Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ER Week - Day 3

Continuing our tour of the ER pilot, now let’s take a look at some of the smaller moments in the script, starting with Nurse Hathaway’s arrival in the hospital after her suicide attempt. I’ve always found this development in the script interesting because there’s virtually no foreshadowing at all. Early in the second half of the pilot, Hathaway is brought in after an overdose, and the staff is as blindsided as we are. There are no hints in the first half of the script – no warning signs, no cries for help. The only thing that might qualify is the mention of a breakup with Dr. Ross, but that’s clearly in the past because she’s already engaged to another man.

I can see some readers/viewers complaining because there is no setup for this development, but it works mostly because Hathaway has been a background character in the rest of the episode. We’re aware of her, but we’re not focusing on her. She doesn’t draw any undue attention, which is as it should be. A scene showing her slip away with some barbiturates, or a small moment showing her leaving work and meaningfully looking at everyone as if it was the last time she’d ever be there would totally tip the script’s hand. Hathaway’s suicide attempt is important largely because of how it affects the other characters – not what it reveals about her character. In that context it’s best that it’s a total surprise.

There are some well-written bits of dialogue that could have just been throwaways, but Crichton makes them meaningful. One nurse asks Hathaway’s roommate why she did it, and Greene cuts her off, saying that they don’t as that question about any other OD that comes into the ER and they’re not going to ask it about Hathaway. Our first indication that it’s grim for Hathaway comes in this exchange:

LEWIS: Her serum-barb is 45.
GREENE (alarmed): Is that a mistake?
LEWIS: I repeated twice.

Context is everything. The average viewer probably won’t know what a serum-barb is, or what a level of 45 means, but Greene’s reaction tells us. Whatever it is, it isn’t good, and it must be REALLY bad because Lewis ran the test three times before reporting it as official. And for the slow kids in the audience, Greene has a conversation with the ER Chief, who asks, “Should we be trying any of this?” As soon as Greene gives him the facts, the Chief starts speaking of Hathaway in the past tense. The message to the audience is clear – it’s hopeless.

Now, here’s a case where the writer’s intent ends up being altered by external factors. Hathaway was supposed to die and I’ve seen several articles and interviews where medical professionals have confirmed that people don’t come back from a diagnosis as presented here. However, Juliana Margulies’s portrayal of Hathaway proved to be popular with focus groups, and so when the show went to series, Hathaway miraculously recovered. The pilot ends with her fate up in the air, but in Crichton’s original vision, the audience was intended to infer she would die.

Also, another nice touch is the use of weather to remind the audience how much time is passing. Characters continuously remark with surprise, “When did it start snowing?” Eventually this turns to noting that the snow has turned into rain, and then later, a mention that the rain has stopped. It’s a small runner, but a notable one.

And a few final bits of trivia several actors in the pilot go on to play other parts later in the series and a few actors became much more famous later. Shiri Appleby has two short scenes as a teenager diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy. She would later star in the WB’s Roswell and return to the show as a med student this past season. Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles star Thomas Dekkar has a small scene as a boy who has eaten his mothers house keys. Troy Evans – who would later play desk clerk Frank is Carter’s first IV patient – a cop who is admitted after a domestic dispute with his wife.

Finally, two of Dr. Greene’s patients – the over-dramatic Mrs. Raskin (Julianna McCarthy) and Al Raskin (Paul Benjamin) – will return during Dr. Greene’s last day on the job in season 8’s “Orion in the Sky.”

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