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ER Season 1 Review

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The complete first season of the award-winning hospital drama

★★★★★

October 1989, and on a typically clement LA autumn afternoon, Steven Spielberg is holed up in his Amblin offices with author and director Michael Crichton. Spielberg has called the meeting to suggest some revisions to a movie script he bought from Crichton some months ago. Work is progressing slowly — the script currently has ‘third act problems’ — but the redoubtable duo has every reason to believe a solution is just around the corner. So it is in the spirit of solicitous curiosity, rather than outright desperation, that Spielberg idly asks Crichton if there’s anything else the author is working on. And it is in a similarly conversational manner that Crichton casually replies, “Well, I have just finished this book about dinosaurs…” With that single sentence, the most important television drama of the 1990s was born. (Oh, and some movie about overgrown lizards.)

Although he preferred to spend nights squirrelling away on the science-goes-wrong thrillers that would soon make his fortune, Harvard Medical School did afford young John Michael Crichton with the opportunity to experience the sharp end of his nominal line of work during an internship at the emergency ward of Massachusetts General Hospital. This was the fag end of the ’60s and the free-spirited Crichton would quit medicine soon after graduation, but his experiences at Mass Gen would stay with him for decades to come, a recurring nightmare nagging at his creative mind.

The credits of ER list Michael Crichton as “Creator”. Crichton, however, is hardly a creator in the same sense as The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin (who wrote practically every episode until he was fired last year) or Buffy’s Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed every standout episode). In fact, Crichton only penned one episode of ER — the first. The extended 88-minute pilot that aired on NBC in September 1994 is, in all the essentials, the same semi-autobiographical movie screenplay Crichton and Spielberg had chewed over five years earlier.

As green as the hospital walls, medical student John Carter (Noah Wyle) is the screen offspring of John (Michael) Crichton, and our tour guide for the hellish next 24 hours. And yet, for all the authenticity and intimacy borne of a first-hand account, you can see why a movie director might struggle with Crichton’s promising screenplay. The emergency room’s blend of humour, horror and human relationships may have provided a natural showcase for Spielberg but… there are still third act problems to negotiate. It’s interesting to speculate just how Spielberg and Crichton might have cracked that third act, but they could never have conjured a solution as simple and elegant as the one proffered by the National Broadcasting Company. ‘Don’t bother with an ending,’ they said. ‘Do 24 more episodes instead, never once letting the breakneck pace flag or the attention to detail waiver. Then, when that ground-breaking first season proves to be both a ratings smash and a critical darling, do the same thing all over again for, oh, about ten years or so, making sure to set up permanent camp at No. 1 in the Neilsen ratings, with an annual vacation to the Emmy Awards pencilled in for June.’ Now, that’s a third act.

Motherhood, the penultimate episode of ER’s first season, is not especially notable save for one small piece of business: it’s directed by Quentin Tarantino. Unless they happen to be paying close attention to the opening credits, this detail might be lost on the casual viewer. Indeed, save for an increased dosage of humour, some nice visual flourishes and at least one in-joke (a female gang-banger with her ear cut off), Episode 24 is indistinguishable from the rest of the first run. The pace is relentless, naturally, the sentiment kept to a minimum, and the blood flows as freely as, well, your average Quentin Tarantino movie. Let there be no doubt: Tarantino was not slumming here. He directed Motherhood in spring 1995, immediately after he had won an Academy Award for Pulp Fiction. Instead, QT — apparently an ER fan from day one — simply stuck to the script by Lydia Woodward and stayed true to the spirit of the show. In other words, a television programme barely six months old had established both a visual grammar and a narrative style so recognisable that it could happily accommodate the most distinctive movie director of the decade. No further testimony to the power of the ‘ER formula’ is really necessary.

As it happens, Motherhood is not even the bloodiest or the best episode from the first season. That honour is reserved for Episode 19, Love’s Labor Lost, perhaps the most distressing entry in ER’s entire casebook. Focusing almost exclusively on a problematic labour that goes tragically wrong, this harrowing hour sealed the growing reputation of NBC’s brave new show and brought episode director Mimi Leder to the attention of one Steven Spielberg. Leder’s subsequent big screen output (The Peacemaker, Deep Impact) might not rival Tarantino, but as Season One’s keynote director, she did more than anyone to choreograph and codify the camera moves that have distinguished ER ever since. As if connected to an excitable EKG monitor, cameras in ER skitter through crowded corridors before swooping around the operating table, lobbying for the best vantage point with ghoulish zeal. ER panders to the voyeur in all of us.

Of the five original principals, only Wyle’s Carter, no longer the newbie, has stayed the entire course. Sherry Stringfield (who quit in 1996 to “spend time with her boyfriend”) has recently been put back in rotation as the angelic if frazzled Dr. Susan Lewis. The unflappable Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), meanwhile, lasted until 2002, when a fatal brain tumour finally prized him away from Cook County General. That same year also saw arrogant Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) hang up his surgeon’s gown for good, following three seasons in which La Salle became the highest-paid black actor in TV history — his three-year salary totalled some $27,000,000 — and saw ER confirmed as the most expensive television drama ever. Elsewhere, although Crichton’s pilot script had originally ended with her successful suicide attempt, Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) survived long enough to waltz into the sunset with on-again, off-again boyfriend Doug Ross in 2000. As for Ross, the unreliable paediatrician had himself quit Cook County just a year earlier so that the man behind the white coat and matching smile — former journeyman actor George Clooney — could concentrate on his faltering film career. According to last reports, said career was doing quite nicely, thankyouverymuch.

The staff names on the duty board may be wiped on a regular basis, but ER remains open for business, doggedly sticking to the multiple storyline recipe (keep the MVAs and GSWs banging through the ambulance bay doors with just enough ‘home-front’ subplots to give the season shape) that has seen the show through a decade of bitter Chicago winters. Truth be told, recent seasons have become a little like new Bob Dylan albums — die-hard fans may insist that the current output ranks alongside the early classics, but even if they’re right (actually, the longer, soapier story arcs started swamping the emergency cases some time ago now), most of us simply own enough Dylan albums already. Eclipsed by edgier cable-reared shows like
The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, ER is no longer a hip name to drop.

But it would be unwise to let a decade of unbroken success detract from the revolutionary achievement of this opening salvo. Compared to the pedestrian opposition, ER simply refused to underestimate the intelligence of its mainstream audience. From the moment that first gurney burst into the trauma room and the overlapping, jargon-heavy dialogue spewed forth with the force and speed of a punctured artery — followed a second later by the crimson spray from an actual punctured artery — it was clear that the cosy world of television drama would never be the same again.