Fans didn't get to see George Clooney, but NBC's two-hour farewell Thursday to its long-running medical drama ER offered something more important:
A welcome reminder of why the show has lasted 15 years on network television — and proof of why it's now time for the show to go.
Thanks to cameo appearances by most key actors whose characters remain alive — except the aforementioned Mr. Clooney and his character's girlfriend, played by Juliana Margulies — the episode had the feel of a friendly class reunion.
The opening of a sprawling charitable medical center funded by Noah Wyle's dedicated rich kid physician, John Carter, provided the pretext for bringing back former stars Eriq LaSalle, Laura Innes, Alex Kingston and Sherry Stringfield to play Peter Benton, Kerry Weaver, Elizabeth Corday and Susan Lewis once more.
And what longtime fan didn't get a little misty seeing Benton's deaf son Reese all grown up in a suit and tie at Carter's reception?
Producer John Wells even provided a few tips of the hat to ER's two-hour pilot episode, allowing Scott Grimes' reformed knucklehead, Dr. Archie Morris, to recreate the very first scene from the show's first episode — roused from a nap during a shift in the same way Anthony Edwards' Mark Greene started his day 15 years ago.
Once upon a time, the cases that filled Thursday's episode would have felt groundbreaking and fresh. The mother who gives birth to twins but dies from complications. The elderly man who must accept that his lifelong partner and wife is dying. (Played by Ernest Borgnine, no less!)
The kid who falls into a coma from alcohol poisoning after drinking at a party where parents handed out the booze.
But on Thursday, these contrivances felt like shadows echoing other, better episodes long past.
Continuation was the theme of the night, with John Stamos' Tony Gates taking over the dreamy, dedicated doctor gig that Clooney once held down, St. Petersburg native Angela Bassett filling Benton's crusty-doc-with-a-heart-of-gold role and Morris improbably leading the ER as the new Greene.
A one-hour retrospective leading off the night featured interviews with all of the series' past stars — except Clooney, who didn't show even though producer Steven Spielberg did — highlighting how the long, Steadicam shots and often-ambivalent story lines burst the boundaries of what was considered acceptable on network TV.
But as pedestrian dramas such as CSI and Law & Order increasingly featured such cinematic techniques and gritty story lines, the time for ER's retirement began looming like its own, odd medical emergency.
Wells echoed the series most consistent theme by showing old and new doctors uniting to handle yet another emergency at the finale's end.
But Thursday's episode also proved that NBC's ER called it quits at just the right time, because TV series — unlike medical institutions — should never go on forever.