The job performed by young nurses and pilots flying air ambulances in northern Manitoba makes it quite the dangerous profession set in an unforgiving setting, but that drama also makes for some pretty great television as well. SkyMed, the new one-hour drama premiering Sunday, July 10 on CBC and CBC Gem in Canada and in the U.S. on Paramount Plus, will follow all the trials, triumphs, hookups, and heartbreaks of the nurses and pilots who regularly fight the battle between life and death at 20,000 feet.
Created by Julie Puckrin, who has written on shows such as Killjoys, Nurses, and X Company, and inspired by the real-life experiences of her family, SkyMed is one-part medical show and two parts character drama. The large ensemble cast features Natasha Calis (Nurses), Morgan Holmstrom (Siberia), Ace (Aason) Nadjiwon (Batwoman), Praneet Akilla (Nancy Drew), Mercedes Morris (Between), Thomas Elms (The Order), Kheon Clarke (Riverdale), and Rebecca Kwan (Taken). Puckrin recently spoke with The TV Junkies to preview what viewers can expect to see from SkyMed’s nine-episode first season.
The TV Junkies: Let’s just start at the beginning, where did the idea for this show come from? I heard you actually have a personal connection to air ambulances in the North, is that right?
Julie Puckrin: My sister is a nurse and she went to Thompson (Manitoba) to be a flight nurse. That’s where she met my brother-in-law, who is a pilot, and they literally fell in love while flying air ambulances. It’s an interesting world that a lot of Canadians don’t know about. Most Canadians are used to the idea that if you need a hospital it’s at most a 20-minute ride away, but in the North, you have to fly everywhere for everything. It’s a whole different world that always felt like it’d be perfect as a TV show because you have the high stakes of the medical and aviation fields, but then, it’s these very young pilots in their early 20s and young nurses who are often right out of nursing school. They are in these intense, high-stakes, super dramatic situations at work, and then when not working, they are all living together while partying, drinking, falling in love, and breaking up. I always thought it was just perfect for a TV show and was really excited to be able to write it.
TTVJ: You’ve partnered with producer Vanessa Piazza and Piazza Entertainment on this project. How did that partnership come to be and what was it like working with her to bring this show to life?
JP: Funnily enough, I met Vanessa when I was working on Killjoys and it was Michelle Lovretta who introduced us. Vanessa then produced the first season of Nurses and I worked with her on that. I always appreciate that Vanessa’s approach is to always support the writers and creative material. It really matters most to her that the creative material is strong and it’s the story that the showrunner and writers want to tell. She’s very supportive and respectful and I really appreciated that.
She’s also a real firecracker and very dynamic. Vanessa is the kind of person that I really believe that anything she puts her mind to she can do. That’s what you want in a producer, especially with a really ambitious show like this. A lot of people, if you said ‘there’s going to be airplanes, in the North, with wild animals, and a huge cast,’ they would say ‘no, that’s crazy and too much.’ But Vanessa just said ‘Yes, let’s do it!’ She’s a great partner that supported me creatively. I think we are both really ambitious and excited to make the best show we possibly could.
TTVJ: One thing I love about the series is that you guys are really out there and the show has rescues, wild animals, and all kinds of action. What was it like working on a show that incorporates all those rescues and is so ambitious?
JP: It was seriously so ambitious! [laughs] I think it was probably a good thing that we didn’t totally know what we were getting into until we were there. It was a lot like these pilots and nurses that don’t know what they are getting into until they are there. Everyone was very nervous about the aviation aspect and working with planes, and that actually wound up not being as big of a thing as we thought it was going to be. The way the plane was difficult, ironically, was when we were filming in the studio. We had several versions of the plane: a real King Air 200 that flew and came in and out, a “dummy plane” that was a hollowed-out King Air on the ground that we could drive places, and then inside the studio, we built the fuselage of the plane. We built it 8% bigger than the actual plane, and we should’ve built it much, much bigger than that if we could’ve gotten away with it. It was just really hard to film inside and it’s obviously a big part of the story. In terms of aviation, that was the big thing.
What I really found hardest, in terms of the experience and trying to write to it, was the fact that it’s such an outdoor show. We experienced the full run of Manitoba weather, from the summer when it’s 40℃ with smoke in the air from nearby forest fires to -35℃ in the winter when you’re worried about equipment freezing. Having to do the full run of the experience is a lot, and any time you write something in a swamp at night means you have to go to a swamp at night! So that was challenging at times, for sure, and then the pandemic on top of that. It was a fun adventure!
TTVJ: I know it adds a layer of challenge for you, but as a viewer, I loved that aspect of the show and really seeing Manitoba.
JP: I do have to say that the cast was so awesome and they were all so game for everything. We put them on boats, had them jump out of planes, and drive a snowmobile; they were game for everything. They really became a team and close friends in real life so it was really lovely to work with them.
TTVJ: Speaking of the cast, can you talk a little bit about the group you’ve assembled here?
JP: We always wrote for the characters to be who they were in terms of their identity. We always came into it knowing who these characters would be. When we started casting it was a mix of people we had worked with before, like Vanessa and I had worked with Natasha [Calis] before on Nurses and knew she was really strong and lovely to work with. We were excited to work with her and Aaron Ashmore. Then there were people we had never worked with before and for some people, this was their first really big experience on a show as well. It was amazing to watch them grow and experience that.
It’s a big cast with 8 main characters so when you’re casting that big of a group you’re nervous over whether you’re going to get solid people. We got so lucky because I managed to get my first picks for everyone and they were all so strong. We went into the season with a lot of the scripts written, but there’s an episode later in the season that’s a bottle episode, and it was fun for me, at that point, knowing who the characters were more to know who would make a good combination together on screen. It was fun to develop that interaction back and forth between who the actors are and how the writing is working to that. It’s the kind of thing that makes you excited for hopefully a second season to keep exploring.
TTVJ: Can you give a little preview of the type of stories can we expect to see this season or what the main themes of the season are?
JP: It’s bonkers! A ton happens in every episode and because there are so many characters, those character stories move forward really quickly. There were two themes that emerged for us in the writing room. The first theme was the idea that the North makes you grow up. For us, these were all characters that needed to grow up in some way. For some characters that may be understanding more about their identity and where they came from, for others, it may be facing a secret or truth that they aren’t ready to deal with, and for some, it might be learning to be the captain of your own ship. The fact that they were all growing up in some way was really important to us.
The other theme that emerged more over the season, and the one the cast really identified with, was that we really take care of our own. The show really became about found family by the end of the season and I think that’s a lovely thing. When you’re young and away from home for the first time that’s the first time you’re developing those found family relationships, and they can be so important and formative for the rest of your life.
SkyMed premieres Sunday, July 10 at 9 p.m. on CBC and CBC Gem in Canada and streaming in full in the U.S. on Paramount Plus.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.