A Look Back On A Great Show — But Also A Flawed One
During this past year of enforced lockdown I, like millions of other people, found myself watching a lot of old series. I explained in an earlier article that I never got in on The Office kick, but I did see a lot of Parks and Rec, The Simpsons and probably every episode of the original Law and Order. (Admittedly, I was close to that point before the pandemic).
But perhaps the most appropriate series that I ended up getting caught up on was one that I’ve always had a bizarre relationship with throughout my near quarter-century of critically viewing TV. Prior to Grey’s Anatomy, ER was by far the most successful hospital drama of all times, and even at my greatest level of disapproval with it, ER was clearly the superior series. I made a lot of rash judgments against it during its original run — I could never understand why it would average twenty nominations a year while more deserving series like Party of Five and Homicide couldn’t even get invited to the party. Those series were all about character development, while ER was all above the rapid pace and nothing else. I was also resentful that a lot of other superior series — starting with Chicago Hope — kept trying to take it on, and failing usually getting cancelled.
But I’ll admit even when I badmouthed it; a part of me was still fascinated by it. Even during the far inferior back half of its run, I would constantly find myself changing away from other shows to watch ER. When TNT and ABC ran it in syndication, I would frequently rewatch earlier episodes, and was often impressed by them. It wasn’t hate watching by any means. And given everything we know about health care, particularly during this past year, it’s really hard to argue that this series was not way ahead of its time.
So I think now would be a good time to look back at ER: why it worked, what worked about it, and why I still consider it a fundamentally flawed show.
I should’ve been giving ER a lot more slack almost from the get-go. One of my main criticisms of the series at the time was that it moved too fast for anybody to stay attached. Of course, when The West Wing debuted (and it was co-produced by ER producer John Wells) and everybody, including me, raved about the walk-and-talk style of shooting and dialogue, I conveniently forgot that ER had pretty much perfected it five years earlier. To be fair, Sorkin’s dialogue was generally a lot wittier and smarter, where as the people on ER were talking fast because other people’s lives depended on it. Also, you knew what Sorkin’s characters were saying. It was hard to follow the jargon on ER, though I’m pretty sure by the end of the first season everyone had a basic understanding.
My other major criticism — that ER was never about character — is in retrospect one of the dumbest thoughts I’ve ever had about television. This wasn’t Law and Order where we never saw anything about the characters lives outside of the office. We saw a huge amount of what Dr. Greene and Carol Hathaway did when they weren’t in the ER. We knew about the trouble family lives of Dr. Ross and the complicated relationship Dr. Carter had with his grandparents. We knew about them when they came to the ER, which happened a lot, but every so often the series would take a break and follow the characters outside of Cook County. It didn’t always work, but at least writers such as Wells were more than willing to fill in the blanks. And let’s be honest, that never worked on The West Wing.
And this series did introduce the world to some of the greatest actors in TV, or indeed, any medium. George Clooney is perhaps the most obvious superstar to come out of the show, but there were dozens of others. Juliana Margulies, one of the greatest actresses in TV, launched her career in the role of Nurse Carol Hathaway. Noah Wylie, another TV legend, had the longest career on the series. Laura Innes, who would have the second longest run on the series, has become one of the greatest directors in the medium. Gloria Reuben, Goran Visjnic, Ming-Na, Sharif Atkins, and Maria Bello all cut their teeth here. And though they weren’t exactly unknowns when they worked at Cook County, Maura Tierney, Shane West, Linda Cardellini and John Stamos, all did some of their best work on this series. That’s an impressive roster by anybody’s standard, and those were just the regulars.
And let’s not forget one of the biggest leads of the entire series that was always present — our failed health care system. Almost every episode to some degree, either mentioned that no one was coming to Cook County by choice, and there were always battles with insurance that the doctors would try to get around, but were more often powerless to do so. Cook County was underpaid, understaffed, and often in danger of being shutdown. It was rare that the waiting room wasn’t full to bursting; quiet times only seemed to come in the middle of the blizzards that would blanket Chicago and were often followed by mass traumas. Indeed, it almost became a running gag late in the series that when regulars were leaving the ER and the staff planned a party, there would inevitably be a mass casualty event. ER was probably the best argument for universal health care in the history of entertainment and all it ever had to do to make it was pan over the waiting room.
So in retrospect, I think ER was a great series worthy of almost all the Emmy nominations it received the first five years it was on the air. That being said, as good as it was at times — and it could be brilliant — I still consider it tremendously overrated. I’ll go into the details why in the next installment.