Lights, camera, SWAT team: NBC films Trauma in downtown Oakland
on November 11, 2009
A showdown at Bayside Mutual Bank blocked traffic Tuesday, while police worked to diffuse a bank robbery gone bad. Police cars piled up and FBI agents swarmed the intersection of 21st and Broadway in downtown Oakland. SWAT teams swiftly moved into position. A rooftop sniper carefully took aim. And then: Reuben “Rabbit” Palchuck arrived on the scene. A dashing, death-defying paramedic with nine lives and nothing to lose, Rabbit is a renegade, his coolness confirmed by the dark aviator sunglasses that covered his eyes.
“I’m going in,” he said.
Here was a hero, ready to put his life on the line to save the innocent. A crowd gathered, waiting to catch a glimpse of this, the pivotal moment. Would Rabbit save the day? Or would his luck finally run out? Then, without warning, someone said it: the one word that would change everything.
The director put production on pause. It was lunchtime.
To find out what happened to Rabbit, we’ll have to wait to watch Trauma, an NBC prime-time TV series shooting in Oakland this week. The show follows a group of sassy San Francisco paramedics who do extraordinary things: survive helicopter crashes, confront bank robbers, and make love in the back of ambulances.
During Tuesday’s shoot, 21st Street was closed completely between Broadway and Telegraph, and there were traffic stoppages throughout the day outside the bank, which doesn’t actually exist (the building is currently vacant).
Filming at the intersection will continue Wednesday, with traffic stops to be expected between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Authorities have asked Oakland residents to refrain from calling 911, and not be alarmed by the presence of assault rifles and a downed helicopter in the vicinity of the fictitious bank.
During the filming of the bank robbery scene, dozens of onlookers packed the sidewalk on Broadway to catch a glimpse of the action, some bearing looks of genuine confusion.
“What movie is this for, anyway?” one man asked.
“What happened?” asked a wide-eyed woman as her car came to a stop at the intersection.
Others, however, had come to the corner in hopes of sneaking a peek at the stars of their favorite show.
“Me and my wife watch it religiously,” said Chris Jackson, a Marin resident who was in Oakland for work training and stopped by the set during his lunch hour. Debbie Bouali, of El Cerrito, nodded in agreement. “It’s the only show I’m really watching right now,” she said. “Every week, my husband says: ‘It’s 9 o’clock: Trauma time!”
Fans said that the action is what drew them in to the show, but the fact that its filmed in the Bay Area keeps them interested. “We have to get more people filming in Oakland,” said lifelong Oakland resident Gabe Green, who heard about the TV shoot on the news. “It’s good for the economy, and it gets the public re-energized about being Oakland residents.”
Trauma normally shoots in San Francisco, or on a soundstage on Treasure Island. It’s the first major TV show to be filmed in San Francisco since Nash Bridges went off air in 2001. Many shows theoretically based in San Francisco actually shoot in places like Vancouver, where tax incentives allow them to cut production costs.
It’s even rarer for a major studio to stage a shoot in Oakland. While Alameda County does have some claims to fame (the epic freeway scene from The Matrix: Reloaded comes to mind), in recent years there hasn’t been much entertainment industry action. Some Oakland residents are working to change that, by creating incentives they think will draw production companies to the city.
“There is an infrastructure here, and we’re hoping to grow it,” said Ami Zins. She heads the Oakland Film Office, a department of the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency. It’s one of 25 independent businesses that make up the Oakland Film Center, a miniature Hollywood built in 2004 on a former Oakland army base. Together the group provides an array of production services, from helping to secure set locations to overseeing sound and special effects. Six of the group’s businesses played a part in the Trauma shoot today.
Zins said that new California incentives passed earlier this year should provide a reason for more production companies to shoot in the Bay Area, and that she expects an increase in activity during the spring “pilot season.” While Oakland may not be able to compete directly with incentives offered by other cities like New York and Los Angeles, Zins said that Oakland has “a mayor and city council that understand the significance of filming locally,” and that local hotels and businesses are starting to offer enticing packages to production companies.
Major TV shoots like the bank robbery scene today can bring big bucks to a city. Zins estimates that Trauma spends about $2 million dollars locally per episode—that’s money going straight to City Hall, local businesses, and workers.
“What’s really great about it is it creates all kinds of jobs,” Zins said. There are hundreds of workers involved in each production—not just the film crew, but those who do things like build sets, construct costumes, and hold administrative jobs. That doesn’t include the extras, who make roughly $100 a day. There were eighty of them at the bank robbery today, decked out in riot gear and FBI jackets. “A number of times people thought I actually was FBI,” said Dedoceo Habi, a local filmmaker, actor, and ex-Marine who was one of the extras today. Habi was selected for the role because of his military background. “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” he said.
Unfortunately for local cities’ coffers and for fans of the program, Trauma has not been picked up by NBC for a second season, and it looks as though the show will soon be pronounced dead on arrival. Trauma’s ratings have been disappointing—on the night of its series premiere, NBC had lower ratings than ABC, CBS, and Fox. Production will continue on the remaining episodes of the season—including “Tunnel Vision,” the bank robbery episode being shot in Oakland this week—but is unlikely to continue past that.
Some will celebrate the show’s going under. Trauma has been criticized widely by members of the paramedic community, who object to the extreme and reckless behavior exhibited by characters on the show and feel as though their occupation has been slighted.
Trauma portrays paramedics as “a bunch of uncontrollable, undisciplined, conniving rebels, misfits, and sexual predators,” said A.J. Heightman, a former EMS director, via e-mail. Heightman is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. He wrote a review of the series premiere in September that highlighted the concerns of the medical community.
Heightman criticized the pilot episode for being unrealistic and for showing paramedics in a negative light. Instead of “a well-dressed crew checking their drugs and equipment before their first run,” the series opens with an EMT named “Naughty Nancy” Carnahan having sex with her work partner in the back of their rig.
He also takes issue with “the wacko of the show,”—Oakland’s bank heist hero, Rabbit.
Heightman characterizes Rabbit as “a raucous dude with an attitude as big as his helicopter,” who refuses to allow women into his chopper and recklessly puts lives in danger. “Instead of departing and gaining altitude like every well-trained aeromedical pilot in the nation does,” Heightman said, the pilot episode has Rabbit swooping down between skyscrapers and crashing into another helicopter.
“Everybody on board the choppers dies except for (you guessed it), “Rabbit,” Heightman wrote. “Reuben the rebel lives to fly another day.”
Heightman isn’t alone in his criticism. Patrick Moore, President of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, was one of many other industry representatives to write NBC and air his grievances with the show. “I am sure that the intent of your television program is simply to entertain,” Moore wrote. “However, the actual impact on the perception of EMS by the public is quite negative and could even result in individuals not seeking emergency medical services when needed.”
Fans of the show had a different view, though: Many of those who gathered at 21st and Broadway today said that the show makes them appreciate paramedics more, not less. East Oakland resident Walter Holloway said while some of the scenarios in the show may be farfetched, “it’s realistic, because firefighters and ambulance workers really are out there putting their life on the line.”
Besides, he said, it’s television—what do you expect?
For fans who have invested their Monday evenings and their emotions watching Naughty Nancy and the renegade Rabbit do their thing, the joy of seeing the stars of Trauma on the streets of Oakland was tempered by the show’s premature end. “It’s bittersweet because it’s their first and last season,” Holloway said. “There’s not a lot of primetime TV shows I would watch, but this is definitely one of them.”
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