Monday, April 6, 2009

And In the End... Life In the ER Went On

Last night we bade good-bye to one of television's most enduring dramas, ER.

My first experience with ER was a bit hazy, but I do remember I was in high school at the time and planned ahead of time to hog our cable-less TV set in the kitchen and wait for the pilot to come on. My decision to watch a TV show that I knew nothing about, save for its pedigreed executive producers (Crichton and Spielberg), owed much to Sherry Stringfield.

I loved her back in the days, and I still do now. She was my favorite character in NYPD Blue (secondaries be damned), and was mad at the writers for slowly writing her out of the show. (Of course, I expected it when David Caruso left the show.) But when I found out that she was going to be in another show – ER – it made me feel better to know that I wouldn't have to miss her all that much. And so in the mid-90s, I watched what would be known as one of the highest-rated drama series in TV history.

Looking back on it, I cannot really put my finger on why I loved ER. Save for Sherry, I knew no one else on that show. My only other favorite character out of the series was Anthony Edward's Mark Greene. I didn't like George, Juliana, Noah, even Eriq. They all had character flaws that grated on me (and George, in particular, annoyed me to no end – until this very day!). I only loved two out of six actors, and yet I found myself in a weekly habit of staying up until 10PM on Thursday nights just to watch this wonderful show.

I think it was the fact that it was so different at the time. Unlike shows of this decade, ER opened every episode with a full cast intro. It had a hip, fantastic score. That score was what initially made it different from the rest. It mirrored the spirit of the show – its kinetic frenzy and breakthroughs. And the direction was pretty much unlike any other. Steadycam shots and "oners" (one-take acts) – it broke through the traditions of the TV medium. Every actor was utilized – from the EMTs to the nurses, to the docs themselves. There were no walk-ons or standbys. Everyone in the shot had something to do. And if you had visited a real-life ER at some point in your life (and with a doctor sister, I had lots of times), you knew that it was a very realistic scenario that played out really well in front of the camera. It was a successful mix of execution and emotion.

And unlike other shows that followed, ER continued to provoke emotions of its viewers through nuance and subtleties, instead of relying on gore and viscera. The urgency of hands flying in the ER, of people yelling over each other, blood suddenly appearing on scrubs or surgical gloves, or even gushing out of nowhere, of doctors' eyes flashing back and forth to each other while trying to save a life. The emergency procedure was the core of the medical drama. There was no mystery to be solved. ER situations are cut and dried and test a doctor's will and skill. There was no Housian mystery or GA lead-in to some complicated surgery. ER was like a one-two punch that left you reeling and awash in emotions. And then they hook you in some more with some nice character-driven drama.

Benton mentoring Carter. Susan adopting her niece. The Ross and Hathaway relationship. Mark's constant demons and attempts at leadership and love. It was typical drama, but set in the all-too familiar life-and-death hum of the ER, or in the backdrop of a gritty Chicago. The setting accentuated the drama. It was one of very few TV shows that allowed the setting to dictate the story. It was, I think, one of the reasons for its longevity, despite a continuing exodus of characters. It did not depend on one doctor, but on a location. And that location shaped the people's characters and motives. It is the ER itself that carried much of the drama and made for solid TV.

I am sorry to say that my decision to stop watching ER coincided with Susan's first departure to Arizona. I loved her character, and was rooting hard for Mark to stop her from leaving. And then she left. So I, too, left.

And I do say that it was something I regretted, seeing as how there have been some more amazing moments on the show since then. But Susan was the reason I watched the show in the first place, so it wasn't the same for me when she wasn't around anymore. I do tune in a couple of times and I see different faces each time, different ER chiefs-slash-antagonists in the mold of Kerry Weaver (still my favorite anti-hero). I knew about Benton's family issues, Carter's slow descent from idealism, Carol's reunion with Doug, and then there was Mark Greene. There was a time during the show's 15-season run when I was prepared to watch ER again, but when I found out that they were killing off Edwards' character, I couldn't get myself to watch. And so Season 3 was my last full ER season.

But like all those who felt the impact of ER in their lives, we came back to say good-bye to the show. And it was so nice of the show to give us fans, those who stayed and those who left, the chance to be nostalgic and to look forward to an ER future. There were no more character deaths. County General did not close down. Old faces mingled with the new, and past fans like me were shown how far the show had come, and how much there is to look forward to (Rachel! The Joshua Carter Center!). There was a wonderful nod to continuity with John Wells' script that paid tribute to the first season. Doctors playing hoops, Carter asking Rachel if "she's in", Morris being awakened at the beginning. And while there was a general air of expectation of sadness and closure, there was very little to feel sad about with the continuous energy within the ER. The morality tale will continue to play out, and relationships will continue to be tested.

It was wonderful to see everyone back, including Doug and Carol three weeks earlier. Back then, I was not a fan of these two. But seeing them again, and seeing how happy they still are, it brought me a sense of closure for these two. I got teary-eyed when, after answering a phone call in the early morning about the kidney donation they helped procure for Dr. Carter's eventual transplant, Carole turned to Doug in bed to say that they saved "some doctor". And again, it was so moving in the way that everyone continued to be connected in some part to each other. It was no grand "I Love You!" or song in the rain. It was a life saved. As was usual.

I love it when the show basks in the quieter moments. I still remember Susan's last day in the ER in Season 3. How they had this wonderful farewell party planned in advance, with streamers and balloons and cake and party hats, but then they got deluged with emergencies and everybody scattered about. And Susan just went around the ER lovingly gazing at the spirit and energy in there. And she then walked out of the hospital and just left. I was sort of torn up the first time I saw it. Aside from screaming out at Mark to go after her, I thought it wasn't the kind of farewell I would have wanted for my favorite character. But looking back, I loved how quiet, subtle moments like that just made me feel a sense of love for the show. The fact that two of the most iconic scenes of the show made it on to the credits for as long as it did – Carter's exhausted sigh in a dark corner outside the ER, and Benton's "booyah!" gesture in the hallway – is a testament to the power of a tender moment.

In the end, as always, life goes on in the ER. It was a fitting end to an important place in a community, and an important show in the history of television. No one left. Everything and everyone was right where we left them. I held my breath when the camera zoomed out and focused on a full building shot of County General as the El train whizzed past. I love that that was the final bookend image to this great series. That ER was part of something bigger, and that its relevance in the greater scheme of things was never questioned.

Maybe in the following days, or even weeks, we will come across people, articles, blogs, etc, all praising the finale. ER has achieved an amazing degree of popularity, with viewership peaking at around 35 million in Season 2. And that was just in the US, and didn't count people like me who were from the other half of the globe. With such viewership, I won't be surprised if everyone you met had watched it at some point in their lives, not counting syndicated episodes. The show deserved its successes then and even now. It was an unprecedented kind of success for a scripted drama, and it will never happen again.

I'd like to say “thank you” to a show that made me feel like a grown up while watching it. I was young, and my parents constantly supervised my TV viewing habits at the time, and yet they never vetted ER. For that I was thankful. ER was the first "real" TV show I watched, with content mature and intelligent enough for me to learn from. It had an air of edginess and accomplishment about it, and I felt I was "cool" while watching it. I never did understand the power of the Clooney, but I found myself being invested in the show's characters. My older sisters look back on St. Elsewhere as THE television medical drama. But I will always fondly remember ER. Thank you, Mr. Crichton, for writing a pilot that was both so poignant and powerful that it hooked me (and millions others) along with it. And thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for giving the show a sense of dignity and respect it deserves. And thank you, Mr. Wells, for being behind it all for the full 15 seasons. And thank you to all the cast of characters and guest stars and crew on the show. Television was forever changed by the likes of you.