ER is getting cute. New mom Abby (Maura Tierney) suffers ludicrous encounters with predatory nannies and nagging baby experts, while new intern Gates (John Stamos) has grinning clashes with fellow hospital stud Pratt (Mekhi Phifer). Annoying med student Hope (Dawson's Creek's Busy Philipps) preaches God's love with each opening of her harp-shaped mouth, and sorta-mournful Neela (Parminder Nagra) indulges in a hot sex dream about Gates.
As the solid 12-year-old medical drama chases the audience of ABC hit Grey's Anatomy, ER can't help but feel like a dignified grown man trying to jam himself into a letterman's jacket: Blond, wide-eyed Hope is Izzy with a Bible (her persistent Christian utterings seem intended as a joke, both insulting and unamusing), while Neela's fantasy is swiped straight from Ms. Grey's masturbatory playbook. And the Gates-Pratt rivalry is a stab at the...oh, please don't make me utter the Mc-word. Yes, Phifer and Stamos are dreamy and steamy and have smiles beamy and it makes me want to scream...y. (Happy?) These ER plotlines seem designed to get the audience to turn its head collectively to the side and sigh in a pensive Meredith Grey-like way. Pause for the sing-songy voice-over: ''Life in the ER is filled with emergency.... And sometimes we don't see the flatline that's right in front of us.... Our relationships occasionally need defibrillating.... And you'd better hope your boyfriend isn't stuck in an HMO.''
Teasing aside, Grey's Anatomy is an entertaining, craftily manipulative show near unmatched in its gleeful look at sexual politics. But ER should leave such hanky-panky alone and concentrate on its own strong points. The drama's recent subplot with Forest Whitaker as a bitter carpenter whose arm may have been paralyzed by understaffing and the generally shabby state of County General is classic ER. It presents a diabolically unwinnable situation, with a fine combination of scenery chewing and subtle acting. (Whitaker has had a sweaty TV year, starting with his turn as the obsessive internal affairs investigator on FX's The Shield and ending with this unsettling role.) In fact, ER's guest performances have been, as usual, impeccable from Sally Field's return as Abby's crazy-making mom, to Shawn Hatosy (Numb3rs) as a patient with multiple personalities (including a pleasant young fellow, a blowhard bully, and a Hot Wheels-collecting tyke). The latter is the kind of role that should go wrong: It's liable to end up screechy, lugubrious, or just laugh-inducing. Hatosy pulled it off, giving the series one of its most involving episodes this season. Now ER just needs to give its regular staff more to do than pick fights and peddle whimsy.