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"Off" to a running start




Deep in the rain forest that Jenna Bans envisions, the best of humanity struggles to survive amid towering green canopies, giant snakes and disease. For Bans, the screenwriter who created "Off the Map," the new ABC medical series currently shooting in Hawaii, the jungle is the landscape of redemption.

It's also the perfect setting for stories about people Bans has wanted to bring to television for several years: doctors volunteering in Third World countries where medicine is practiced with duct tape and a prayer.

"I knew I wanted to tell a story in that vein," Bans said in a telephone interview. "I felt that marrying those two ideas was a really unique setting for a show, one we haven't gotten to watch yet, whose story hasn't been told on television before."

Hawaii will stand in for South America Jan. 12 when ABC premieres the midseason replacement series on KITV. Bans is co-executive producing the show along with Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers of the popular ABC medical shows "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice."

The series focuses doctors who are battling "personal demons" and who have chosen to hide out at the most remote clinic they could find -- in a remote, fictional village known as "la ciudad de las estrellas," or "the city of the stars."

They quickly learn that their patients require a different kind of medicine than what they left behind. And that they'll have to cross rickety rope bridges, jump off sea cliffs and deal with the elements if they want to save lives.

The creators consider "Off the Map" an action-adventure series.

"These doctors, unlike those on other medical shows that are on television right now, are more than just doctors," Bans said. "They are constantly jury-rigging medical equipment together and MacGyvering solutions to problems that you wouldn't see in America in a hospital with a lot of equipment and doctors."

The cast lacks big-name stars, but many of the actors are familiar to TV and movie audiences. They include New Zealander Martin Henderson, best known to U.S. moviegoers for "Bride & Prejudice" and "The Ring"; Zach Gilford, who played Matt Saracen on NBC's "Friday Night Lights"; and Rachelle Lefevre of the "Twilight" and "New Moon" films.

Also playing roles are Valerie Cruz from Showtime's "Dexter" and HBO's "True Blood," Mamie Gummer (HBO's "John Adams"), Caroline Dhavernas ("The Switch"), Jason George ("Grey's Anatomy") and Jonathan Castellanos, who had guest spots on "Southland" and "Boston Legal."

MUCH LIKE ITS CAST, "Off the Map" has flown under the radar since it began shooting episodes here in August. It arrived after ABC shot the series pilot in Puerto Rico last March, then decided against continuing there.

The network had just finished a six-season run in the islands shooting "Lost" and producers said the experience was overwhelmingly positive. ABC knew what Hawaii had to offer and it was a simple plane flight to Los Angeles. It also had the rights to the state film studio at Diamond Head.

The switch was good for Bans, who has visited South America several times.

"I was always a 'Lost' fan and the look of 'Lost' always stuck with me," she said. "It was the exact look I imagined for this show so I always had this in my head while writing."

The move to Hawaii meant a substantial amount of the one-hour pilot had to be re-shot, but it was worth it, according to Beers, who has had success with medical dramas. She serves as executive producer for both "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice." The show's honchos fell in love with the cliffs and ocean settings, she said.

"Jenna reworked the story line so that we could take advantage of both the setting and some of the features you have on Oahu," Beers said in a phone interview. "It's a very different feel than what we had access to while we were shooting in Puerto Rico. I think this was just all around a better fit."

"Off the Map" has been shooting on unused plantation land near Wahiawa and Lake Wilson, as well as at Kualoa Ranch. The series set designer created an entire clinic from scratch and a village with market stalls and a cantina.

"It's unbelievable the amount of things we have," Beers said. "We have a whole town. A couple of towns, actually."

They also shot an underwater sequence in the 280,000-gallon aquarium at the Pacific Beach Hotel in Waikiki while nearby tourists enjoyed the breakfast buffet.

ABC has ordered 13 episodes and neither Bans nor Beers is worried about competing against shows that have been on the air since September. They are quick to note that "Grey's Anatomy" was a midseason replacement when it began in March 2005.

"We see it as an amazing opportunity," Beers said. "And with luck, you get to debut with a little less competition all around you."

BANS, WHO PITCHED the show to Rhimes and Beers in the summer of 2009, has been writing for television for eight years. "Off the Map" is the first show she has developed, however, and it's her job to ensure that a staff of writers sticks to the tropical tone she envisions.

"I am on fire about every single episode," Bans said. "It's always fun to see where each episode ends up and see us pushing the stories of our characters further in every episode. So I'm tired but in an excited way -- the way you are at a slumber party. A season-long slumber party."

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