Everything can change "In a Heartbeat" on Disney's new show about volunteer teen-age emergency medical technicians.
Yes, you read that correctly, teen-age EMTs. But before you start rolling your eyes and calling the show "Kids' ER," here's a reality check: "In a Heartbeat" isn't pure fantasy. Disney Channel's first scripted drama series is actually based on real-life EMT groups.
Glenn MacDonald, captain of a volunteer EMT squad in Saddle Brook, N.J., said with more than 100 hours of class work, teens age 16 and older can become EMTs. He currently has six teen-agers on his squad.
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"In a Heartbeat"
When: 7 p.m. Aug. 26 on Disney Channel.
Starring: Shawn Ashmore, Reagan Pasternak
Forget the "ER" comparison. "In a Heartbeat" is really more like NBC's "Third Watch," and judging by its first episode at least, "In a Heartbeat" is the more enjoyable program. Three popular high school students lead the squad, while a rebel gets sentenced to work as an EMT by a judge after getting in trouble with the law.
Tyler (Shawn Ashmore, who played a student capable of making ice balls in the "X-Men" movie) and Hank (Danso Gordon) are the popular, football-playing jocks. Val (Reagan Pasternak) is a cheerleader with a quirky alterna-chick friend (Jackie Rosenbaum). Jamie (Christopher Ralph) is the rebel with an attitude who gets a lecture from the squad's adult leader about smoking.
The first "In a Heartbeat" runs an hour in length, but future installments (7 p.m. Saturday with a repeat the following Friday and Sunday at 7 p.m.) will be a half-hour to fit Disney Channel's series format. At first that shorter amount of time worried executive producer Patricia Green.
"I was a little bit apprehensive about doing half-hour stories," said Green, who wrote for the prime-time dramas "Cagney and Lacey," "China Beach," "L.A. Law" and "Christy." "But I find that it works really well. You tend to just concentrate on the important scenes and the shows move much faster and your story seems to be told in a much more concise way."
With her background in adult dramas, Green said she tries to keep "In a Heartbeat" as real as possible while remembering who will be watching.
"We try not to shy away from any subjects, but we also try and handle it in a way that's going to be acceptable to parents whose kids are watching this," she said.
Riding in ambulances and saving lives is part of the show's drama, but "In a Heartbeat" spends much of its time on the relationships among the main characters. Val's younger sister (Lauren Collins) is a series regular and her family's home life is explored in the pilot.
But it's the EMT work that's likely to raise a few eyebrows. Although he acknowledged "In a Heartbeat" takes some dramatic license, MacDonald said the series isn't overly far-fetched. Although his crews aren't usually all-teen as depicted on the series, he said in some places they may be.
Green said the EMTs on "In a Heartbeat" handle a wide variety of calls, but there are limits to what procedures they can perform.
"Our kids and most EMTs are distinct from paramedics," Green said. "EMTs are a first response. Their job is to get there first, stabilize the patient and get them to a hospital." In some cases they may also hand off a patient when paramedics arrive.
Saturday's premiere features its share of predictable turns, including a scene of one teen who comes to the rescue of a parent, but the characters are easy to like and should appeal to the show's target "tween" audience (children 9 to 14). "In a Heartbeat" is one in a string of new cable shows - including "Caitlin's Way" on Nickelodeon and "Higher Ground" on Fox Family Channel - attempting to woo "tween" viewers.
"Tweens are the fastest-growing demographic segment for Disney Channel," said Disney Channel president Anne Sweeney. "It's true that our kids are living in a time much different than when we grew up.... But tween concerns have stayed remarkably the same. From the '70s to the millennium, they still ask, 'Why is my friend being mean to me?' 'Does my hair look cool?' 'When will my parents let me stay out later?'"
Sweeney said the tween demographic has become a priority for Disney Channel, and market research has helped the network figure out what will appeal to kids.
"A tween is somebody with one foot in the kids' world and the other in the teen-age world," she said. That sounds lot like the characters who save lives on "In a Heartbeat."