Wednesday, July 5, 2017

16 Great TV Shows, Part 6: ER

Part 1: The Wonder Years
Part 2: The Simpsons
Part 3: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Part 4: Seinfeld
Part 5: The John Larroquette Show

I've searched my memory as best I can and it appears that ER is the first true one-hour drama that I watched regularly (so long as you exclude the Star Trek shows.) I came to the show somewhere in the middle of its first season, after it had already cemented its place as the number 1 drama on TV and one of the most buzzed about series. It's another point in my history where I can firmly mark my changing tastes, as ER proved to be the gateway drug into further dramas like Law & Order and Homicide: Life on the Street.

I've written several posts on ER already, which I'll link at the end of the article. In the interests of not repeating myself, today I'll focus on what initially got me into the show and kept me watching all the way until the end. (The first four years are the best, season 5 is a major step down, but it gets its mojo back in season 6 and mostly sustains quality until Anthony Edwards departs in Season 8. After that, it became a steadily declining show for me, but it recovered immensely in season 15, which stands with the best of the run.)

I had no interest in medicine, so I didn't think a show about a hospital had anything to offer me, not even one created by Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton. Stupid me, good characters can be found ANYWHERE. That's a pretty basic lesson, but as a 14 year-old I was still learning the distinction between where a show was set and what it was about. I didn't need to understand emergency room procedures or surgery in order to be drawn into how the day to day life affected the characters. Best as I can recall, the first character I was really drawn to was Eriq La Salle's Peter Benton. Between him and Homicide's Pembleton, I wonder what it says about my high school years that I identified with the guy who stands apart from the flock and often acts like he's suffering fools on a regular basis.

I've been beating this drum in earlier posts but pace also played a role here. If you watch the ER pilot now, it feels almost sedate, but at the time it seemed to race from scene-to-scene. TV was becoming more cinematic on every level, writing, directing and acting. I sometimes wonder if the most significant development to happen to TV in the 90s was the prevalence of Stedicams. Being able to race alongside the actors for longer takes completely changed the staging and urgency of scenes, and encouraged a more natural performance style. It really help translate the urgency of an emergency room to the screen in a way that wouldn't have been feasible just a few years earlier.

This was where I also started noticing how the writers would relate what was going on in a character's medical cases to what was happening in their personal lives. Sometimes it would be subtle, other times it'd land with the conspicuousness of an anvil. Either way, it was generally deeper writing than I was used to seeing, particularly when a story arc stretched over several episodes and it only gradually became clear how an experience was meant to change, say, Carter.

Another lesson - the audience is smarter than you give them credit for. The show rarely stopped mid-trauma to translate the obtuse medical-babble, and in doing so, it revealed how much can be gleaned from context and inflection. If Dr. Greene went from being a soothing voice of calm to an urgent, clipped tone, we knew whatever he'd just seen on the read-out was grim. If he gives an order and two med students look up in disbelief, we know that he's going out on a limb. The dialogue is speaking the language of the medical professional but the performers are speaking the language of drama. How you build a scene is just as important as what the scene's about.

My "I didn't know they could do that!" moment was when the show's writers would build one of the episode's major plots around a critical patient we got to know and like... and then kill them. In the era of Peak TV, this is a lot less novel, but back then, medical shows didn't regularly kill off the patients we cared for. They might be put in jeopardy, but one way or another they'd pull through. Equally unusual was when we WOULDN'T find out the result of a critical trauma case. (The Season Four finale is a good example of this, with an entire family's life hanging in the balance as we fade to black with their fates forever unresolved.) Basically, ER showed me it was safe to not wrap everything up in a neat little bow, even if it had its own way of playing safe.

There are a great many 90s dramas that should be required viewing for writers who haven't been exposed to them. Shows like ER were a critical evolutionary step on the way to the darker, morally ambiguous cable dramas of the 21st century.

Other Posts:

A Look at the ER pilot - Part 1
A Look at the ER pilot - Part 2
A Look at the ER pilot - Part 3
A look at the episode where Carter and Lucy get stabbed

1 comment:

  1. My problem with ER was dramatis interruptis. They'd take personal conflicts to a breaking point and then interrupt them with a bleeder. And then, after everything had settled down, the personal conflict had simmered down as well with characters apologizing or reaching some truth.

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