I’m in denial about the end of ER. Over the last 15 years – holy crap, I feel old – the show has been a constant source of entertainment, and a frequent source of consternation. On a purely personal level, I’m sad that a show I’ve been watching for so long won’t be around anymore. (Except in syndication/on my TiVo.) Even though there were plenty of seasons and storylines I could have done without, a really good episode of ER – either from its heyday last century, or from its recent quality revival – is satisfying in a way few other shows ever are. ER isn’t the best show ever, and it may not even be the best hospital show ever, but its strengths are undeniable. Here are eight ER hallmarks that no other show has managed to achieve:
1. Supporting characters Anspaugh. Morgenstern. Coburn (my favorite – Amy Aquino FTW). Lagaspi. Hicks. Keaton. Haleh. Chuny. Yosh. Adele Newman. ER has overflowed with supporting characters since day 1, and that vibrant lineup gave the show a depth and believability most ensemble dramas don’t pursue.
2. Continuity and the slow burn Remember when Mark Greene was assaulted (“Random Acts” in season 4)? He became depressed, short-tempered and anxious, and over the course of that season, we watched him deal with his increasingly present demons – and watched his friends deal, too. Carter’s family problems, Sam’s inability to commit, Neela’s chronic ambivalence, Abby’s detachedness and inferiority complex: These all play out over the course of years, and rarely is anything “resolved.” Characters tend to be consistent, and the show’s internal memory actually works.
3. Death Some of the deaths on ER can bite me so hard – seriously, how slowly can Dr. Greene die? Must we sit through Ray Liotta’s agonyfest? But then there were the where-were-you-when deaths that pushed the borders of cheap soapiness but stayed within ER’s dramatic bounds. I will never forget hearing Gant’s beeper go off, or Jeannie singing at Scottie Anspaugh’s funeral, or Lucy surviving surgery only to die of complications. I’m not even getting into the patient deaths, lest I never emerge from this black hole of crying. No other shows’ deaths seem to have the same resonance.
4. Pacing Most hourlong dramas, or dramas of any kind,really, build for a little more than half the episode, have a dramaticclimax, then resolve the issue of the week. But any given scene on ERcould be the most hectic: There’s no set time over its 44 minutes whereyou can know what’s going to happen. (Compare that to, say, Law & Order, where you know roughly what happens in each act; or to Grey’s Anatomy, where every episode wraps up with a montage and voice over.) A huge number of EReps start in the morning, which sets up the idea that the next 44minutes cover roughly a day in the life of our County General employees– and those days are unpredictable.
5. People we loved to hate There was a time I thought Kerry Weaver was the worst person ever (1995-ish, especially when she was butting heads with my then-fave Susan Lewis). But Dr. Weaver, however uptight, was also an ethical beacon whose medical skills were unimpeachable. Her friendship with Jeannie Boulet highlighted an unexpected empathetic element, but it was her tender, heartbreaking relationship with her deteriorating mentor (Alan Alda) that really put me over the edge. When his Alzheimer’s got worse, who would visit him or take care of him, he wondered. “I would,” Kerry choked out. And then I cried. Seriously, I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. Benton was a tightass – except he was the best teacher Carter could ever dream of having. Romano was just a straight-up bastard, and Dr. Malucci was grossly incompetent, but each brought a necessary energy to the show. Carter’s demanding grandma, Jeannie’s piece-of-crap ex-husband, the lying Dr. Vucelich, Dale – how many jerks can one show have? A ton, as it turns out.
6. Believable medical issues This goes with a caveat: Sometimes. Some of the medical stuff on the show? Almost comically over-the-top baloney. (I’m not even talking accuracy, though everyone doing CPR with their elbows bent makes me insane. I’m talking…that small pox scare. Bullshiz.) But ER’s bread and butter wasn’t the flashy, weird stuff – which was the calling card for Chicago Hope once upon a time, and is now for House and Grey’s Anatomy. Instead, patients on ER got a lot of stitches, threw up at elementary school basketball games, got treated for STDs, neglected to take their insulin, shot at each other in gang fights – you know, typical reasons for someone to go to an urban E.R. There aren’t that many regular-people characters on TV.
7. Guest stars Again, I’ll add “sometimes.” Some guest spots were just cryporn (James Woods), and some felt incredibly inorganic (Forest Whitaker, Cynthia Nixon). But other guests were luminous and captivating, helping to break the show’s occasional ruts: Alan Alda, Thandie Newton, Sally Field, Bob Newhart, Kristen Johnston, and Don Cheadle all added solid, if short-lived, storylines. Plus the before-they-were-stars roster is amazing: “Love’s Labor Lost,” the iconic first-season episode, stars Bradley Whitford. Lucy Liu was the HIV-positive mom who passed the virus on to her son; Jorja Fox and Elizabeth Mitchell were both regulars at County before going on to their megapopular series.
8. Survival How the hell did ER hang on this long? And after two or three seasons of abject flailing, how did it get back on track? Despite sagging ratings and hefty production costs, ER somehow outlived its initial contemporaries. I don’t even mind that it was kind of terrible there for a while – I like to imagine that this is a macro-instance/commentary on the show’s over-reliance on defibrillation. Think of how many patients flatline, then get shocked, then come back to life. (“Charge 200…clear!” [shock] “Still in v-tach. Charge 250…clear!” “Sinus rhythm.” [success]. Aaaand scene.) So ER has needed the paddles a few times. But it came back strong, and now can go out if not on top, at least on its own terms.
What did I leave out, PopWatchers? What’s your ER high point?
More ER on PopWatch:
ER finale sob session: Whitney Pastorek’s ER memories