ER: Paul Drinkwater
Liane Bonin
October 12, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

For a TV series about sick people, ”ER” (season premiere Thurs., Oct. 12, 10 p.m.) looks remarkably healthy. NBC has renewed the top rated medical drama — now in its seventh season — for four more years, and parent company Warner Brothers has coughed up big money to lock in series regulars: Eriq LaSalle (Dr. Peter Benton) will make $27 million and Anthony Edwards (Dr. Mark Greene) will receive $35 million to play doctor until 2002. Though Noah Wyle (Dr. John Carter) reportedly signed on for a similar sum, a $27 million payday failed to lure back Julianna Margulies, who like earlier headliner George Clooney, has moved onto feature films.

But is ”ER” really robust enough to warrant such free spending? One industry observer says that NBC and Warner Brothers could be putting too much faith in their doctors. ‘I never would have renewed this show for four more years,” says media analyst Marc Berman of Mediaweek. ”It probably has two solid years left. It’s good, but it’s not groundbreaking anymore.” Even NBC may have been aware of the show’s inevitable decline, slashing its payout to Warner Brothers from $13 million to $9 million per episode. And although the show regularly took the No. 1 spot in the ratings last season, it wasn’t unbeatable. The week of March 3, three episodes of ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” dominated the top of the charts, even though a whopping 39.4 million viewers tuned in to watch the gory sendoff of ”ER” med student Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin), who was stabbed to death by a mentally ill patient.

Still, ”ER” — whose May 18 season finale drew 34.6 million viewers — isn’t in intensive care yet. Still, Berman believes the influx of new blood over the last two seasons has turned fans off. Maura Tierney (med student Abby Lockhart), Erik Palladino (Dr. Dave Mallucci), Goran Visnjic (Dr. Luka Kovac), Michael Michele (Dr. Cleo Finch), and 1994 alum Ming-Na (Dr. Jing-Mei Chen) flooded the trauma unit, and only the brooding, Clooney-like Visnjic (1998’s ”Practical Magic”) stood out among the crowd. ”There were five of us that came on last season, and I think people that watched the show were like, ‘Who are these doctors?”’ says Michele (NBC’s ”Homicide”). ”People were just trying to find out who they liked or didn’t like.” Even old pros like LaSalle, who surfaced briefly to spark a romance with Michele, were lost in the shuffle.

Don’t give up on the patient this season. Here’s a preview of some upcoming developments.

— The gaps left by Margulies and Gloria Reuben, who played HIV-positive physician’s assistant Jeanie Boulet, will go unfilled, giving the show breathing room to dig deeper into the lives of returning characters.

— Sally Field will guest star as Abby Lockhart’s estranged mother.

— Dr. Carter, whose addiction to painkillers was exposed last season, will complete his stint in rehab. But his return to work will be difficult as he struggles to regain the trust of the hospital staff.

— Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) will enter into a lesbian relationship. ”Not only am I looking forward to her having more of a personal life, it is a disability issue,” says Innes, who notes that the reason behind Weaver’s use of a crutch has never been explained on the show. ”People with disabilities are stereotyped as lonely and asexual. I would hate to think we’d reinforce that.”

— And Visnjic’s Dr. Kovac, who stepped into George Clooney’s scrubs as resident hunk, will bounce back from getting his heart stomped on by Nurse Hathaway last season. ”He’s going to be just fine, no depressions or anything,” says Visnjic. ”He’s going to open his heart one more time. I can’t tell you to who, but it will be interesting.” When asked if he might lure Michele or Alex Kingston (Dr. Elizabeth Corday) away from their steady flames (LaSalle and Edwards, respectively), Visnjic is coy: ”That’s pretty good speculation,” he says. ”But I was thinking either Eriq LaSalle or Erik Palladino, actually.” Well, it worked for ”Will & Grace.”

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