Why this critic still loves ER, years after everyone else has given up
I still watch ER.
Not in a professional, see-who’s-on-this-year kind of way. I watch every week because -- after the departure of original stars such as George Clooney and Anthony Edwards, outlandish stunts like a missile tearing through the emergency room and a doctor squashed by a falling helicopter, and a steady thrashing by upstarts such as Private Practice and Without a Trace – I’m still a fan.
It’s tough to remember back 15 years ago, when ER’s two-hour debut set a new standard for TV drama. Based on scribblings novelist Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) set down in 1974 when he was in medical school, NBC’s hospital drama crashed into prime time with swooshing, MTV-inspired camera shots and a breathless narrative pace.
I remember former star Alex Kingston (Dr. Elizabeth Corday) getting angry during a 2002 on set interview after my fourth question on whether this was the year ER would lose a ratings battle to the competition.
But, the truth is, eventually, the rest of TV caught up. Everyone from CSI to The West Wing copped the rushing walk-and-talk scenes that seemed so fresh and energetic back then (a recent re-view of the pilot reveals a too-long episode that feels way slower now than it did back in the day).
With Lost bopping back and forth through time and 30 Rock drafting everyone but Michael Jackson to make cameo appearances, suddenly ER’s creative storytelling arcs (new co-star Angela Bassett’s character had a flashback this season allowing Edwards’ dead character Mark Greene to reappear) and star turns don’t feel so special.
Still, I’m one of the hardy few who are going to miss old County General when NBC folds its tent for good on Thursday. Here’s a few reasons why ER remains one of TV’s most compelling shows for me:
The characters -- Okay, the cast does include John Stamos these days. But Parminder Nagra’s Neela Rasgotra has grown before our eyes – from uncertain student to grieving widow and assured surgeon. The list of standout characters and singular performances stretches way beyond Clooney and Edwards: Laura Innes’ repressed gay administrator Kerry Weaver; Maura Tierney’s tough, damaged nurse-turned-doctor Abby Lockhart; Mekhi Phifer’s brusque, streetwise Greg Pratt (watching Pratt die slowly of injuries from an explosion was enough to wring tears from any cynic). And there are few shows that did a better job showing how people of color live in America, at times reflecting, sidestepping or ignoring their culture.
The guest stars – If the mainline cast isn’t enough, remember the guest stars, from Sally Field as Lockhart’s bipolar mother to Alan Alda’s Alzheimer’s-stricken doctor Gabriel Lawrence, Danny Glover as Pratt’s long unknown father, a pre-Law & Order Mariska Hargitay (left) as Greene’s ditsy post-divorce girlfriend, a pre-CSI Jorja Fox as gay doctor Maggie Doyle to Clooney’s aunt, jazz singer Rosemary Clooney, as a singing, unknown Alzheimer’s patient. Even if the regular cast irritates, there’s always a cool guest waiting in the wings, most recently, Ernest Borgnine and Susan Sarandon.
The storytelling – Four years before 24 would turn a real-time drama into ratings gold, ER did it first with a 1997 live episode filmed from the perspective of a PBS crew taping at the hospital. There were the social issues tackled, from heterosexual AIDS transmission to the crisis in Darfur, the way the poor depend on emergency rooms for health care and the maddening bureaucracy of the modern health care system. And for a time, ER was one of the grittiest, most realistic dramas on TV, with patients who didn’t always live and storylines that didn’t always resolve neatly.