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MTV's nursing reality show raising blood pressure

When "Scrubbing In," MTV's new reality series about travel nurses, airs its first episode Thursday night, it will have a formidable act to follow in terms of media outrage and water-cooler gossip.

In short, it will have to top its own trailer.

All the general public has seen of the 10-episode series, which follows nine nurses from different parts of the country as they immerse themselves in Orange County life, is a short montage and a few clips on MTV.com. But those snippets have already ignited a war of words online, as some are lobbying to have the show taken off the air while others praise it as a noble effort to spotlight a heroic profession.

A Change.org petition, which had gathered 13,710 signatures as of Wednesday, calls the show an "obvious dramatization" that upholds "the senseless sexual objectification that we as nurses, both male and female, continue to endure." The Canadian Nurses Assn., among others, has gotten behind the campaign, with that group's president writing in an open letter that the show will demean the work of real nurses with "typical 'reality' show fodder."

Members of the "Scrubbing In" team have a quick response to those critics: Watch the program first, then make up your mind.

"I guess in any profession, there's just a lot of strong personalities, and people tend to judge before they actually see what the television show is all about," said Chelsey Ferri, who lives in Pennsylvania and spent the summer filming in Costa Mesa and thereabouts. "We all are experienced nurses. I don't necessarily know that those people know that."

So what do those scandalous promotional materials show? The main trailer for "Scrubbing In" begins with a quick shot of cast members leaping nude into a swimming pool, followed by a voiceover declaring, "They're hellraisers!" Over the next minute, it features shots of the nurses drinking, flirting, arguing and occasionally uttering torrents of bleeped-out oaths.

Maybe it's not what Florence Nightingale had in mind. But in fairness, the trailer also shows the nurses hard at work assisting patients, with one cast member, at the end, wiping tears off her cheeks and declaring, "I love what I do. I love being a nurse."

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Poignancy, superficiality

Neither the show's supporters nor detractors are likely to change their opinions much after viewing the first episode — at least, if the final cut is similar to the rough one provided to the Daily Pilot last week.

Some scenes show the businesslike end of nursing, as two cast members have trouble securing work licenses upon arrival in California. Other scenes sketch out the characters' pasts — one male nurse talks poignantly about his brother's death after a spinal cord injury — and show their excitement at moving into temporary digs at The Cape, an apartment complex near South Coast Plaza.

As for the rest: Within the first few minutes, one nurse discusses her breast implants, while another declares to the camera, "Hospitals are just like on television. Doctors [bleep] nurses, nurses [bleep] doctors. Everyone's crazy." Later scenes involve dialogue about vibrators and a profanity-laden argument at the Cape.

However irreverent the show may be at times, Mark Cronin, the executive producer and co-president of the production company 51 Minds Entertainment, sees it as higher-minded than the typical reality offering.

"My intent with the show is to tell an entertaining story about a group of people that you haven't seen in reality television yet," said Cronin, whose company partnered with MTV on the program. "And if I had to generalize, I'd say that, in general, reality televison casts are not super-professional. They're not highly educated, usually.

"There's a lot of redneck television. There's a lot of all kinds of reality television. But in general, you don't get to see really well-educated, well-spoken, ambitious, hardworking — these words are not usually used to describe reality television casts."

Cronin, who conceived the show last year, approached Aya Healthcare, a San Diego-based company that provides travel nurses for hospitals. (Travel nursing developed in response to nursing shortages.) Aya perused its database, and nine finalists — five from Pennsylvania, two from Louisiana, one from Texas and one from San Diego — made the cut.

According to Cronin, the Orange County setting was a happy coincidence. Western Medical Center and Coastal Communities Hospital, the two Santa Ana locations where the cast members worked, were in need of nurses over the summer. (Officials from both hospitals, citing an agreement with MTV, declined to comment on the show.)

Cast members subjected themselves to filming six days a week, with cameras following them both in and out of the hospital. Free time, at least early on, wasn't a concern; brief scenes in the first episode show the nurses boating in Newport Beach and congregating at local restaurants and clubs.

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Fighting for nurses' honor

Viewers of that episode, which ends with the profanity-laced blowup at The Cape, may wonder if sirens — other than the ambulance kind — ever got called during filming. According to Costa Mesa police records, officers apparently showed up at the complex at least once for a "Scrubbing In"-related incident. A call log from July 1 contains a reference to loud subjects in the pool, with "reality MTV show" noted below.

Police Lt. Bryan Glass said the filming did not pose major problems and that "nothing out of the ordinary" happened at the complex. A spokeswoman for The Cape declined to comment.

It's not the police blotter, though, where the show's drama has played out so far. Milka Stojanovic, a nursing student from Wisconsin, launched the Change.org petition after channel-flipping with her family and catching the "Scrubbing In" trailer midway through. The perceived sexualization of the nurses on the show, she said, inspired her to take action.

"It didn't register until after it was over that this was going to be a show about nurses," Stojanovic wrote in an email. "We were all shocked and appalled — me especially. I went to bed that night thinking about it and woke up just as frustrated that next morning."

Others have leaped to the show's defense. Sarah Wengert, a contributor to TravelNursingBlogs.com, wrote that the furor over "Scrubbing In" reminded her of similar early reactions to shows such as "Jersey Shore" and"Buckwild." The "silver lining" of the controversy, she said, is that the show may inspire discussions about travel nursing itself, which she called an unsung profession.

"Wouldn't it be great if more people could learn about the industrious, adaptable, amazing nurses who work on travel assignments?" Wengert wrote.

Of course, all that back-and-forth may become moot — or part of the fun — if "Scrubbing In" proves a hit. Cronin said his team may extend the show to a second season if audiences respond to it. The focus may be on the same nurses and hospitals or an entirely new slate.

And Aya has already proven that a nursing reality series can resonate with people: Its 2006 online show, "13 Weeks," followed a similar premise and won a media award from the American Academy of Nursing.

Even if "Scrubbing In" ends after one season, Michelle Battisti, who works her regular job at a trauma unit in Pittsburgh, brought back some choice memories from filming.

"Orange County is very different from Pittsburgh," she said. "The weather in Orange County is perfect, 75 and sunny and no humidity, whereas the summers in Pittsburgh can be very humid and hot. And we definitely don't have any beaches in Pennsylvania."

'Scrubbing In'

Where: MTV

When: 10 p.m. Thursday (the episode will screen again at 11 p.m.)

Rating: TV-14

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