Despite a first season that was not a favorite with many critics, enough of an audience showed up to watch Jada Pinkett Smith headline the medical drama "Hawthorne" that TNT ordered a second season, which premieres tonight on the network. In the new season, Smith's Christina Hawthorne not only moves hospitals but also has finished mourning the death of her husband, which opens her heart up for more romance, namely with Dr. Tom Wakefield (played by Michael Vartan). By upping first year Executive Producer Glen Mazzara to showrunner in year two, TNT has high hopes that ratings will climb and critics might be a bit happier with the direction of the show. Our Jim Halterman recently talked to Mazzara about how he and his writing staff figured out what was wrong and right in season one, how to keep the medical genre feel fresh to fans and whether mega-movie star Will Smith (who happens to be married to the show's star) might show up on the show in the near-future.
Jim Halterman: What was the first order of business when you took over show running duties for 'Hawthorne?'
Glen Mazzara: I really wanted to reinvent the show and make the show feel more grounded. I was a hospital administrator for thirteen years so I really wanted to capture what my experience was working in a hospital and some of the characters I dealt with. One of the first things I did was sit down with the new writers and watch all 10 episodes [of season one] and talk shot-by-shot what worked, what didn't work, where we could improve production value and where we could find new opportunities to do character stories that we wanted to tell. I was able to use my experience from last year to sort of say 'What did we get right and what did we get wrong?' We now have this storyline where our old hospital is being closed down and everyone is folded into this new hospital and that was a great way to set the stage to sort of reset the show. We really set out to embrace the opportunity to sort of write the season premiere as if it was a new pilot.
JH: Looking back to last year, the critics were hard on the show. How much attention do you pay to the critics?
GM: I'll say this - I think a lot of the criticism last year was fair. I think sometimes it takes a show awhile to find itself and I think we had some strong episodes at the end of last year. I think the "Mother's Day" episode was a really terrific episode but I'm not sure how many people stuck with the show to see it. It takes a while for a show to find its legs so we paid attention to that but I don't think we ever tried to appease critics. I think what we try to do is play to our strengths on the show, tell our stories, make sure to showcase Jada, who is very strong, and make it as entertaining as possible and hopefully critics and audience members will respond. I will say that last year we did not have a strong perspective. We did not have a strong direction and we meandered. Critics saw that right away and I believe a lot of audience members who stuck with the show felt that it got stronger as it went along. This year I think we've learned from our mistakes and we're coming out strong.
JH: The medical genre has been around so long, how do you construct the show so it feels like audiences are seeing something a little different?
GM: It's tough because there are so many things that have been done. I think 'ER' was a great show. It's hard not to do a show that feels like it's a little of this, a little of that. What I really wanted to do was look at the tone of the show and I felt that by going into this new world we would be able to capture 'what does it feel like to be a patient in a hospital today.' Instead of having a lot of adrenalized storylines like 'ER' does or having a lot of soap stories like other shows currently have, we really try to keep the show grounded and see what are the healthcare problems facing people today. We're talking about budget cuts, people being refused care, ethics committees; we have a lot of ethical issues coming up in the show. We kind of took what was relevant today and used that as fodder for this season.
JH: In the season premiere, there's a hint of where things might be going in the romance between Christina and Tom (Michael Vartan). Does that play a big role in the coming season?
GM: Yes, the romance between them plays a big part of this season. One of the things that was hard for us last year was that Christina was a grieving widow so it felt inappropriate to have her pursuing a romantic relationship when she was still grieving. I think what we did with last year's finale was that she got through that grief and closed the door on that. This year, we're looking forward and that's why Christina is now able to pursue a romance. She's still hesitant but at least it will feel like something you want her to have.
JH: There are several new cast members coming in this season, right?
GM: Yes, Vanessa Bell Calloway plays a character named Gail, who is the director of nursing in the hospital, very old school style, and she's directly threatened by Christina coming into her hospital. We have Abigail Spencer, who plays Erin, the hospital ethicist, who comes into conflict with Christina. Christina is used to steam rolling over everybody and getting her way and in the second episode she comes up against Erin and she is not able to steamroll. That was another thing we wanted to change - we didn't want Jada and Christina to be so much of a superhero who could do no wrong. So in this new hospital she's coming up against obstacles that she can't just plow through like she did in the past. Adam Rayner is a wonderful find for us. He plays a doctor in the emergency room and he's just a good strong presence there and what's interesting is that we find out he's got a larger secret that will come out by the end of the season.
JH: You were a part of 'The Shield' for a long time but what did you bring to 'Hawthorne' despite those shows being so different?
GM: I'd say the biggest thing I brought, particularly in these first episodes where we're really establishing the world, is to make it feel grounded, make it feel real and make the world feel plausible. I think last year sometimes it was a generic TV show and Christina wasn't grounded in some places so this year I made sure to make it feel more grounded. I think we have a denser kind of storytelling, which is something that we used in 'The Shield.' We just want to keep things driving forward.
JH: You've worked both on cable and network television shows. Any differences?
GM: I'll say this, part of the reason I came over to the team at 'Hawthorne' is I wanted to work with the team at Sony and TNT. They're good people and I really like working with them. What's great about TNT is they give notes and then they leave it up to the artist. They say this is what we like and this is what we feel our audience wants. They're very particular and very smart about what they want but they don't micromanage. They really are creative partners so I don't know if you have that freedom on [network] TV. I think our ratings were strong last year for TNT, creatively we didn't hit the target but TNT was willing to give us another chance. I don't know if network really is able to take that chance with that being more of a ratings game. Cable, I think, can let the drama go and find its way and they'll foster it. They can take a little more time. The fact that they do smaller orders you can really spend time crafting what you're doing which is different than if you're doing 22 episodes, which is more of a factory type setting. I've enjoyed working on cable. I like cable and I'd like to keep working on cable.
JH: We all know Jada's husband has been known to act now and again. Any chance we might see him pop up on the show in a guest spot?
GM: I have asked many times! He's a busy guy but he's here and has a lot of ideas for story and he's on the set and is a strong presence. I can't get him on the other side of the camera! I'm trying!
The second season premiere of "Hawthorne" airs tonight on TNT at 9:00/8:00c.