On the ATX Television Festival’s live feed today, the executive producers and stars of the hit medical drama New Amsterdam gathered to discuss the COVID-19 crisis, and how the “new normal” brought on by the pandemic will play into stories that are told on the show going forward.
Created by David Schulner and based on a book by Eric Manheimer, the series centers on Dr. Max Goodwin (Ryan Eggold), the medical director of one of the United States’ oldest public hospitals, who sets out to reform the neglected facility, tearing through bureaucracy to provide exceptional care for his patients.
Moderating today’s YouTube conversation, director and EP Peter Horton joined stars Ryan Eggold and Jocko Sims, writer and consulting producer Erika Green Swafford, writer/EP David Foster, as well as Dr. Regina Benjamin, an American physician who served as the 18th Surgeon General of the United States, to discuss the kinds of stories that need to be told now.
“I, like a lot of you, grew up in a time of stakes. There was the Vietnam War. There was the Cold War, all the assassinations, Watergate, and storytelling in that time really reflected that reality. Storytellers needed to speak to that time because the stakes were so high,” Horton said, noting that in 2020, we’re once again in a time of real stakes. “We happen to be a show uniquely situated for this particular situation. [The series is based on] the Bellevue Hospital, which is at the epicenter of the COVID outbreak, so we are telling stories from the very epicenter of the situation we find ourselves in.”
Given that he plays an ideal kind of leader within the world of medicine, Eggold was asked about the importance of discussing leadership, on scales big and small, as the series moves forward. “I think one of the ways we’ve grown in the show is not making Max’s solution to these large, complicated issues too easily afforded or overly simplified. [There’s] the opportunity to discuss solutions in a realistic way, [with] transparency,” the actor said. “Without getting overly political, one thing that’s nice about [Governor] Cuomo’s leadership in New York is him saying, ‘This is what’s happening. These are the issues,’ whereas [with] the national leaderships, it’s perhaps less so.
“But there is the opportunity with this story and this character to show what good leadership might look like,” Eggold added, “and the best way to tackle issues that might help everyone.”
Starring in New Amsterdam as Dr. Floyd Reynolds, the head of the hospital’s cardiothoracic division, Sims noted that his character’s story arc was left unresolved after the pandemic shuttered production. “I’m not sure what the future for Dr. Reynolds would be. My character moved to San Francisco to be with his fiancé, and before the season ended, we were going to wrap up all the questions, [as to whether] he would be gone for good,” he said. “Now, we’re going to have to push that to Season 3.”
At the same time, the actor shared the way in which his experience of the pandemic might impact his performance going forward. “Hypothetically, if Dr. Reynolds were to stick around, there’s all sorts of things I could bring to the character. What comes to mind is just my own physical health, being a Black male, or someone who comes from a family with a history of diabetes and high blood pressure,” he said. “Being able to bring these real-life situations into the character, and into the story, there’s definitely a lot there.”
Going forward, Swafford hopes that episodes will address the way in which the fabric of society has changed, while noting that for many Americans, the fabric of American society was never all that stable to begin with. “Even though the world is completely unstable for all of us [right now], that instability is felt differently by different groups of people. So our storytelling can shed light on how different people are dealing with the stories were talking about,” she said. “There are ways we can say that we are all in this together. But we are all dealing with this in very different ways, because the very notion of our society is built on instability.”
During the conversation, panelists touched on the fact that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the lives of minority populations. But for Benjamin—who now serves on the American Heart Association’s board of directors—it was critical to note that race is not the only factor leading to this result. “I don’t want you to think it’s just about race. It’s about the social determinism of health, and that’s what we’re having to deal with as a society,” she said. “Your zip code is a better predictor of your health outcomes than your genetic code.”
Panelists also chimed in on the essential role fiction plays in creating a dialogue surrounding health and healthcare access. “When you write these stories, you get information out to people in ways we, as doctors, can’t do. You reach millions of people every week with an episode, and with reruns, you reach millions again,” Benjamin said. “As public health people, we sit and tell you about the health disparities. But when you look at an episode, people relate to it, and identify with it, and can tell their friends about a storyline and have a conversation. That does what we in healthcare try to do, but does it in a different way.”
For Eggold, the value in stories is their ability to generate empathy and understanding. “We’re afforded the opportunity to create an emotional connection to people through this show,” he said. “You can provide an experience of someone else’s life, what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, which I think can bring us together and help us to think differently.”
Returning for its second season this past September, New Amsterdam was renewed for three additional seasons in January. Joining Eggold and Sims in the series’ ensemble are Freema Agyeman, Janet Montgomery, Anupam Kher, and Tyler Labine.
Streaming online between Friday, June 5th and Sunday, June 7th, “ATX TV… from the Couch!” is the first virtual iteration of the ATX Television Festival. Held yearly in Austin, Texas, the festival moved online after the coronavirus pandemic shuttered countless film and television events held around the world.