Inspired by M.R. Hall’s Jenny Cooper novels, Universal TV’s new drama series Coroner is a smart and original take on the TV procedural format.
Serinda Swan (Ballers, Inhumans) stars as Jenny, a former ER doctor who becomes a coroner after the sudden death of her husband - which we see in the very first scene of episode 1.
"We hit the ground running. We don’t show her life beforehand in great detail and then have the big change or tragedy at the end of the first episode or halfway through the series. It strikes in the first 15 seconds of the show," Serinda told BT TV.
"There are a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns that people will have to stick around and watch."
The series deals with issues around grief and death, and in Jenny Cooper has a flawed but determined lead character who is an advocate for the dead – even when it’s inconvenient for the living.
BT TV caught up with Serinda to get some behind-the-scenes secrets from the set in Toronto, Canada.
Maggots, scalpels and decomposed arms
Hanging around a set full of corpses wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a fun working environment, but Swan could see the lighter side of her role.
"There is one scene with a severed, decomposed arm, where the arm is covered in maggots; that was real. Those maggots were real.
"The day I was holding up the rotting arm covered in maggots, I did think, ‘Oh really, you chose the job where you got to do this’.
They’ve got incredible attention to detail on the set with all the body parts, the way we hold a scalpel, all of that is real and true to the profession.
Swan researched the role by sitting in on a real autopsy.
"I wanted to understand the anatomy of a human being and also the procedure of a pathologist,” she said.
“I wanted to know what her day-in-day out would be, how a body is handled, all of that. The production set that up for me and that meant there was nothing on set that could shock me."
From the days or ER viewers have happily let hospital jargon and terminology brush over them in medical dramas.
However, Swan wanted to make sure that she understood and grasped the meaning of the scripts – winging it wasn’t an option.
"There is a scene in the first or second episode where the word ‘saponification’ is used and I thought, ‘right, I’m so on this case’. I knew I had to say it at the table read for the show and I didn’t want to say it in a room full of people and have no idea what it meant.
"So I found a Coroner in Toronto and a pathologist I could call and I made sure that I didn’t just understand what these terms were, not only what they meant, but also how they would be relevant to her."
She continued: "Saponification is when a body decomposes in a wet or moist environment and it creates a wet barrier under your skin. For you or me that might sound disgusting, but for a coroner that is exciting because it protects all your tissue underneath. It’s a lot easier for coroners to discover the cause of death."
All this new medical knowledge does come in handy as well.
"It's hilarious. I have all these incredible bombs I can just drop into conversations at parties,” she laughs. “’Did you know that from your tongue to your intestine comes down in one block...'. I find myself absorbing all this information about the human body and I found it incredibly interesting."
Serinda was born in West Vancouver and she believes the series marks an important moment for Canadian television.
"I got to shoot a show that celebrated Canada for being Canada. That’s something the UK does very well. Through specificity, it creates universality. In Canada we used to make shows that could have set anywhere – they could be Boston, New York, Chicago or anywhere," she said.
"We've never claimed 'by Canada, in Canada and for Canada'. This is one of the first shows to do that and that’s why I wanted to be involved. We were not hiding that we were a Canadian show, we celebrated that this was filmed in Toronto, showcasing downtown Toronto, we were talking about real places in Toronto and not worrying that it may seem small to Americans.
"We made incredible television here and we had pride in what we were doing."
However, she does admit that she might have felt differently if the production schedule had been changed.
"It shoots in the summer and fall, so it’s beautiful. If we shot now in the winter it would be a different conversation we’re having now," she laughs.
Love and scars
In the opening episode of Coroner, Jenny starts a passionate romance with Liam (Eric Bruneau), a former soldier who has nearly much baggage as the widowed coroner.
The pair connect over their own flaws and pain and symbolically they’re connected by mysterious scars on their body.
Speaking about the marks on Jenny’s body, Serinda reveals: “You will learn everything. By the end of the first season you know the entire story of her own personal trauma and why there’s a portion of her life that she can’t remember.
"That’s what really caught me about this show. It’s so much more than a procedural drama. It’s so much more than a female victim.
"You’ll have to watch to get the answers, but we do give you them. We’re not like Lost. There’s not going to be black smoke that we never address. You will discover what went on in that portion of her life."
The importance of a haircut
As the series flashes backwards and forwards in time, we have a handy indicator of what period in Jenny’s life we’re watching. In the past she had flowing locks, in the present, she has a brutal, short and chopped style.
But what’s the significance of the changing locks?
"It’s something I spoke to the hair woman on set about. I wanted her to previously look like this perfect Stepford Wife before her husband died and then I wanted it to look she’d cut her hair in the bathroom, sick of that image," said Serinda.
"Her life is incredible different before she becomes a widow. She’s an ER doctor with an absolutely stunning house. Everything on the outside looked as it should be, it looked perfect. And that was what she worked towards, a well-controlled life.
"But in the first few minutes of the series, she loses control. Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. To see that change on screen is really exciting."
The actress added: “I like the fact that Jenny challenges pre-conceived notions on what a teenage mum should look like and what a bi-racial marriage should be or what a successful woman looks like. It brings up these important questions and we explore them across the season."
Watch Coroner on Mondays at 9pm on Universal TV – BT TV channel 320/385 HD
Universal TV is one of 60+ premium channels available on BT TV, including E!, Syfy and, exclusively for BT customers, AMC.