Seven-time Emmy Award nominee Neal Baer has written and served as executive producer on several award-winning series including Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and ER Sarah Timberman is currently in production with Unforgettable and Justified.
Together they are producing the new series A Gifted Man, which spotlights a brilliant, charismatic surgeon named Michael Holt (Patrick Wilson), who lives a materialist life of luxury.
His world is turned upside down when visions of his dead ex-wife, Anna (Jennifer Ehle), an idealistic free-clinic doctor and the love of his life, comes to him urging him to keep her clinic running.
Can you talk a little about A Gifted Man and what interested you about producing it?
Neal Baer: We are extraordinarily excited to be doing this show because, as you’ve seen medical series in the past, this one is different. It has the pace and pathos, the really intimate stories of a medical series, but it has a real twist in Patrick Wilson’s character.
This is a doctor at the height of his career, in the lofty reaches of concierge-spa medicine, the very best that the United States can offer. Just blocks away, his ex-wife, played by Jennifer Ehle, is running a clinic that provides care for tens of millions of people who are not insured.
So this is the first show of its kind to show the upstairs/downstairs of medicine and a doctor really at the crossroads of his life, who is brought back to face his old world of medicine.
He was a family medicine doc before he became a neurosurgeon, and now he’s caught between two worlds. And it’s a story about a man who must find his gifts, which is why it’s called A Gifted Man.
Like all of us, we have gifts, but it’s often difficult for us to find them, and sometimes through serendipity, through faith, through other forms of healing, we can find a path that takes us to places we should go.
So this show will take us to places that we haven’t been before in a medical series, but you will still get those really juicy, medical, save-your-life stories that are unforgettable.
What does having her be a ghost do for you and if she is a ghost, doesn’t that sort of lower the medical stakes as far as here is proof that, when you die, something else happens and you’re still yourself?
Neal: By having a ghost it takes him back to a place he’s resisted. It’s taken something, someone, somehow, somewhere to take him back to the kind of person he used to be or a person he was becoming whom he stopped becoming to find his gifts again. So it takes something more special than you or I.
For the second question about the afterlife, Anna doesn’t know why she’s there really either. Her character doesn’t know. His character doesn’t know, and we’re just exploring it, and you can come along for the ride, I hope.
Sarah Timberman: I think what excited all of us from the beginning of the show and Jonathan Demme, who directed it, and Susannah Grant, who wrote the pilot, and then Neal when he came in, is the opportunity to tell stories that some of them deal with the intersection of science and medicine and faith.
The fact that this is a man of science who’s very grounded in the here and now, and sprinkled around the edges it is a sense of the uncanny and the inexplicable.
I think it brings another dimension to medical series that we really haven’t had a chance to explore previously and without her becoming preachy. One of my favorite lines that Neal wrote in the first episode was Anna talking to Michael and she says, ‘Does being a ghost make me look fat?’ Instead of, “Do these jeans make me look fat.’
She’s very much of this world in terms of their relationship and their voice, and they have a sparring, playful, grounded relationship. But it’s also a chance through a ghost, and through what she represented to him, to step back and say, ‘What matters most in life?’
For this man there’s a line in the pilot where he says, ‘Being the best isn’t part of your life. It’s instead of your life,’ and this is a show that explores that question. How can you be a superstar in a field and still have time for the things that ultimately give life meaning?
In this case, Anna was one of those things that gave him meaning. So medicine, if looked at through that prism, is a great area for Neal and the other writers.
You have Margo Martindale in what could potentially be an underwritten, wisecracking secretary, who comes in every episode once or twice. Did her most recent season of Justified convince you that not giving her more to do would be a crime?
Neal: I know how good she is because when I did Law and Order: SUV, she put Elle Fanning in a cage and told her to set Connie Nielsen on fire. So I know what she’s capable of! So in Episode 2 something about her character will be revealed.
Sarah: My partner Carl Beverly and I produced Justified too, and we were in the writers’ room and Graham [Yost] was very cranky. He was, like, ‘You stole her.’ And I said, ‘You killed her.’
What was it about Patrick Wilson that was right for this role?
Sarah Timberman: The show was originally written to be in Los Angeles, but when we heard that Patrick might consider it if we moved the show to New York, we flew there and sat down with him.
We’d basically move the show anywhere if he asked us. We consider ourselves incredibly blessed by this cast, who are spectacular actors from stage, film and television.