Monday, April 06, 2009


So, ER ended the other night. I didn't watch it, or anything of this final season aside from a chunk of the first episode of the year, but I do note the official end of a show that for me ended four or five years back. Time then, I suppose, for one final summation of my love-hate relationship with ER.

I remember ER's first season, back in 1994, when it was replacing LA Law in NBC's Thursday night lineup. Now, LA Law had also been a favorite show of The Girlfriend (later The Wife) and I, but it had petered out over its final few seasons, getting more and more lame as it went. What had really done LA Law in? Well, it was an ensemble show about lawyers, and as an ensemble show, it was designed so that it could lose characters if it needed to, by simply adding new ones. Sure, there were some members of the ensemble who were more important than others, but if done right, they could be interchanged. Only, it turned out, they really couldn't. Once enough of the compelling original characters -- the Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Susan Dey, and others -- had left, the replacements turned out to be significantly less interesting, and the same problem afflicted the writing staff. So a show that started out with a neat and fresh look at the world of high-rolling legal eagles became a show that disposed of troublesome characters by having them step through elevator doors without realizing that the elevator wasn't there.

Another show that started a year before ER did was NYPDBlue. It, too, was ensemble-by-design, but it fared much better than LA Law did. For one thing, NYPDBlue managed to hold onto one of the most important cogs in its ensemble wheel for its entire run (Dennis Franz's Andy Sipowicz). For another, Blue was, over its entire run, far more successful than Blue in replacing departed characters with new ones. I've always felt that NYPDBlue never got enough recognition for keeping the chemistry right even with completely different characters coming and going through more than ten seasons.

What does this have to do with ER? Well, ER was also an ensemble-by-design show. Ensemble shows live or die by their ensembles. A show that gets canceled probably suffers that fate, in part, because its ensemble doesn't have the right chemistry. (Sometimes, anyway. Look no farther than Firefly for a show that had awesome ensemble chemistry and yet felt the grim embrace of Network Doom.) ER was not, in my opinion, terrifically successful in maintaining its ensemble chemistry once original cast members started leaving, and eventually that -- and some trends in the writing that bugged me greatly -- contributed to me finally giving up on the show.

When did ER start to lose me? Well, I've long maintained that ER managed the odd trick of jumping the shark not once but twice, at least in my view. There were two plot developments that came about a year apart, if I recall correctly, that both put big dents in my enthusiasm for the show to start with, dents from which my enthusiasm would never recover.

The first was the major storyline feeding into the departure of Dr. Peter Benton. Benton was another arrogant surgeon, right from the show's first episode, played by Eriq La Salle. Even though Benton was gruff and arrogant, he was also a good man; in one memorable moment he interceded to keep Dr. Carter's life from spinning out of control. So, way back in season two, Benton had a brief affair with a woman from his neighborhood named Carla, an affair which ended quickly but not before producing a son named Reese. Benton and Carla would split custody, with occasional bad blood erupting, most notably when Benton used the court's custody order to prevent Carla's husband, Roger, from accepting a job that would have required him, Carla, and Reese to move to Germany.

Anyway, there would be some emotional stuff over the years regarding Reese Benton, who went through a difficult birthing process and who would later turn out to be deaf, forcing Benton to explore the ethics of cochlear implants. Well, in Season Eight, Eriq La Salle decided it was time to move on, so the show gave him one last big storyline. One night Carla and Reese were in a car accident. Reese survived with minor cuts and bruises, but Carla was killed -- and thus we were plunged into a child custody storyline, with Reese's step-father Roger and biological father Peter fighting it out for the kid.

Now, for one thing, this was all very "soap opera". What made ER compelling much of the time was that, for most of the first half of its run, it managed to keep the soap opera stuff mainly in the background, in favor of the medical stuff. There was just enough soap opera to keep viewers caring and to keep the characters from being mere faces, but until the Reese Benton custody fight, it never overwhelmed the show. And of course there wasn't much doubt about how it would end, was there? Peter would get custody. Everybody knew that. And sure enough, he did.


Here's where the writers first poisoned the well for me, because over the course of that plotline, it turned out that Peter was not Reese Benton's biological father at all. So the story went from biological-dad-versus-stepdad to stepdad-versus-guy-who-once-did-the-dirty-with-mom. As soon as that was established, I figured, "Game over" -- how on Earth can the fact that this guy thought he was the biological father for five years trump the fact that he's not, while the other guy really was the child's stepfather for those same years? I don't see how it could; from that moment it made no moral sense for Peter Benton to get custody, and yet, that's exactly what happened. The writers managed to make me lose sympathy for Peter. And they couldn't even make it a kind of "karmic victory" for Peter by having Roger be a complete jerk who really shouldn't have custody at all; no, Roger was a good guy, a hard-working successful guy who had loved his wife and been a good provider for his step-son.

And then, in a moment of transcendent awfulness that was the first time ER actually pissed me off, they had the defeated Roger come to the hospital, so he could give Reese's Christmas presents to Peter so that he might give them to the kid. And Peter says, "Come over on Christmas and give them to him yourself." Roger tears up -- and well he should, since he's just been colossally screwed -- and says something like "Thank you, this means a lot to me." What does Peter Benton say?

"I'm not doing it for you."

And I'm thinking, "Way to go, writers. You're letting Benton go out by making him a dick." At least Benton took with him the awful Dr. Finch, a pediatrician played awfully by Michael Michele, an actress who seems to have two facial expressions.

The second shark-jumping, and for me the more serious, was the fate of Dr. Romano, which came two seasons later. Robert "Rocket" Romano (played wonderfully by Paul McCrane) was an enormously gifted surgeon, and he knew it, too; he knew everything and he pretty much seemed to hate everybody. He had little by way of social skills, he was horribly un-PC ("I swear 'ER' stands for 'Everybody's retarded'!"), and he basically went around saving lives because only he could and spewing unending gouts of cynical sarcasm that he got away with because he could save those lives by virtue of his amazing surgical skill. Not unlike Dr. House on House.

But Dr. Romano would also show hints of humanity every so often. Once he burst into the ER in a panic, cradling a critically injured patient in his arms: his own beloved dog. He exploded into rage when he failed to save a fellow doctor's life. He was in love with Dr. Elizabeth Korday, which he mostly accepted was doomed to be unrequited but which he allowed to show by being her confidant in some very dark moments.

After Romano was established thereof, the writers threw an astonishing twist at him: in a weird accident involving a helicopter, Romano's arm was chopped off. It got reattached, but he had to spend months in rehab trying to get it to work so he could return to surgery perhaps. However, it didn't work, and the arm began to die, so Romano had it amputated. All this played out over a year or more, and it was a fascinating arc for a fascinating character, as Romano became more and more hostile toward his co-workers while he tried to figure out just what kind of doctor he could now be. Still a doctor, but no longer the god-like surgeon? It was a fascinating place to take a character.

That was when the writers decided it was time for a curveball. They had Romano outside the hospital, in the alley, one day, as another helicopter was lifting off from the helipad on the roof. Some kind of mechanical failure happened, the helicopter literally dropped out of the sky...right onto Dr. Romano. End of Romano. That happened early in the episode, and the rest of the episode featured characters constantly wondering where the hell Romano had got to, right up until the final fade, which showed a big crane lifting the wreckage of the helicopter. Presumably, minutes after the fade to credits, someone says, "Hey, is that a body under there?" So the guy whose life had been irrevocably altered by a helicopter mishap was now ended in another helicopter mishap. Yuk, yuk, yuk. To me, that felt just like LA Law's dropping Rosalind Shays down an elevator shaft. Romano's death felt like a joke, from the visual of the helicopter crushing him (it looked just like the 16-ton weight that was always crushing people on Monty Python's Flying Circus) to the fact that the hospital would pay tribute to Romano by putting his name on the AIDS clinic when he'd been depicted as being at least mildly homophobic. Yuk, yuk indeed.

Of course, it wasn't just specific plot points that annoyed me with the show, and besides, there would be others to come along. It was the ensemble. Doctors started coming and going with such regularity that the show felt like it had a revolving door on it, and at times the cast ballooned to the point where characters would get a few minutes each of screentime per show. Many of the new doctors were just plain nowhere near as interesting as the ones from the early seasons -- the afore-mentioned Dr. Finch, for example. Did any regular viewer ever count Dr. Dave Malucci as a favorite? Shane West, a talented actor, was pretty much wasted when he was brought on as a doc who was little more than an older version of the flirting-with-delinquency kid he'd played on the far better written Once and Again.

Not just that new characters weren't that interesting, but they'd also get tossed aside ridiculously quickly, pretty much the second the writers realized they didn't know what they were doing with them. Thus it was that Susan Lewis disappeared overnight the second time. Dr. Korday got less and less screen time until the writers finally had her go home to England. Nobody cared about Dr. Malucci, but even so, his firing was a lame, out-of-the-blue moment. And so on.

The stories got jacked up to '11' all the while, too; while early seasons would end with a sense that life would continue and that not all things are resolved, later seasons would end with Dallas-esque cliffhangers of the "Who will live! Who will die! Come back in October to find out!" variety. One season faded to black as three characters were in a car that went off a bridge and into the water; another ended with a doc being trapped beneath the thundering masses at an antiwar demonstration. In fact, my actual last straw with the show was one of those cliffhanger episodes, when a bunch of criminals burst into the ER itself and shot the place up. The Moldavian Wedding Massacre worked on Dynasty because, well, that was Dynasty. On ER, it was just stupid. I never watched an entire episode after that.

And it wasn't just cliffhangers and bad ensemble stuff, either. ER just settled into a monotonous sameness over time. In the early seasons, they knew how to change things up in ways to keep things interesting, but when they would do that in later years, they would always do it in exactly the same ways. For some reason, the showrunners became fascinated with the idea of the big-city ER docs going off to work in squalor in Africa, an idea which was interesting the first time but became less so each time they did it after that (and it was a lot). You could also always count on the Big Name Guest Star to show up to play either the Seriously Ill Person, from whom one of our docs would learn some kind of life lesson, or the Colorful Family Member, which would yield some soap opera stuff. James Cromwell. Bob Newhart. James Woods. Sally Field. Alan Alda. Lather, rinse, repeat. Some of these episodes were actually pretty good, strictly speaking, but there would still be this air of "been there, done that" hanging over them.

Why did this all bother me as much as it did? Because when ER was good, it wasn't just merely good. There was a reason that the show took the country by storm back in 1994, and it wasn't just all the WHOOSH steadicam stuff and the rapidfire medical dialogue and the bloody trauma stuff. It was, for all its new-ness, a very good show. It was, week in and week out, for four or five years at least, just a great thing to watch. One of its masterstrokes was to show not just doctors in different specialties at work but to include students in the mix, so that Dr. Carter became our "gateway" character to this world. Some of those individual episodes still stand out for me and, I suspect, many other people who remember the show from back then. "Love's Labor Lost", for example. This was the first time the show departed from its general formula of lots of patients in an hour to follow one case. A mother in labor is wheeled into the ER, and as Dr. Greene tries one thing after another, her labor spirals out of control until it's a tossup as to whether he can save mother, baby, or either. He saves the baby. The mother dies. It was a brilliant episode that had ramifications for Greene's character that would play out for years to come.

Season two brought a storyline focusing on a troubled Dr. Ross that culminated in one of the most riveting hours of teevee I've ever seen. Ross is on his way home, in a downpour, when he's stopped by a kid whose brother has become trapped in a drainage culvert. And still later on that year came a heartbreaking episode in which one of the EMTs they deal with regularly is severely burned in an apartment building fire. There were a lot of episodes like that, back when ER was great. And yes, it was. Even after it started to lose me, it had some moments. The episode in which the ER staff learns that Dr. Greene has died was, for me, a far more fitting sendoff for that character than the episode a week later that backtracked and showed the last month of his life. (The episode opened with Dr. Carter reading a letter to the ER staff from Dr. Greene, who had gone to Hawaii to spend his final days. Only at the end of the letter does Carter notice the handwritten postscript from Dr. Korday -- Dr. Greene's wife -- that Mark had died. Carter posts the letter on the bulletin board, and the rest of the show depicts a day in the ER when everyone has to mull over Greene's passing, until the end of the show, when we flash forward six months or so to see the letter still on the bulletin board.) The show's two-hundredth episode was a late standout, showing Drs. Carter and Pratt treating the same patients twelve hours apart.

Obviously, since I haven't watched ER in several years (the "ER Massacre" happened, I'm not going to miss it now that it's gone. For me it was already gone. But I still salute it for what it once was.


Earl of Obvious said...

St. Elsewhere

enough said

Earl of Obvious said...

You know, many many nurses watch these shows. I think a screen play about a hospital from the nurses perspective INCLUDING the nurse as the Hero and the Villan with similar characters (the star, the overly compassionate etc would sell). Doctors would be marginalized, especially the know nothing interns

I am working on it now but I hit a roadblock again

Roger Owen Green said...

First, I think you're right about NYPD Blue, which I watched from beginning to end.

Second, I'm pretty sure I gave up on ER around the time Romano lost his arm, but was paying enough attention that when I read about his death, I said, probably aloud, "You're kidding."

I DID I fact record the entire evening 4/2, including the clip show, but I'll remember the show more for what it was than how it evolved - or devolved, I suppose.