Derek Diorio has created hundreds of hours of film and television and knows well that you can’t please everyone all the time. “Somewhere along the line, somebody savages the show.”
Except Hard Rock Medical, the show he co-created with Smith Corindia. The series has never had a bad review (knock on wood). “The worst somebody called it was ‘maybe a little too earnest.’ If that’s the worst we get, I think we’re doing OK.”
That seems like a challenge to me, but I can’t do it either: after discovering it part way through its first season, its blend of quirky humour and absorbing character drama instantly made it a favourite.
Based on the unconventional Northern Ontario School of Medicine, centred around eight medical students learning how to deliver health care to isolated residents, Hard Rock Medical has been difficult to find even amid the witness-protection-level-promotion of many Canadian series. I was assigned a story about it last summer and had to stifle my “Hard Rock what now?” reaction.
Season two launched last week on TVO — episodes are available online. It gained a nation-wide broadcaster when APTN picked it up after the Australian co-producer dropped it (season two will likely air in April there).
The second season retains its humour but takes a darker turn. “Thematically, there’s a lot of questioning of faith,” said Corindia. “We’ve got Healy questioning his medical career and battling alcoholism.”
“I hate talking about it but mental illness was the underlying theme of this season,” said Diorio. “The pressures you have in your life, things you have no control over that affect people in very different ways. But if you put that out there, who’s going to watch it?”
How they approach themes is why those who have discovered the show want to watch. Within the first couple of episodes, for example, med student Charlie’s goat (received in payment for treatment) may have swallowed some diamonds, so what’s a man to do but sneak it into a vet’s MRI machine? It’s a comedic entry point to the impending doom of Charlie’s financial situation, another example of the personal cost of pursuing a medical career.
Instead of following a syllabus as with the first season, season two incorporates medical emergencies into the students’ lives. “Healy is a medical emergency,” Diorio pointed out, while Corindia gave the example of Nancy’s estranged husband suffering a stroke. Incorporating the personal stories with the medical cases was one way to make the series more compact.
With eight med student characters and a handful of faculty vying for air time, it’s not easy for a half hour show to serve all the characters. Going from 13 episodes in season one to eight in season two threw in a bonus challenge.
“It’s kind of like a Tetris game,” said Diorio.
They plotted out storylines for four major characters: Charlie (Stéphane Paquette), Healy (Patrick McKenna), Farida (Rachelle Casseus) and Cameron (Jamie Spilchuk). Then came the “mini-majors” and the more minor characters.
“Last year Gina figured much more prominently,” Diorio lamented, “but this year we ran out of real estate. Her story is actually a ton of fun but we just didn’t have time to get into it.”
Corindia explained that people see the ensemble as the med students especially, but this season gives more weight to some of the faculty as well.
Given the tricky financing and huge cast, it seems a minor Canadian TV miracle that the show doesn’t scream low budget.
“Everybody works for free,” Corindia jokingly explained.
“The joy of the show is everybody has bought in,” Diorio continued more seriously. He gives the example of Australian actor Mark Coles Smith, originally cast as part of the Australian co-production deal. Without that deal, Hard Rock Medical takes a financial hit to bring him in, but the producers feel he’s an integral part of the show. His agent isn’t keen on him continuing with a (let’s say it:) obscure Canadian series while his career takes off in his home country. Yet both sides are eager to have him back for a potential third season.
“Part of that is they get to do something they don’t get to do anywhere else,” said Diorio. “We are a dot on the landscape and we get calls from actors who want to be on the show.”
“They’re invested in characters as well as the show,” added Corindia. “But at the end of the day, I mean come on, you are on a TV series.”
Patrick McKenna, whose character isolates himself in a cabin and in addiction, is nearly unrecognizable, completely absorbed into the role.
“I think it’s safe to say he’s never played a role this dramatic and funny at the same time,” said Diorio. “Wait until you see where he goes.”