It took the arrival of the exceptionally cranky, annoyingly whiny, stodgily by-the-book, apparently humorless new chief resident, Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), to reveal fully the strengths of ER. Joining a show with a large ensemble of characters that are notable for their civility, Innes' Weaver has added a much-needed element of human complexity which is to say, she's obnoxious. Or rather, in TV terms she's obnoxious, because Dr. Weaver is brusque, businesslike, and not afraid to be unpleasant. This is the sort of hard-edged professionalism that's routine in the real world but rarely surfaces on series television, where it is commonly thought that viewers will not take to a regular character who isn't instantly sympathetic.
To be sure, the only reason ER can get away with introducing a character as abrasive as Weaver is because it's in the ratings position to do so. Right now, ER looks like an unstoppable phenomenon, and who wants to stop it? It's exciting when a television series of such unusual quality also becomes so unusually popular. When ABC announced its plan to run its exceptional new Steven Bochco drama, Murder One, opposite ER, pundits (i.e., you, me, and everybody else) assumed that ER would take a hit in the ratings, then keep on going. Instead, ER simply steamrolled over Murder One, crushing it without mercy. I feel bad for poor Murder One, which deserves an ER-size audience (and which I hope is moved soon), but this devotion to ER is also a pretty thrilling spectacle, a display of pop-culture solidarity that's increasingly rare in our fragmented entertainment universe.
Until very recently, my biggest complaint about ER was that, for all its bravura and razzle-dazzle (the dizzying number of medical cases, the headlong hurtling down hospital corridors), there wasn't much in the way of character development. The regulars conformed to type with very little deviation: Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) was the long-suffering straight-arrow, Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney) was the hotshot romancer, Dr. Benton was the stern taskmaster you get what I mean.
But the terrific thing about the new season, starting with the introduction of Weaver, is that personalities on ER have become as complicated and messy as brain surgery. To the enormous benefit of the show, lots of lives are coming apart at the seams: Ross' bedding of medical student Harper Tracy (Christine Elise) was a bad-vibe one-night stand that got in the way of Harper's budding relationship with Carter; the recent hiring of Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben) as a physician's assistant at County General Memorial has made Benton even more grim and uncomfortable, since Jeanie is the married woman with whom he had an affair.
What's the most frustrating subplot? Gotta be Sherry Stringfield's Dr. Susan Lewis, her zonked-out sister Chloe (Kathleen Wilhoite), and Chloe's poor, sweet baby. Whenever Chloe was around, her fuzzy-eyed dysfunctionalism was infuriating; now that she's disappeared, saddling Susan with the baby seems cruel to both of them.
On the other hand, ER's writers deserve heaps of credit for keeping Clooney's Ross from becoming just another TV sawbones hunk. Clooney's turn-on charms elude me so, gals, you think that aw-shucks head-bobbing thing is sexy, is that it? but I like his acting, the way he's convincing as a single guy who likes working with children, the way he communicates Ross' unhappy-bachelor status, his mute yearning for Hathaway (Julianna Margulies).
When they started out last season, ER and CBS' Chicago Hope struck me as equally worthy, and when ER pulled way ahead in the ratings, I really wanted to root for the underdog. But Hope, despite a bracing performance from new regular Christine Lahti, is floundering for an identity. ER knows what it wants to be: all things to all viewers. And it's coming closer to its goal every week. A