia or anywhere else.

“I don’t think that MDA will grab the audience who are watching Lost, but the feedback that I got from the last season was enough to know that there was a seriously committed audience, the sort of people who are looking for something else and who are prepared to sit down and go the distance, who want to be mentally challenged. I don’t think it necessarily has to do with the fact that it’s Australian. It’s the content, and the way that it’s approached. People got involved with the main characters but also got involved in the stories.”

Scott Meek is hoping that what resonated with viewers in the past about MDA will draw them back, and that they’ll bring their friends.

“Hopefully, stories where there is complexity about the moral issues will make it attractive to the audience. Here is a show in which moral issues and the nature of the society in which we live are being debated in an intelligent and accessible way.”

MDA returns next Thursday at 9.30pm on the ABC.

By Debi Enker
June 23, 2005
The Age