Thursday, April 2, 2009

ER Week - Day 4

Continuing a weeklong series honoring the departing ER, today’s entry focuses on the Season Six episode “All in the Family,” written by Jack Orman and directed by Joanthan Kaplan. Fans and non-fans might better know this as the one where the ER fights to save Carter and Lucy after a psych patient stabs them. The stabbing actually happened at the conclusion of the previous episode, and due to a loud Valentine’s Day party, none of the staff heard Carter scream for help from Curtain Area 3. (This scene also ensured I will never – EVER – hear the song “Battleflag” without flashing on Carter’s cries for help and Lucy’s hollow, horrified eyes so thanks for that, ER writers.)

Anyway, as the episode opens, Carter and Lucy have yet to be discovered, a detail the writers and the director utilize well for suspense. We as the viewers have access to information the characters don’t – the knowledge that their colleagues are bleeding to death nearby and every second counts. In a nice bit of directing, the show builds up to Dr. Weaver entering Curtain Area 3 and finding the bodies by staging her blocking outside CA3 in a long Stedicam take. Weaver ends up right outside the room, has a conversation with another physician, and then heads down the hall to tend to another patient. While talking to him, the camera swings around, keeping CA3’s access door in the background, reminding the audience – “They’re in here!” Circumstances force Weaver to head towards CA3 for equipment, but just as she’s about to enter, Dr. Chen stops her with a brief bit of business, delaying the discovery slightly longer.

Lesson – while sometimes you want to surprise your audience, this scene was much more intense due to the fact the viewers had one up on the characters.

From there, the entire first act is spent on the efforts in the ER to revive Carter and Lucy. This means lots of the ER medical technobabble, but the entire cast brings their A game and really sells the emotional intensity of the scene. I could list a dozen small moments that work and still not scratch the surface, so instead I’ll center on the big one – Dr. Peter Benton. We don’t see Benton learn what happened to Carter. He makes his first appearance sprinting down the steps, through the hall and barreling into the ER like a mountain lion ready to defend his cubs. In a flash he’s at his former student’s side, demanding “Is he conscious?!” It’s a great example of showing not telling. Not once in the episode is Benton given a dramatic monologue about what Carter means to him, or all the years they spent together, or all the things that he would regret no saying if Carter didn’t wake up. Eriq la Salle’s 100-yard dash sets all that up, and Peter’s actions throughout the episode reinforce that. It’s a good lesson in knowing when to trust the actors and the subtext of the scene and NOT write on-the-nose.

Later, Carter is being prepped for surgery. Conscious for the moment, he’s given the bullet on his condition and is clearly concerned. Looking at Benton, he says, “I’m glad it’s you.” Nothing more, nothing less. That’s all that needs to be said. Firmly, Benton assures him, “I’m getting you through this, man.” This is the sort of scene that could have easily been overwritten. Instead, the writer let the long history these men share fill in the subtext, and the actors knock it out of the park. It’s no surprise later when Peter refuses to leave his protégée’s bedside, to the point that he becomes frantic when Carter goes south and argues for the drastic solution of essentially cutting off the blood to one of Carter’s kidneys. Fortunately a senior doctor asserts his authority and overrides Benton.

Later, Benton is sent to deal with another surgical patient while the operation is still continuing on Carter. Assessing that that patient can keep until another surgeon is free, he immediately leaves to return to Carter’s side. Unfortunately, that patient goes south and Dr. Finch (a robotic Michael Michele – the only member of the cast not to rise to the occasion in this episode) has to do a drastic procedure to keep him alive until Benton can be brought back down. As the writing goes, it’s a bit of an anvil to demonstrate just how emotionally affected Benton is, but I guess it works as a wake-up call to the character. In any event, La Salle really sells his performance in this episode and his only weak moment comes later when Finch tells him of Lucy’s death. (And here I blame Michele for not giving him anything to play off of.)

If I may digress a bit, I know many will disagree, but I’d argue that La Salle’s departure in season eight was the one that fundamentally changed the show. The Carter/Benton relationship was perhaps the strongest one in all the series and Benton had interesting relationships with him, Corday and Romano. When he left, they were all poorer for it, having lost a great dramatic foil. A few weeks ago, all the fans were excited that the episode “Old Time” brought back George Clooney, but frankly, for me the real highlight was seeing Benton and Carter together again. I always thought La Salle was underrated and episodes like this just prove that.

Plus he had the coolest scene in the opening titles – that little karate punch. I’m kinda hoping the finale has a full credits sequence just so they can reprise that bit one more time.

Meanwhile, Lucy is rushed up to surgery and initially seems to be doing better. There’s a nice moment when Corday tells Lucy that the trac tube is keeping her from talking, but if she plugs it, Lucy will be able to whisper. Thus, Kelly Martin utters the first of her three lines in this episode: “Thank you.”

If that scene doesn’t make you a little misty, you’ve got a hard heart indeed.

Perhaps inevitably, Lucy takes a sudden turn for the worse and at this point, you’re likely to realize that it’s got to be horrifying to be able to hear your physicians detailing your vital signs and knowing exactly what all those numbers and multi-syllable words mean – “The patient is doomed.” What’s more, through Lucy’s reactions – an agonizingly mouthed “P.E.?” (Pulmonary embolism) – the audience gets their interpretation of those vitals too. This sequence ends up being Paul McCrane’s time to shine. His Dr. Romano is usually brusque, arrogant, egotistical and downright condescending. As he and Corday treat Lucy, that tough reserve cracks and – well, you see the result:

Lucy dies at the end of the third act, leaving the entire fourth act to show the characters reacting to the news. Eventually I’ll get around to writing a column about my beef with crying scenes, but this will be a preview. I read a lot of scripts where the writers go overboard, making their characters cry at the drop of a hat. Often it comes across as overwrought when a character breaks into tears. As both a writer and a viewer, I find it more haunting when a character doesn’t cry, or tries to hold back the tears rather than weep freely. Check out the reactions all the major characters have to the news of Lucy’s passing.

Less is more.

The last thing I’ll point out about this episode is the appropriate sprinkling of comic relief in the minor substory involving Dr. Greene and Dr. Corday taking their single parents on an unwilling double date. Act One opens with the parents aghast at their progeny’s horrible karaoke performances, and later the elders are stuck at the hospital while their children tend to their friends. The elder Greene tries to make conversation by saying the elder Corday raised a fine daughter, to which she says, “The boarding school did all the work.” Greene’s father responds with an embarrassed “Oh.” She says she’s teasing, and then when he asks, “Her father’s passed on,” she says with displeasure, “No. He was still alive the last I heard.” It’s a nice moment of levity in an otherwise very intense 44 minutes of TV.

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