Too much coverage of pop culture these days consists of the coverage responding to itself: a wave of raves about the next hot TV show/movie/CD/book, followed by a backlash that is more a retort to the blurby media overload than to the hot TV show/movie/CD/book. The raves and the backlash are then succeeded, of course, by a series of shoulder-shrugging pieces wondering ”Why in the world were we ever taken in by that once-hot TV show/movie/CD/book?” In all of this, the actual quality of the work being systematically hyped and then de-hyped becomes utterly irrelevant. Submitted for your (dis?)approval: Murder One/Natural Born Killers/Jagged Little Pill/Primary Colors.
This makes it all the more interesting that ER has been able to buck the odds. It started out with rave reviews and a huge audience; now, in the show’s third season, viewers still line up in front of their sets for it, and there’s been virtually no critical backlash. You never hear anyone, in print or at the watercooler, saying ”Hey, that show useta be good, but it just sucks now.” (Therein, by the way, lies my entire review of this season’s Roseanne; grade: D- ; thank you.)
ER, with all its ratings and prestige, all its Emmys and Peabody awards, all its George Clooney, is certainly no underdog. But in a sense, it’s also the TV version of the Little Engine That Could. Here’s an hour-long drama that came along at a time when network wisdom was that the hour-long drama was dead, at a time when my fellow TV critics had pretty much unanimously decided that St. Elsewhere was the best hospital show the medium would ever produce and that was that.
But ER took the layered story lines and multiple-lead-characters structure of St. Elsewhere and revved that sucker up to warp speed. Its dramatic engine racing, ER in its original conception by novelist Michael Crichton and China Beach producer John Wells took a risk in paring their narrative down to the bare essentials (little boy hemorrhaging — stat!; woman stabbed — stat!; nurse OD’d on pills — stat!) in the belief that viewers would get caught up in the dilemmas of hospital workers and patients. Crichton, Wells, and the writers kept dashing off to find fresh wounds to expose, and in this way helped safeguard ER from becoming melodramatic or maudlin.
This season — have you noticed? — ER is slowing down just a little. It’s as if the series had misplaced its heart and is now going back to look for it. Suddenly, all our favorites have reached simultaneous crisis points: Clooney’s Doug Ross is enduring a wonderfully bleak period — a meticulous chronicle of his messy, empty life as a single guy; Sherry Stringfield’s Susan Lewis and Anthony Edwards’ Mark Greene are awkwardly figuring out whether they’re going to get involved; Eriq La Salle’s ice-cold Peter Benton is learning he’ll have to thaw a lot under the gentle but firm guidance of new pediatric surgeon Abby Keaton (played by the very welcome Glenne Headly).
But if the HIV-positive status of Gloria Reuben’s physician assistant Jeanie Boulet has instantly rendered her the show’s most invaluable character, Noah Wyle’s John Carter is abruptly the most irrelevant, because he’s so unchanged. Wouldn’t a kid this smart be a little less gullible, a tad more worldly-wise, by now?
Inoculated against hype and its backlash on the strength of fortified plotting and unshowy acting, ER continues to make good on its initial stylistic breakthroughs. Which is to say, all the speedy razzle-dazzle hasn’t gone lame yet. My only wish? Can they please get rid of that blissed-out New Agey desk clerk, E. Ray? The show’s attempts at comic relief have rarely been good ones, and this character threatens to become a drag. A-