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Interview: NBC’s ‘The Night Shift’: A Medical Drama’s Underdog Origin Story

Interview: NBC's 'The Night Shift': A Medical Drama's Underdog Origin Story

Some shows premiere big. Some sneak onto the screen. NBC’s “The Night Shift” is definitely an example of the latter. While the medical drama premiered last summer without much fanfare, it built a solid viewership over the course of its eight episode run, locking down a Season 2 after just a few weeks on the air.

Featuring an ensemble cast including Eoin Macken, Jill Flint, Brendan Fehr, Freddy Rodriguez and Scott Wolf, “Night Shift” takes a “M.A.S.H”-esque look at life in a San Antonio emergency room, staffed by a blend of civilian and former military doctors.

During a visit to the set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Indiewire sat down with executive producer Gabe Sachs (who created the show with partner Jeff Judah) to learn how two producers best known for “Freaks and Geeks” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” went from writing about teenagers to emergency room doctors, as well as the show’s uncertain journey to the screen. Also on the table: What it’s like to launch as a midseason series (with the full weight of the NBC promotional engine behind you) and the importance of locking down the same behind-the-scenes crew used by “Better Call Saul.”

So, what’s really exciting about the show, I think, is the fact that it caught a lot of people off guard. From your perspective, how much of this has felt like an underdog’s journey?

The entire thing. But you’ve got to remember, anything we’ve worked on has been the underdog: “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared” — you know. We’ve always had that thing where we just wanted to do this show, but we didn’t really expect it to catch on. We were hoping it would, but we weren’t going, “We’re going to make the biggest medical drama,” you know? It just wasn’t that thing. We were just really surprised and really excited that people got what we wanted to do.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from viewers? How are they finding the show?

We got such positive views, and we just didn’t know, because we were mixing military guys coming back being doctors, and we wanted to be as true to that as possible. And we’ve gotten great feedback, we’ve gotten great suggestions, we’ve gotten great things about concentrating on the patients — which is something we didn’t do the first season. We tried, but it was that kind of thing where we wanted everyone to know our characters, so Topher’s wife was having a baby and things like that. The second season, we really wanted to follow the patients from beginning to end; sort of do those stories.

So, add even more characters to the mix.

Yeah. [laughs]

What goes into balancing the ensemble and making sure everyone has enough to do?

You know, what we’ve learned — because we’ve learned a lot doing this — is, the more complexity and the more depth you give to each character… when you give them a little bit, they can follow that and go to the next thing, and happily. So we do that for every character [and] it’s like something dynamic happens; you’re able to follow that. And you just sort of— we go like that. Some characters will be heavy in one episode, some characters light, and it’s just continually balancing that, where you get pieces. And sometimes we see it, and we go “Oh, we need a little more of this,” so we just shoot it.

So, going back to the journey of the show: You get the pilot, it shoots in 2012; what was the process between that and the first season? That was a good year-ish before you guys started shooting?

Just to get to the pilot was a thing — they bought it, they got it, they loved it — and they didn’t order it. So now we’re going, “Now what?” And then it was suddenly, “They’re talking about it again,” and we’re going, “Is this real?” [laughs] And then we saw it on some outlet, either Deadline or something, that said they’re talking about it. And then we shot it, and then… you’re just sort of, “Now what?” [laughs] “Will it get picked up, will it get picked up?” And then the craziest thing is — you know, we’re waiting and waiting — and you have to interview writers as if it’s going to go. Because if it’s going to go, it’s going to go fast. So you’re interviewing writers, not knowing if it’s going to go.

So, I get a phone call, and they’re like, “So, did you read the paper? Did you read Deadline?” and I go, “No.” And they go, “The show’s dead.” So the show’s dead, and I look at Jeff and go, “We’re dead.” And Jeff says thank you to the writers, and the writers go away, and we start writing the thank you letters to Sony, like, “Thanks for your support, and we so appreciate you putting all of that money into the show,” and they looked at us and said, “What are you talking about?” And then we go, “Well—” and they go, “Are you seriously reading it online? And you’re not calling us first?” And they said, “No, we haven’t even talked to them yet.”

But then everyone picked it up. “There’s no life in ‘The Night Shift.'” “Dead on arrival — D.O.A.” It was every horrible line you could imagine, and it just got worse and worse and worse as the hours went on. And then, there was a correction: “Well, we’re hearing that ‘The Night Shift’ has a little life. But not for long.” That was the correction!

So this is in between Season 1 and Season 2?

No, this is trying to get the pilot to series. So we just said, “Ugh.” So then, they called up and said, “No, no,” and then an hour later, it was picked up.

And that was just the greatest. We were just in shock, and excited and knew we were going to come back to Albuquerque, and we just wanted to make sure we had the “Breaking Bad” crew.

So that was a priority for you.

They were so good, and it was sort of easy for us. And they had worked together for so long… they just made everything great. And we have the greatest prop team. It just makes it look like such a great show. So that was really, really important. And getting our keys from LA to come. So it was really exciting.

I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more coverage of the fact that you guys are working with the “Better Call Saul”/”Breaking Bad” team.

It’s such a well-oiled machine, and it’s hard to find that. You know, if you go to other states, you really don’t know anyone there… but [this crew has] mixed with LA people. So we were really in good hands.

Vince Gilligan also has a reputation for being just a nice person, and I feel like that’s something that’s carried through here. Everyone I’ve talked to today has been like “Everyone’s so nice, everyone’s so fun to work with…”

We’ve been very lucky, and we just feel that it’s— you’re so lucky to be doing what you’re doing that it should be a good time. Everyone works really hard, but it still should be fun, and it should be a good time, and no one should be— there’s no yelling on our sets, ever. And it’s the same thing from our beginnings: “Freaks and Geeks,” “Undeclared”; there was a certain kind of warmth there that we wanted to make sure carried through.

You refer to it as “luck,” but what’s the trick to it? To making sure you have that kind of set?

I make sure that I’m here. That’s one thing. And I’m here at crew call, and I’m here for the whole day, I’m not coming in late. And I think that when you do that and your actors see that you’re as invested and you’re moving away from LA to be here, that everyone feels invested too, and they feel like there’s a warmth there. I’m, “If you guys are in it, I’m in it.”

So, going back to the show’s journey, you guys are no longer D.O.A., you’ve got a first season, and you find out you get summer. What was your reaction to that?

Ecstatic. To us, it’s like, “We’re on TV!!” It’s literally, we’re on TV; it’s crazy. We’re on the air. We didn’t care where it was.

Now, the summer thing for us, was interesting because it felt like, “Oh, well, maybe we can develop an audience there.” We just didn’t know what to expect, but we were excited to be on, and we were also excited that we had made all the shows before we went on, so we were out of production.

A lot of people today were saying that the first season felt almost like you were doing it in a bubble.

Yeah, because we didn’t have an air date, so getting directors and people— like, “Hey! Do you want to come to Albuquerque to do a show that we don’t have an air date?” So you were just sort of like, “Come on!”

“We might end up on Netflix!”

“We might end up… somewhere.” When Eric LaSalle came on the show, and just having all that knowledge of “E.R.” and being an actor, then directing on that show… He just brought so much to it, that we went, “We can do this.” He’s actually a big help to us.

I’m glad you brought up “E.R.,” because what’s interesting is the fact that “Night Shift” came along after so many years of us not having a medical drama of this type. When you went in to pitch “Night Shift,” was “E.R.” something that you were mentioning?

We never mentioned “E.R.”, because we were nervous that we were going to NBC. There was only one place that wanted to hear us pitch a medical show, because it’s ridiculous. it doesn’t have kids, it doesn’t have high schoolers…

The kids don’t seem very wimpy at all…

Right! So it ended up going to the only place that was going to hear us. And if it wasn’t that— that would have been it. But NBC heard it in the room, and they said, “Oh! ‘M.A.S.H.’-style feel, these guys in medical…” They got it. And that was the greatest vote we could have ever had.

I was surprised by the military element, which didn’t get much attention at all in the publicity. Is that something you’ve seen people respond to?

Yes. I mean, it’s very, very important to us. Jeff and I have always been fascinated by what happens to those doctors, those battlefield doctors who come back, are integrated into hospitals, which is what’s happening. You’ve got these guys with extra expertise that will do something differently. They’ll be helping a patient, out in the field, and they’ll use their military medicine, and there’s a confidence to those guys that’s very unique.

What was the inspiration, then; an article, a story you heard?

It was such a mix. Jeff and I wanted to do a medical show; that’s first. We were big fans of “E.R.” and we wanted to figure out what would be our version of a medical drama. And then we started hearing about these stories; people who served and then they were doctors.

There were a bunch of articles we had read; one of them was when Gabby Giffords was shot. They asked the surgeon, “Well, were you nervous? You know, Gabby Giffords comes on your table…” And he goes, “No, no one dies on my table.”

And we were like “Wow! Who’s that guy? What is this?” And then we read more of these people that had this confidence, and these flawed personalities. Things happened to them, but they are about their country. And we always say, “They are about their country, not their country club,” because that’s what they’re doing. They are adrenaline junkies, these guys, and that’s all they think about.

You mentioned very specifically that you guys wanted to do a medical drama. What about the medical drama genre appealed to you?

There’s a few things: One is T.C. The actual real T.C. was not in the military or anything. He’s a very dear friend of Jeff’s. He did the night shift in an E.R. in Atlanta for sixteen years, and we would always hear stories. And my dad was a doctor in New York, he was at Montefiore and my mom was at Albert Einstein as a therapist. So I grew up in this sort of world of medicine.

And I think what we loved was the emotional changes. One second you just took a Blackberry out of a guy’s butt, and the next moment, you’re trying to revive a five year-old. And it was like, wait a minute: You’re trying to laugh and then you’re just… it’s just that emotion. It’s like, who are those people, who can go from that to that to that, and they need to blow off steam. And so we liked all of those parts of all those personalities. That really attracted us.

One of the first things that caught my attention about the show was that you guys had a really great ratings pick-up after you got a Season 2. When you got the Season 2 announcement, were you surprised by the timing of it?

Yeah, there are so many shows that just last a few episodes, so it’s hard for people to get into the shows. Like, they don’t have confidence that it’s going to go on, so why invest in it? And I think when it said that there was going to be a Season 2, people said, “Oh! This may stick around, so I’m going to give it a chance.” And I think that was really helpful.

So, what’s your relationship with NBC like?

It’s kind of cool, because we are the underdogs. I don’t know what they expected. I really don’t. After Season 1, they were like, “Wow.” Like, I don’t think they even knew that people would watch it! But I gotta tell you, Bob [Greenblatt] and Jen [Salke] were extremely supportive, like they got it. Like, “We know what you want to do, and we’re going to support it.”

So they said, for our second season, “We’re going to give you a real campaign, we’re going to give you spots on the air.” I think that’s the hardest thing: How do you get the network to do the show that you want to do, and understand it, and then advertise it like that? We’ve been very lucky that they get it. The fact that they gave us the “Voice” spot was great. Hopefully, we can perform there.

Do you feel like being under the radar does, in some extent, help you?

Yeah, sure! We would love always to be under the radar. As long as people watch it.

“The Night Shift” airs Mondays at 10pm on NBC.

READ MORE: Poll: Who Should Be Cast in Aaron Sorkin’s ‘A Few Good Men’ Live Show on NBC?

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