Because 90% of what I read are film scripts, I don’t often address writing for TV. However, I’m a huge TV junkie, and while I’m not the best person to go to for advice on how to sell your pilot, I’m certainly knowledgeable enough to point out good writing in the medium. This week, one of my longtime favorite shows, ER, is finally going off the air. The show has had some weak seasons over the years, but during its first season it was one of the first one-hour dramas I really got into. That same year, I also became a junkie for Homicide: Life on the Street and Law & Order. This pretty much cemented my interest in dramas over sitcoms and made me much more interested in writing for TV. Given all of that, I can’t let the show go off the air without paying proper tribute, so I figure, why not educate you in the process? Welcome to “ER Week with the Bitter Script Reader.”
Today’s lecture is on the two-hour pilot episode, “24 Hours.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s easily available in at least two ways – Netflix and iTunes. For a mere $1.99 on iTunes, you can get the full episode, which isn’t a bad deal. Also, considering that this week’s two-hour finale is likely to have many, many callbacks to the pilot, anyone planning on watching the last episode should refresh their memories of “how it all began.”
I recently rewatched the pilot for the first time in several years and several things struck me. First, at the time it premiered, I remember all the hype about how ER moved too fast, the camera never slowed down, the editing was too quick and MTV-like. It just goes to show you how things change in 15 years of TV because the pace was a bit more leisurely than on most ER episodes today, and the moving camera wasn’t nearly the breakneck pace it was made out to be. The lighting was also more diffused and “natural,” along with a more muted color palate. It’s as if they were making an effort to be “real.” If I wanted to be glib, I’d say that the current incarnation of the show is like the TV-version of the original series.
But never mind much of that because we’re here to talk about writing. There are five regular characters introduced in the pilot: Doctors Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), Doug Ross (George Clooney), Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), med student John Carter (Noah Wyle) and surgeon Peter Benton (Eriq la Salle). (Nurse Hathaway is in the pilot as well, but at the time of production she was not intended as a regular character and was in fact, supposed to be killed off in the episode, but more on that later this week.) The premise is simple – we’re a fly-on-the-wall for 24 hours in the life of Chicago’s Cook County General emergency room.
Despite the restricted time frame, Michael Crichton’s script manages to give almost all of these main characters their own arcs. There’s a lot of strong writing in how those arcs are handled. Take note of how certain character exposition comes out, as well as how the characters’ dialogue reveals a lot about them:
Greene interviews with a lucrative private practice at the insistence of his wife, but finds in the end that he’s much more stimulated by work in the ER. For him, it’s not about the money. An early scene establishes his current salary as $23,739 before taxes, and when he tours with the private practice, his starting salary there is promised to be nearly $100,000 more than that.
(Note how subtly this detail is handled. The ER salary is actually slipped seamlessly into a rant from Dr. Benton, and the private practice salary is tossed into the middle of the tour. Crichton is smart enough to trust the audience to compare and contrast on their own. He doesn’t resort to Greene saying, “I’d make $100,000 more a year there!”)
Despite the money, Greene is clearly uninterested in the job. The answers he gives his prospective boss are halting and nearly monosyllabic. In a later scene he complains that working there wouldn’t “feel like real medicine.” By the end of the episode, he concludes “I can’t give this up.” In truth, both of those lines of dialogue are unnecessary. We’ve seen enough of Greene before his tour to know that that’s not his kind of medicine, and his reactions to the tour only reinforce that. He already knows what he loves and what he wants to do. This day just reaffirms that.
Ross is introduced as a drunken ladies man, who seems incapable of not trying to charm every woman who crosses his path, only to be shaken when his ex, Nurse Hathaway, attempts suicide. Many of Ross’s early scenes revolve around his handsome features and roguish charm. There’s a moment where he instinctively hits on a new med student, only to play innocent when she calls him out on it. However, one of the sharper bits of writing comes when a patient remarks to Nurse Haleh that “he’s very handsome.” Dryly, Haleh says, “He knows.” It’s a funny insight into not only how Ross acts, but how the people around him every day perceive him.
John Carter is a naïve med student on his first day assigned to the ER as Benton’s student. When he arrives he has yet to start an IV, as he’s only worked in dermatology and psychiatry. (“The well-dressed specialties,” Dr. Benton notes, with no small amount of distain.) Though he’s clearly overwhelmed at first, by the end of the day he’s delivered a baby, started an IV, sutured, and learned an important lesson from Dr. Greene about how doctors handle their feelings in difficult cases. Carter’s job in this episode is to be the wide-eyed innocent, reacting to everything with fresh eyes. It’s the sort of part that could have been ruined by a lesser actor, but Wyle’s comic timing sells every non-verbal reaction, every shocked reaction, every nerve. Carter has relatively few lines compared to his cast mates, particularly considering his screentime. It wouldn’t surprise me if on the page, Carter felt like one-dimensional comic relief, the nervous guy who bumbles his first day on the job and nearly faints at the site of a stab wound. Still, the script gives the actor enough to work with that he’s able to make Carter endearing.
Dr. Benton, a surgeon and third-year resident, finally gets to prove himself. We’re not even eight minutes into the pilot when Benton expresses interest in helping on a difficult surgery. He’s dismissively told, “You’re years away from a case like this.” Later, Dr. Benton’s status in the hospital is reinforced when an x-ray tech sarcastically refers to him as “a man of many talents – all of them unproven.” Yet, Benton finally gets his moment to shine when a man comes in with a ruptured aneurysm and there are no surgeons available to work on him. Knowing that the man could bleed out internally and die at any time, Benton makes the call to start surgery – a case that is established as way beyond his experience. Fortunately the gutsy move works and Benton keeps him alive long enough for the Chief of the ER to arrive and save the patient. This leads to the famous moment of an ecstatic Benton giving the karate-punch that lived on for eight years in the opening credits.
Susan Lewis is the only one of the five leads not to get a true arc in the pilot. She’s established as Greene’s close friend and as a more than competent doctor, but in these episodes, she’s clearly a supporting character. However, that’s to be expected. Pilots can’t always give every character a large arc, and at least the character herself is pretty well-established.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out another interesting bit of character writing with regards to the Carter/Benton dynamic. It’s interesting to see the range in Benton’s character. When he’s with Carter, he’s a hard-nosed mentor, rattling off instructions faster than Carter can write them down. But don’t take my word for it – here’s their first meeting:
Is it any wonder Carter was intimidated as hell? Benton is written and played like that college instructor whom none of us could ever get an A from no matter how hard we tried. It would have been easy to write Benton as a hard-nosed, no nonsense mentor and leave it at that, but Crichton is wise to show us the teacher as the student by giving Benton a mentor who is as difficult for Benton to impress as it is for Carter to impress Benton. It fleshes out Benton to show him interacting differently with different people. He’s dismissive of many of the nurses, sarcastic and hostile to the x-ray techs, tough on his student, and intimidated and eager around his superiors. I’d argue that at least in the pilot, Benton is the best-developed character. Take note of that in developing your own characters.