Thursday, September 19, 2019

ER Turns 25

It was 25 years ago today, on September 19 1994, that ER debuted on NBC. While ER would eventually degenerate into a rather typical medical soap opera, for its first several years it was a revolutionary medical drama. It differed from other medical dramas before it in that it often featured a great deal of medical jargon with little to no explanation of what that jargon meant. It could often be much more graphic than other TV shows of the time, going even further in portraying surgeries than M*A*S*H had. The show also had an unusually fast pace, with the show's doctors and other medical personnel going from case to case. Multiple subplots were featured in each episode. Until viewers adjusted to just how much was going on in any given episode of ER, that it could be difficult for viewers to keep track of everything going on in any given episode of the show. 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."

ER centred on the emergency room of the fictional County General Hospital in Chicago. It differed from many earlier medical dramas in that it featured a rather large ensemble cast, including several leads and several supporting characters. In its early days, at least, the focus of the series was upon the various cases and issues faced by the emergency room staff from day to day.

ER was created by Michael Crichton, the best selling author of such novels as The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park and the screenwriter of such films as Westworld (1974) and The Great Train Robbery (1979). In 1974 Michael Crichton had written a screenplay drawing upon his experiences as a medical student at Harvard. The screenplay generated no interest at any of the studios and Michael Crichton went onto other things. It was then in 1993 that he started work with Steven  Spielberg on bringing his 1990 novel Jurassic Park to the big screen. Mr. Spielberg had read Michael Crichton's old screenplay and expressed interest in it. It was an employee at Steven Spielberg's production company, Amblin, who suggested that it might work better as a pilot for a television series than as a movie.

ER was pitched to NBC. Warren Littlefield, then the head of NBC Entertainment, admitted, "We were intrigued, but we were admittedly a bit spooked in attempting to go back into that territory a few years after St. Elsewhere." Regardless, the network agreed to six episodes of the new series. The pilot for ER, "24 Hours," aired on September 19 1994 opposite Monday Night Football, where it did remarkably well in the ratings. Afterwards ER aired in its regularly scheduled timeslot at 8:00 PM Eastern/9:00 PM Central on Thursday. There it not only exceeded expectations, but it did spectacularly well in the ratings. Not only did it beat CBS's rival medical drama, Chicago Hope, soundly in the ratings, but it ranked no. 2 in the Nielsen ratings for the year. The following season it would be the no. 1 show on the air. It would continue to rank in the top five shows for the year for its next six seasons and ranked in the top ten for its first ten seasons on the air.

Even in its earliest years the cast of ER would change. Gloria Reuben joined the cast as physician assistant Jeanie Boulet in the 14th episode of the first season, "Long Day's Journey into Night." Originally a recurring character, she became a regular character in season 2. Jeanie was unique as a character at the time in having HIV, which she had contracted from her ex-husband. What is more, Jeanie was still alive and living with HIV when Miss Reuben left the show in 1999 and when she returned for a single episode in 2008. Laura Innes would also join ER early in the show's run as Dr. Kerry Weaver. She would ultimately remain with the show for twelve years.

While various characters were added in the show's early years, ER would also see some departures in its early years, departures which would, in my humble opinion, hurt the show in the long run. The first of these was Sherry Stringfield, who played Dr. Susan Lewis. Miss Stringfield had tired of the gruelling filming schedule of ER and also expressed a desire to live a normal life. She left at the start of the third season, only to return at the beginning of the eighth season. Other members of the lead cast beyond Sherry Stringfield would also leave over time. George Clooney, who played paediatrician Doug Ross, left the show in its fifth season. Julianna Margulies, who played Nurse Carol Hathaway, left the show at the end of the sixth season. Anthony Edwards, who played Dr. Mark Greene (more or less the main character on the show), left the show at the end of its eighth season. In an unusual move for TV shows of the time, Dr. Greene was written off the show as having died of brain cancer.

As much as lead characters leaving ER may have hurt the show, it was also hurt when popular supporting members of the show left the cast. Vanessa Marquez played one of the most popular supporting characters on ER, Nurse Wendy Goldman. Nurse Wendy was frequently featured in humorous subplots during the early years of the show. Unfortunately, Vanessa experienced both sexual harassment and racial slurs used against her while on the show. When she reported the harassment and the racial slurs, she was fired. Nurse Wendy last appeared in the show's third season. What the producers apparently did not realise at the time is that many people missed Nurse Wendy, as well as the humorous subplots on the show, which appeared less and less after the third season. I know I missed her (of course, here I must point out that Vanessa and I were very close, as my long time readers know). Another popular supporting character, desk clerk Jerry Markovic (played by Abraham Benrubi) suddenly stopped appearing at the end of the fifth season. He was absent from the show until the 8th season, when he rejoined the cast. Over time other supporting characters would also disappear from the show. This would ultimately hurt ER in the long run, as many viewers tuned into the show not simply to see the lead characters, but to see the many of the supporting characters as well.

Of course, ER was not only hurt by the departure of several popular characters, but also by the fact that the quality of the writing began to decline as well. More and more the show began to focus on the character's personal lives rather than work in the emergency room itself. Eventually there would even be episodes set entirely away from the hospital. The seventh episode of the fourth season, "Fathers and Sons," had Mark Greene and Doug Ross travelling to California by car. County General Hospital did not appear at all in the episode. The 16th episode of the fifth season, "Middle of Nowhere," had Peter Benton travel to Mississippi. Unlike "Fathers and Sons," the hospital does appear in the episode.

Not only did episodes eventually emerge that departed from the hospital setting of ER, but eventually characters would begin, well, acting out of character. The perfect example of this for me is the romance and eventual marriage of Mark Greene and Elizabeth Corday (played by Alex Kingston). Now I like both Dr. Greene and Dr. Corday. I think both Anthony Edwards and Alex Kingston are talented actors. That having been said, the characters of Dr. Greene and Dr. Corday had very little in common and had absolutely no chemistry together. It always appeared to me that the writers on ER did not know what to do with either of the characters and simply took the easy way out of forcing a romance upon them. Sadly, this would become all the more common as the show progressed. In fact, between cast departures and declining story quality, I ceased watching ER, once one of my favourite shows on the air, around the fifth or sixth season. I would tune in occasionally for episodes now and again, but it just seemed to me to be getting worse and worse.

That having been said, while ER would slowly decline in quality, for its first several seasons it was one of the best shows on the air. The show's original premise, fast paced and full of medical jargon, was far different from anything that had come before it. Furthermore, ER was not afraid to take risks. At a time when it was unusual for shows to kill of characters, ER did so. Mark Greene was not the only regular character to die on the show. Indeed, Lucy Knight (played by Kellie Martin) was stabbed to death by a schizophrenic patient (the stabbing took place in the episode "Be Still My Heart" and she died in the following episode, "All in the Family'). In addition to HIV (which the show dealt with beyond the character of Jeanie Boulet), ER also addressed such issues as child abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction, euthanasia, poverty, racism, sexual assault, suicide, and more. It also addressed medical conditions only rarely seen on previous medical dramas as well, including various mental conditions, chlamydia, human papilloma virus, meningitis, Parkinson's disease, and a variety of unusual injuries.

What is more, it has to be pointed out that it is very rare for a long-running show not to decline in quality at some point. What is more, there are even fewer shows that ever reached the level of quality that ER did in its first several seasons. In fact, at 124 nominations  ER held the record for the most Emmy nominations of any show until A Game of Thrones broke that record with 161 nominations. ER also won several SAG Awards, including ones for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series, Outstanding Individual Achievement in Writing for a Drama Series, and so on. 

Of course, it should be little wonder that ER won so many awards, as it produced some of the best episodes of any television show ever made. "24 Hours" still numbers among the best pilots ever produced. In the first season it was followed by yet more remarkable episodes. "Chicago Heat" took place during a heat wave when the hospital's air conditioning failed and Dr. Greene was forced to bring his daughter Rachel to work with him. "Blizzard" portrayed the exact opposite in weather, as a blizzard takes place resulting in a 40 car pile-up that nearly overwhelms the emergency room. "Love's Labour Lost" placed Dr. Greene in a predicament no emergency room physician would want to be in. "Motherhood" was directed by Quentin Tarantino and saw the ER staff have multiple personal crises.

Arguably, the first season of ER was its best, but the following seasons would also produce great episodes. "Welcome Back, Carter" saw the ER dealing with victims of a gang shoot out. "Hell and High Water" saw Doug Ross rescue a boy from a flooded storm drain and the resultant media coverage that ensues. "It's Not Easy Being Greene" saw Dr. Greene come into work on his day off, a decision he soon regrets. "Night Shift" saw most of the emergency staff working the night shift, during which Dr. Greene must treat a woman with meningitis. In its first three seasons ER produced many other excellent episodes beyond these, and would continue to produce solid episodes into its fifth season. During this period ER compares favourably with such esteemed shows as The Sopanros and  Mad Men.

While it is my own personal opinion that ER declined enough in quality after its fifth season that it was no longer worth watching, clearly many people disagreed with me. Indeed, the show would continue to be nominated for several Emmy Awards well into its seventh season and would still receive nominations until it went off the air. ER would also be the longest running medical drama in the United States, having run fifteen seasons, until its record will inexplicably be broken by Grey's Anatomy (which will begin its 16th season later this month). The show still has a loyal following. What is more, since Pop TV started rerunning it a few years ago and Hulu picked it up more recently, ER has developed a following among younger viewers. There should be little wonder why. ER was not only different from any medical drama that debuted before it, but from any medical drama that has aired ever since.

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