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This article was published 26/8/2020 (513 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The title of the CTV series Transplant is a bit of a fake-out for lovers of medical procedurals. It does not refer so much to the operation, but rather the circumstances of its central character.
Dr. Bashir Hamed (Hamza Haq) is a Syrian refugee living in Canada who must prove his medical know-how when he gets to serve a residency in his newly adopted country. The opportunity comes after he saves the life of Dr. Jed Bishop (John Hannah), the head of the emergency department at the fictitious Toronto hospital York Memorial in the show’s slam-bang season opener.
When the show premièred on CTV in February, it quickly became the network’s most watched original series, which is why it’s set to reach a whole new audience on the American broadcaster NBC beginning Tuesday, Sept. 1 at 9 p.m.
As it happens, the show is the product of a Winnipeg-to-Toronto transplant. Creator-showrunner Joseph Kay, 46, was born and raised in Winnipeg in Tuxedo and River Heights, before he headed to Toronto to study law at Osgoode Hall.
"When you get to Osgoode, you realize everybody’s trying to get a job on Bay Street to article," he says in a phone interview. "I got myself kind of swept up in that, I guess because I’m competitive or I liked it — and I actually did quite like it — so I wound up working on Bay Street in one of those corporate law firms for a while.
"But as soon as I got there, I realized I loved law school but I don’t want to be a lawyer," he says. "So while I was working as a lawyer my mind started turning to ‘what’s next?’"
Kay chose to pursue a future in filmmaking, enrolling in one of the writing programs at the Canadian Film Centre.
"... I wound up working on Bay Street in one of those corporate law firms for a while... But as soon as I got there, I realized I loved law school but I don’t want to be a lawyer. So while I was working as a lawyer my mind started turning to ‘what’s next?’” — Joseph Kay
"While I was there, I got a television job on this show This Is Wonderland, (playwright) George F. Walker’s first show for the CBC."
The show was set in the realm of criminal law, but Kay says, "I kind of spun a little bit of my legal experience — I was a corporate lawyer — to get that job with George. And then I just went from there."
Kay’s previous stint with showrunning was on the drama series This Life in 2015-16. After that show ran its course, he started contemplating a series that would reflect the immigrant experience.
This was concurrent with the 2016 election in the U.S., when immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, were being demonized by future president Donald Trump.
"The topic of immigration was on everybody’s mind because of the election," he says. "At the same time, I was living in Toronto, and there was a lot written about the crisis in Syria because a lot of Syrians had come here during the war and been taken in here."
Kay was interested in creating a medical drama, but he also wanted to weave in a parallel narrative about immigration issues.
"I was doing a lot of reading about residencies and how hard it is for international medical graduates to get residencies, especially in Canada," he says. "It’s unbelievably difficult if you’re a fully trained doctor to get a shot at doing a residency.
“I was doing a lot of reading about residencies and how hard it is for international medical graduates to get residencies, especially in Canada. It’s unbelievably difficult if you’re a fully trained doctor to get a shot at doing a residency." — Joseph Kay
The idea of telling a refugee story by way of a Syrian resident’s trials in the Canadian medical system allowed him to approach the notion of immigration "in a really human way, without preaching.
"It was just in the air then," he says, adding it remains a crucial topic as the next American presidential election looms on the horizon. Kay hopes the show will be "fertile for the dialogue that’s going on in the country."
"I think that we add to it by just telling a human story without being political about it," he says. "I’m very curious what the reaction is going to be. The response was really good in Canada. We heard from lots of people who seem to appreciate the show and the numbers are really strong."
In June, Transplant was renewed for a second season but, of course, the COVID-19 real-life medical crisis has put everything in stasis for now.
"Without COVID, we would probably already be in the middle of filming, but as for now, it’s in the beginning stages of being written," Kay says. "I’m sure that it will be filming again before too long but we can’t say exactly when. We just react to the facts as they evolve.
"That’s fine," he says, adding that he doesn’t see COVID being written into the show. "It gives the show more time to be written and to find its own way to react to what’s going on in the world, without having to tell a story of COVID.
"You can kind of think about the themes that come out — how we react en masse to things — without having to go in that direction," he says.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.