Friday, November 21, 2003

They could have just dropped a Pythonesque 16-ton weight on the guy....

OK, I knew it was coming. I read about it in various spoiler forums months ago. But I was still pissed off at ER last night.

(spoilers and geeky complaining here)

Last season, I was getting happy with ER again. See, a few seasons back, the show allowed its cast to balloon to ridiculous levels -- there were so many characters that the old favorites stopped getting as much time as an old viewer like myself would have preferred (and I've been with the show since the third episode of the first season), and the new characters didn't get enough time to establish themselves beyond their first impressions. This was all finally worked out with a big exodus: Dr. Finch was conveniently written out when Eriq LaSalle decided to hang 'em up as Dr. Benton; Dr. Malucci was fired; Dr. Chen was sent packing for half a season; Anthony Edwards's desire to leave the show gave the producers the excuse to kill off Dr. Greene (brain tumor). Last season, the cast was back to manageable levels, and the show's dynamic was a lot better for it (with the exception of all the overwrought crap they kept shoveling on Abby, Maura Tierney's character).

But then, this year the producers have allowed cast-bloat again. Dr. Lewis has some guy she married in Vegas, and divorced. Each year usually sees the addition of a new med student to fill the "clueless young doc" spot (originated by Carter back in Season One); this year it's Neela, the Indian-American med-student (whose last name I can't recall for the life of me, because no one calls her "Dr. Whatever" -- it's always "Neela"). But for some unknown reason she's joined by three other med-students, one of whom -- a useless clown named Morris -- is thrashing about for no apparent reason. And a new nurse was just introduced a few weeks ago, who might as well have walked onto the set wearing a T-shirt with "Luka's New Lover" printed on the front.

Now, a few years ago, the producers would have just shoehorned all of these characters into each episode for a minute here and thirty seconds there, and none of it would be very satisfying. The approach now, it seems, is to actually send characters away for long periods of time. Thus, we've had Carter in Africa, unseen, for seven or eight episodes now. Chen has been shipped off to China. Kerry Weaver now gets about two scenes per episode (Laura Innes, by the way, has a fine television directing career shaping up) in which she shows up, does some bit of administrative work, and then vanishes again. But still, the cast is bloated.

Which brings me to last night's travesty: the killing off of a character (I think), a favorite character of mine, a character whose story arc has been bungled constantly, and whose death -- if a death it actually was -- completely sucked. Dr. Romano, the prickly soul whose flashes of warmth were almost always directed at Dr. Korday, and whose left arm was severed when he got too close to a helicopter's rotors a year ago, was apparently crushed to death with a burning helicopter fell out of the sky literally onto his head.

This development was so mind-numbingly awful that I barely know where to begin writing about it.

Well, there's the death itself. Was this supposed to be some bit of cosmic irony? The enormously arrogant and gifted surgeon, whose career was destroyed when he lost his arm and who never adjusted to his new handicap, gets killed by a falling helicopter? Well, maybe that kind of freak thing happens in real life...but the way the episode framed the event, with Romano first going up to the hospital's helipad and not being able to step out of the elevator because of a flashback to losing his arm, and then going back downstairs and staggering out into the parking lot to get some air, and then looking up to see the burning helicopter dropping out of the sky toward him....I could just hear the show's writers sitting around a table scratching their heads while a producer-dude circles behind them saying, "Come on, guys! We gotta make it more ironic! Have Frank goad Robert into going up to the helipad because Robert doesn't want to look like a coward!"

More problematic is that it's plainly obvious that the writers and producers just gave up on Dr. Romano. They didn't know what the hell to do with him, they didn't know how to write someone who loses the ability to do the thing by which they have defined themselves, and they completely forgot Romano's humanity. What I always loved about Romano wasn't his great put-downs (of which there were many), but that his warmth would show up in very unexpected ways sometimes. When Dr. Korday (and only Romano could call her "Lizzie") was struggling with what to do when Mark Greene's tumor returned, it was Romano who gave her the sounding board she needed and told her what she had to do:

KORDAY: Am I just supposed to sit by and watch him die?

ROMANO: (softly) Yes.

It was Romano who once came stampeding into the hospital with a critical patient -- his beloved pet dog. It was Romano who struggled valiantly to save Lucy Knight's life when she was stabbed, and his tantrum in the OR when she died. And it was Romano who was hopelessly in love with Dr. Korday. Sooner or later on ER, just about every doctor gets to be "the hero", the person who brings a patient through a harrowing and near-death ailment or injury. Romano never got to do that, and I had started to think that maybe Romano's act of heroism would be to save himself, over the long haul, after his disabling. I had hoped to see him learn to use that prosthetic arm and find his ability to practice medicine again. Instead, a promising character arc got cut off when it became clear that the writers didn't know how to write it.

(And really, why has no one learned of his death yet? Are we holding out some hope that he turns up alive later on or something? The episode ends with a crane lifting the wreckage of the chopper, and I figured that's when someone would notice the body, but they just faded to credits. During the last fifteen minutes, a few people wonder where Romano is, but that's it.)

I don't object to random, shocking and senseless events in stories, because they happen in life. But this event was neither random nor shocking. This was "Oh crap, we've painted ourselves into a corner, so let's just kill him and call it a day." This was like when LA Law had a character step into an elevator shaft where there was no elevator (and that show never recovered), and to a certain extent it was like Bobby-in-the-shower on Dallas (a development to which I've generally been willing to give a pass, since the season that followed it was a really strong one). And it robbed one of my longtime favorite shows of one of my longtime favorite characters. I'm going to have a hard time trusting the writers now, because even if they get a really good storyline going, I won't have faith that they can end it satisfactorily. That's a shame.

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