In September of 1994, I was living in a two-story converted carriage house in Manhattan’s West Village with three roommates, dozens of rats, and no discernable climate control. Next door, mysterious men packed boxes and pumped reggae music all day; upstairs was a roof deck where a decade of NYU students had thrown their unwanted textbooks and mattresses, and the graffiti artist boyfriend of a summer subletter had tagged the bricks with “Zulu Nation,” ostensibly to protect us from street gangs. One of the living room walls was covered in what appeared to be pressed ham contact paper, and the apartment’s only true bedroom featured a mural of three giant apples under a sky that dripped with blood. I was a sophomore in college. It was the greatest place I’ve ever lived.
On the night of NBC’s Thursday fall premieres, my roommates and I hiked down to a now-defunct electronics chain called Nobody Beats the Wiz! and bought a new television. It had an irresponsibly enormous 14” screen. We plugged it in next to the ham and spread out on the compost-brown shag carpet to watch Mad About You, some crappy new sitcom about a bunch of New Yorkers who hung out in a coffee shop, and Seinfeld, which was then in the prime of its life. We probably used the Dabney Coleman show as a smoke break. And then it was time for the main event: This fancy new medical drama the network had been touting, from the guy who wrote Jurassic Park. I loved that movie.
I don’t remember much about ER’s first real episode, except that it was bloody, impossibly fast-paced, and I hoped the nice nurse would find her will to live, so she could hook up with the cute doctor. I’d missed the feature-length pilot that Monday – would rent it from Blockbuster a couple years later – but for the last 15 years, I have never let another episode pass me by. ER now ranks up there with “parents” and “baseball” as the major constants in my life, which is either really sad or reassuring, depending on your perspective, I suppose.
So many memories, many involving sobbing alone on my couch: “Love’s Labor Lost.” Lucy getting stabbed. Susan Lewis boarding a train. The Israel Kamakawiwo’ole-scored death of Mark Greene. All those emotionally manipulative Christmas episodes. Living vicariously through the complex romantic entanglements of the County General staff, while sobbing alone on a couch. Being mesmerized by Clooney. Helicopters falling from the sky. Swordfights. Tanks. That intolerable Africa storyline. Finding a kindred spirit in Maura Tierney/Abby Lockhart. Embracing Morris. Never embracing Weaver. Wondering if Doris the Paramedic would ever get her due. Wondering if anyone could ever truly live happily ever after.
If I were to list all the ways in which this show impacted the television landscape, we’d be here forever. (Example: I’m pretty sure we’ve got ER commercials to thank for the now-inescapable “Most.Intense.[Insert Subject].EVER” meme.) If I were to list all the ways it impacted my existence – well, we’re just not that close. But I will say that my biggest current regret in this job is that I never found an excuse to visit the set before they pulled the plug.
Your turn, PopWatchers: Where were you when ER premiered? Who were you? What moments from the last 15 years stand out, either because of their inherent quality or the way they intersected with your life? Favorite characters, storylines, cliffhangers? (I vote smallpox.) And what do you plan to do with the hour of free time you’ll have starting next week?