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Ridley turns a horrific true story involving Hurricane Katrina into a scripted drama

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

How 45 patients died in a New Orleans hospital after Hurricane Katrina is the true story that inspired the Apple TV+ series "Five Days At Memorial." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans spoke with the executive producer about why this story still resonates.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: When John Ridley was first asked to help turn this horrific tale into a scripted drama, he sent a New York Times Magazine story about the tragedy to his father, a retired doctor. Ridley, who once served as a commentator for NPR, won an Oscar for writing the screenplay to the 2013 film "12 Years A Slave." He had a major question for his dad. What did he think of allegations that some health professionals there euthanized patients rather than abandon them when the hospital was evacuated?

JOHN RIDLEY: I expected fully that he'd say, well, I would never do that. Are you kidding me? His response was, I'm glad I wasn't there, and I'm glad I didn't have to make those decisions. If he's not willing to indict or exonerate, I wasn't going to go into the story and agendize (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We are watching a Category Five hurricane, Hurricane Katrina.

DEGGANS: "Five Days At Memorial" leverages an ace cast and detailed special effects to tell its story. Staff, patients and area residents seeking shelter at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans thought they had survived the worst when Katrina passed through the city in 2005. Cherry Jones plays the hospital official in charge during the emergency, who realizes the hospital hasn't prepared for an important eventuality.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL")

CHERRY JONES: (As Susan Mulderick) There is no plan for evacuating the hospital if it's flooded. There's a plan for a mass casualty event, a civil disorder event. There's nothing in there about 2,000 people, 200 of them patients, cut off, stranded in a hospital without power.

DEGGANS: Ridley, a Black man who's focused much of his work on exploring race, prejudice and oppression, says he wanted to show how systemic bias led to poor, often non-white patients getting abandoned.

RIDLEY: There's a very bottom lining of human life. And once you do that, once you get into these aren't really people, they're numbers, they're statistics, they're acceptable losses or whatever - are we surprised that something like this would happen? The thing that's really frustrating to me more than anything is just can you present a story where the system is the bad guy?

DEGGANS: The series almost didn't get made at all. It was based on a 2013 book which resulted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine article. Producer Scott Rudin tried to develop it as a possible film. Later, producer Ryan Murphy considered it as an installment of FX's "American Crime Story" anthology series. Ridley remains angry that some TV executives seemed skittish about developing a story centered on terrible allegations against doctors during a pandemic.

RIDLEY: That was very painful that, you know, in a world where there's so much media and there's so much storytelling that people are averse to anything that challenges, adverse to anything that - well, this may take a little bit more to get an audience to come around to it. It's not - no spoiler alert - there's no happy ending.

DEGGANS: Ridley credits fellow executive producer Carlton Cuse, an executive producer on series like "Lost" and "Bates Motel," with calling him in and ensuring the series eventually got made. Despite differing explanations over how the patients died, the series presents compelling evidence that Dr. Anna Pou, a surgeon played by Vera Farmiga, oversaw euthanizing patients. In real life, a grand jury declined to indict Pou, who denied wrongdoing, leaving open troubling questions about the ethics of it all. "Five Days At Memorial" explores these issues carefully. It's crafted by an executive producer who remains angry that certain people still bear the brunt of such problems.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.