Conclusion: Where ER made so many mistakes
One of the things that ER did that was radical for network television was not only would it have episodic stories (usually four or five small ones in the course of an episode) but multi-episode arcs that could go on anywhere for three to four episodes to the entire season. And often they would lead to some of the most brilliant moments in 1990s TV. Some still resonate with me more than twenty years later — Dr. Ross’ troubled relationship with a street child named Charlie (Kirsten Dunst in one of her earliest roles); Jeannie Boulet (Reuben) befriending teenager cancer survivor Scott Anspaugh, which even though its conclusion was inevitable doesn’t stop you from weeping at it when its over; Alan Alda’s brilliant arc as a pioneering trauma surgeon and Dr. Weaver’s mentor, whose erratic behavior soon lays clear a far worse problem.
The problem was that after awhile — when is a matter of debate among fans of the series — the guest stars in the stories began to overshadow the regulars who were at the center of them. A lot of them still paid off, even in the later seasons — I remember well Don Cheadle’s unforgettable stint as a fortyish intern suffering from Parkinson’s and Bob Newhart’s tragic-comic turn as an architect who is slowly going blind and can’t deal with the trauma. And indeed, the series was still getting the lion’s share of its Emmy nominations for them in the Guest Actor and Actress category. But when the patients at the ER are a bigger draw than the leads, you really do have to wonder about whether the writers had their priorities straight.
Indeed, I still think that the writing of the series was flawed almost all the way through. Part of it was that they would set up storylines and cliffhangers at the end of seasons and then never resolve them. When Mark Greene decided not to save a man who had just committed a mass shooting, it was a powerful moment — but there were no consequences and no follow up. More seriously was that, the longer ER was on the air and more and more of the original cast left, many of the replacements were woefully inadequate as characters. I think the problem started when Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) showed up in Season 5, and led to a long stretch of characters who weren’t such annoying, in many cases, they were lousy at their jobs.
Such failures included Doctor Dave (Erik Palladino) a trauma junkie who had no patience for patients; Neela Rogostra (Parminder Negra) a brilliant student who grew so disillusioned with being a doctor she actually quit and worked at a convenience store for awhile (she only came back because she was unqualified for anything else) Ray Barnett (Shane West) a doctor who spent most of his first season more interested in being a guitarist) and Archie Morris (Scott Grimes) who wandered from scene to scene, always saying the wrong thing, barely doing the right thing, and yet somehow managed to last all the way to the end of the series. Characters like these were not only the last people you’d want working on you in an emergency, they were also the kind you wonder how they got through med school in the first place.
These characters were hard enough to deal with, but what made it even worse were the doctors who were just horrible human beings. Never was this clearer with Robert ‘Rocket’ Romano, played by Paul McCrane an otherwise good actor wasted in this part.
Romano was perhaps the prime example of ER’s absolute failure with character growth. If anything, Romano started as an interesting character and he was beaten into the ground. Initially presented as a prickly but not entirely unpleasant surgeon in Season 4, the warning bells should have been apparent in Season 5 when he sexually harassed a lesbian resident (Jorja Fox) then bullied a friend into not testifying against him. Immediately, after this he took on the job of ER chief, and handed off all the work to Mark Greene and Kerri Weaver. (He probably didn’t endear himself to fans when he was responsible for Doug Ross (Clooney) being suspended and resigning, though to be fair, that was going to happen anyway.)
In Season 6, he became chief of staff, mainly because no one else wanted the job. (Greene was the only one to argue against his appointment; Kerri was going to support him, but betrayed him at the last moment. She was named chief of the ER.) From that point on, all Romano did was bully, berate and blame anyone who he thought did something to make a mistake while doing no really work himself. He was particularly harsh on Peter Benton, toying with his career and finally causing him to resign when he refused to make his job easier so that he could be with his son. He became more openly racist and homophobic throughout the show, and when he ended up in an accident that cost him the use of his arm, the writer even lost the pretense of making him sympathetic. When he was killed by a helicopter crash, nobody came to his memorial service. When Kerri said: “He’ll be missed.” I could only add: “Not by me.”
But as horrible as all this was to deal with, there was a similar sloppiness with so many of the details with other characters throughout the show. This was never clearer with the Luka-Abby-Carter love triangle that was a major story throughout seasons seven through nine. Luka and Abby began a relationship in Season 7, but Carter, due to being a fellow AA member (don’t get me started) would keep pushing at it. In Season 8, Luka and Abby would inexplicably break up (Luka would say ‘Carter can have you!’) but by then Carter had moved on. In Season 9, Carter and Abby would finally get together. Carter was actually going to propose to her, and I’ve never understood why he backed out at literally the last minute. Their relationship staggered on until the end of Season 9, when Carter went to Africa with Luka. When Carter ended up staying, he wrote her a letter than explained why their relationship was ending. We never heard this reason either.
There are countless examples of this slackness throughout the series — Abby’s taking on being a nurse after he ex refused to pay for med school, staying as a nurse after she could go back and finally becoming a med student again; Carter being stabbed and become a drug addict out of thin air; Dr. Chen quitting after being blamed for an incident, then rather than writing her out, having her lurk around for half a season until she was rehired inexplicably.. The bottom line was that the writers put more care into the patients in the ER then they did to consistency with characters from season to season or even from episode to episode. This was not a simple case of a good show being extended far past its natural life — though it’s hard to argue that’s not part of the problem when characters that left the series would come back as regulars after four or five year gaps. I think the writers may have decided at some point that the ER itself was the only character that mattered. And once you’ve made that decision — that the characters are less important than the place — than you have a series that’s never going to be perfect.
ER was an important series, there’s no denying that. And it was far better at character development than any of the police procedurals or medical procedurals that have come in its wake. But in my mind, it will never truly be a great show. When you sacrifice character development and story at the cost of pace, it can never be regarded as perfect. There hasn’t been a show like ER since it ended. Maybe that’s for the best.