Saturday, March 23, 2019

ER "Night Shift"

(This post is part of the 5th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

Dedicated to the memory of my dearest Vanessa Marquez.

On September 19 2019 the TV show ER turns 25. While the show would eventually degenerate into a medical soap opera, when the show debuted it was positively revolutionary. Unlike previous medical dramas, ER featured a good deal of medical jargon with little to no explanation. The series could also be rather graphic for TV shows at the time, going further in portraying surgeries than even M*A*S*H had. The show was also unusually fast-paced, with the doctors going from case to case. It also included multiple sub-plots per episode. In fact, in his review of ER in The Hollywood Reporter, Miles Beller commented that the show's debut episode ("24 Hours") could be " times confused and confusing."

It was the fact that ER presented a more realistic view of medical procedures in the emergency room of a big city hospital that originally drew me to the show. In fact, at least for its first few seasons, ER remains one of my favourite shows to this day. It is then difficult for me to say what my favourite episode of the show actually is. While I love "Chicago Heat" and "Blizzard" (both from the first season), in the end I think my favourite might well be the third season's "Night Shift". "Night Shift" finds nearly all of the major characters working the overnight hours at County General Hospital. Perhaps because Chicago is experiencing a bit of a cold snap, not to mention snow, the hospital has little in the way of patients, giving the staff little to do. As a result, "Night Shift" isn't quite as fast moving as some episodes of ER.

Laura Innes as Dr. Weaver and Vanessa Marquez as Nurse
Wendy Goldman
Like most episodes of ER, "Night Shift" involves multiple subplots, and it is because of one of the subplots that it is possibly my favourite episode of the show. Quite simply, there is one humorous subplot featuring my three favourite characters on the show. Chief resident Dr. Kerry Weaver (played by Laura Innes) is conducting a study on the effects of individuals who work the night shift, assisted by my all time favourite ER character, Nurse Wendy Goldman (played by Vanessa Marquez--I guess it probably surprises no one that Wendy would be my favourite). After asking Lydia (played by Ellen Crawford), as well as the staff at large, Dr. Weaver and Nurse Wendy finally find someone willing to take part in the study in the form of physician assistant Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben).  To this end Dr. Weaver has Jeanie ride a stationary bike, as well as run around outside (followed by Dr. Weaver and Wendy in a golf cart). Jeanie finally draws the line at getting inside a glass booth that will test her lung capacity. Quite simply, Jeanie is claustrophobic. With Jeanie out of the study, Dr. Weaver then makes Wendy get inside the booth.

This particular subplot does not necessarily reveal anything about Dr. Weaver, Nurse Wendy, or Jeanie, nor does it necessarily add anything to the characters. That having been said, it is a fun subplot that adds humour to an episode that at other times can be very serious. I also have to say that it is enjoyable seeing the usually calm and sweet natured Jeanie get a bit flustered (I can't blame her, I would be as well). Of course, I am going to enjoy any subplot in which Nurse Wendy is heavily involved.

In another humorous, if brief subplot, Dr. John Carter (played by Noah Wylie) and Dr. Maggie Doyle (played by Jorja Fox) have to search another wing of the hospital for a patient having a heart attack. After finding a toilet that is overflowing in one of the wing's restrooms, Dr. Carter and Dr. Doyle finally find the patient, only to watch as a custodian trained in CPR saves the patient's life. In turn, Dr. Carter directs the custodians to the toilet, which they had apparently had difficulty finding.

Of course, "Night Shift" is not all fun and games and the episode features some very serious subplots (and at least two of them I would even describe as "grim"). Among the few patients in the emergency room is a woman named Shelly (played by Ann Hearn), who Dr. Mark Greene (played by Anthony Edwards) believes to have meningitis. Unfortunately Shelly won't allow them to give her a shot of antibiotics, let alone perform the spinal tap that would be necessary to determine if she does indeed have meningitis. Dr. Greene believes that she is not competent enough to refuse treatment, but one of the hospital's attorneys informs him that he cannot proceed without a psychiatric consult. While the ER is slow, however, it would seem County General's psychiatric department must be busy, as they send down an intern instead of a full-fledged psychiatrist. The intern determines Shelly to be competent, so Mark demands to see someone higher up in the psychiatric department. After Shelly leaves the hospital to go outside, Dr. Greene retrieves her and they forcibly give her a spinal tap, having grown tired of waiting for the psych department to send someone down. As it turns out, she does have a serious case of meningitis.

This subplot interests me not simply because it gives us a look at hospital politics, but because it does delve into the subject of psychology which has always fascinated me (it was my minor in college). Indeed, even before the spinal tap was performed, determining that she did indeed have meningitis, I was convinced that Shelly was not mentally competent (I would suggest to the psych intern that he find another speciality....).

Another rather grim subplot involves runaway Charlie Chiemingo (played by Kirsten Dunst), who had attached herself to County General paediatrician Dr. Doug Ross (played by George Clooney) several episodes before "Night Shift". Charlie shows up at the ER and asks Dr. Ross for $100 to pay off a pimp who is trying to pressure her into a life of prostitution. Dr. Ross is convinced she is lying and sends her on her way, which hardly makes Charlie happy. Sadly, Charlie later arrives at the hospital, covered in bruises and blood, making it all too clear that she has been assaulted.

As grim as the subplot involving Charlie might seem, it was not the grimmest subplot in the episode. That involves Dr. Dennis Gant, a surgical intern and friend of Dr. Carter. Dr. Gant feels that Dr. Benton (played by Eriq La Salle) is being too hard on him, while at the same time he is depressed over his breakup with his girlfriend Monique. When Dr. Gant fails to carry out some assignments given to him by Dr. Benton, Dr. Benton yells at him in the cafeteria in front of everyone. This leads Dr. Gant to complain to Dr. Anspaugh (played by John Aylward), the Chief of Staff, about Dr. Benton's treatment of him. Unfortunately for Dr. Gant, when Dr. Anspaugh discusses his complaint with Dr. Benton and Dr. Carter, he determines that Dr. Gant simply needs to develop a thicker skin. I won't reveal how this subplot ends, but suffice it to say it is one of the more shocking endings in the early history of ER.

As hard as it might be to believe, these are not the only subplots in "Night Shift". Carol is informed that she has to fire two nurses in order to keep the emergency room within its budget. Dr. Benton wants to continue in paediatric surgery even after paediatrician  Dr. Keaton (played by Glenne Headly) refuses to recommend him for paediatric surgery rotation (why Dr. Benton thought he would be good with kids remains a mystery to me to this day...). Meanwhile, Dr. Keaton is preparing to depart for Pakistan.

Sadly, "Night Shift" would be one of the last episodes, if not the last episode, in which Nurse Wendy Goldman played a major role (she only appears in a few more episodes). On the set of ER Vanessa Marquez was subjected to both sexual harassment and ethnic slurs. When she complained about her treatment on the show, she was fired. Not only was Vanessa treated unfairly, but it was an unwise move on the producers' part. Quite simply, Nurse Wendy was one of the more popular characters on the show, so much so that I consider her departure to be one of the first factors in the decline of a show that had once been one of the best on television. I know quite a few people who stopped watching ER after Nurse Wendy was no longer on the show.

Indeed, the third season would be the last great season of ER. It was during that season that Sherry Stringfield, who played Dr. Susan Lewis, departed the show. The seasons immediately following the third season would see even more departures of both primary and secondary characters. At the same time there was a decline in the quality of writing on the show. The sort of humorous subplots found in the first three seasons would begin disappearing in the fourth season. At the same time the show began focusing less on medicine and more on the personal lives of the doctors and nurses. While there were still great episodes in the fourth and fifth seasons of ER, they were far fewer than in the first three seasons. Eventually ER would cease being the revolutionary, fairly realistic medical drama it had been and become a rather standard medical soap opera that was only a little better than Grey's Anatomy.

As I said earlier, I cannot say with absolute certainty that "Night Shift" is my all-time favourite ER episode, but it certainly ranks among them. It is an episode that blends everything I love about ER: humour, hospital politics, drama, and the interpersonal relationships of the staff. Given the third season was the last truly great season of ER, "Night Shift" is also a bit of a last hurrah for the show. And it is not every episode in which I get to see my three favourite characters in a subplot together (in fact, I think "Night Shift" might be the only one).


Caftan Woman said...

Your article on Night Shift brought back many memories of a time when ER was must-see television for me, and that ending for Dr. Gant. I can understand audiences being drawn to Nurse Wendy and to Vanessa as a touchstone in that varied cast of characters. If you were in the waiting room it would make you happy to see her.

I stopped watching ER when Mark Greene was diagnosed with cancer. It was probably a well done storyline, but at the time I was being treated for cancer and wasn't given much hope. (Thankfully, doctors aren't always right or some patients are too stubborn.) I was in the hospital and turned on the television to do my usual routine and on came ER, hospital rooms, white coats and cancer. I didn't need it.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

ER was on just a little too soon for me to have gotten into it -- I was only 14 when it debuted. But I really enjoyed reading your review of this ep anyway! I worked 3rd shift for four years straight, though not at a hospital, but that aspect of this ep definitely caught my interest.

John V said...

Your piece on "Night Shift" was excellent, and I'm glad it gave you the opportunity to write about your beloved Vanessa once again. Thanks for bringing back memories of one of my favorite ER episodes!


Like Hamlette, I was too young to see ER or the reruns the show had in Brazil. However, I know abouyt its importance, and your overview of the episode made me see how difficult it must have been to write so many plots for a single episode. And I strongly believe that Vanessa smiles up there whenever you write about her.
Thanks for hosting this always fun event!