February's "Movers & Shakers" column profiles ’Burgh native Gretchen Berg, who has been building a career in TV in Los Angeles. Now the former Franklin Park resident has added executive producer of the hospital drama “Mercy” to her résumé.
In case you’re wondering: No, the new hospital drama “Mercy” (Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC) is not based on the exploits of UPMC Mercy’s medical staff, but that doesn’t make its connection to Pittsburgh DOA. The show’s executive producer, Gretchen Berg, 38, is a North Allegheny High School grad and former Franklin Park resident whose sister Katy happens to be a nurse liaison—at UPMC. (Another sister, Jennifer, is quality coordinator for Universal Media Studios in L.A., covering such shows as “The Office” and “30 Rock.”)
“Mercy,” which is set in Mercy Hospital in New Jersey, is to nurses what “Rescue Me” is to firefighters: relationship drama with relatable characters and a plot that interweaves ripped-from-the-headlines subjects like health care reform and military personnel suffering PTSD from the Second Gulf War.
If you’re just tuning in, here’s the back story: During a deployment to Iraq, nurse Veronica Callahan (Taylor Schilling) is forced to deal not just with casualties of war but of the heart after learning about her husband’s infidelity. While on the front lines, she bonds with Dr. Chris Sands (James Tupper), and things turn romantic. Season 1 begins after Veronica has returned home to Mercy, coping with reintegration into “normal” life. She recommits to her husband, only to learn that her wartime tryst has landed a two-year assignment at Mercy.
Created by Liz Heldens (“Friday Night Lights”), Berg and her writing partner, Aaron Harberts, craft the show’s scripts. Berg’s writing credits include “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Roswell,” Pushing Daisies,” “John Doe,” “Wonderfalls,” “Pepper Dennis” and “North Shore.” Berg decided to pursue a career in TV production and film writing when she was a girl in the Pittsburgh area (where her parents still reside) and knew she’d need to be in L.A. to do it. So after graduating from Northwestern University in 1993, Berg headed farther west to Tinseltown. Living her dream, Berg says, is “a blessing that I don’t take for granted. I’ve loved every job I’ve ever worked on.”
PM: Take me back to your early years in L.A.
G.B.: L.A. was a great place to be broke because it was possible to live well on the cheap—you could eat from a taco truck for $4 a week. When I got here, I put myself on a five-year plan, but my goal was to get paid for my writing at least once in those years. [Those early years] were the happiest because Aaron and I were able to try a bunch of things: features, TV movies of the week, hour-long, half-hour. It was a blast. At first we didn’t get any responses to our material, but there was nothing else we could do or wanted to do, so we just kept writing.
PM: Then the proverbial big break came?
G.B.: Yes, Aaron and I were hired as staff writers on “Beverly Hills 90210” and were assigned to write the ninth-season episode that brought Luke Perry’s character, Dylan, back to the show. We marched into Aaron Spelling’s office all dorky and enthusiastic for our first meeting. We knew in that moment that we were part of something iconic. That gig lasted two years—the best first job anybody could have.
PM: Where do you find inspiration?
G.B.: Anywhere and everywhere. It’s my job to be inspired.
PM: Favorite movie and TV show?
G.B.: The Hustler [because] Paul Newman was so good at his job. “Remington Steele”—about a woman in L.A. working in a man’s world—influenced me as a teenager. Stephanie Zimbalist was a great role model for girls. I wish there was more of that on TV now.
PM: What’s your opinion about the “state” of TV today?
G.B.: Some of it is garbage, but the cream rises to the top eventually.
PM: Describe your childhood in Pittsburgh.
G.B.: It was the perfect place to grow up. My friends and I would disappear into the woods, play games like Capture the Flag and wander home when the sun went down. It nurtured my imagination, which helps to this day. I can trigger myself into a day-dreamy state anytime.
PM: Tell me about your years at North Allegheny High School.
G.B.: N.A. was big on athletics, but I didn’t have school spirit. I was the weird loner type in the acting and drama classes. We wrote a lot in class, so I learned early on about the importance of good structure. And having access to the school’s TV studio was like being given a box of crayons and blank paper—an open forum to pursue and shoot our own ideas.
PM: What made you choose Northwestern?
G.B.: I wanted a TV/film program but not at NYU or UCLA. I wasn’t interested in baptism by fire. I wanted a liberal-arts education, not just intensely film.
PM: What’s next on your horizon?
G.B.: “Mercy” just got its back nine, which means it will air [at least] through mid-May. I love the security, but I get an itch in my traveling boots. However, if “Mercy” and I are together for 15 years, I’d be thrilled. Aaron and I just sold a pilot to Warner Brothers, “Midnight Mass,” based on a DC Comics book series—sort of Thin Man meets the “X-Files.”
PM: Since you weren’t a jock in high school, do you follow Pittsburgh sports?
G.B.: I’m a huge Steelers fan! It’s in my DNA. Every Sunday, priority No. 1 is the game. I host a potluck at my home with people from all over. Here, the game starts at 10 a.m., which offers so many options for morning alcohol: Irish coffee, bloody Marys….
PM: Would you consider a move back to Pittsburgh some day?
G.B.: I’m not ready to leave L.A., but I could absolutely move back. Pittsburgh has a special place in my heart. In fact, if you weren’t from Pittsburgh magazine, I may not have called you back immediately.