Even though it premiered in the fall of 1994, I didn't start watching ER until the summer of 2000; that was the first time I had what could approximately be called a "real job" and I arrived home every day at 5:35 in the afternoon, changed my clothes and caught the 6 pm rerun on TNT before meeting my friends for dinner and whatever else was planned. By the time I returned to college that fall for my junior year, I was transfixed. Actually, I was obsessed.
I decided at some point that I was going to use ER to combine my majors, philosophy and English, and eventually make my senior project out of this connection. (Senior project being my school's name for a non-required thesis.) In preparation for that, I spent a large majority of my junior year watching, taping and making detailed notes on every episode. Those were still the days when TNT ran episodes at 9 and 10 in the morning as well as 6 in the afternoon. I reshuffled my schedule to make it work and woke up every morning at 8:50 am so that I could get myself ready to watch the episodes and take notes; serendipitously, TNT ran the series from the beginning that fall in the morning time-slot. Along with the new episode on NBC each week, I was watching and recording sixteen episodes a week and by the beginning of my senior year, I had nearly every episode recorded chronologically and without commercials on something like thirteen VHS tapes. I still have the tapes, though I haven't had a VCR hooked up in two years.
Obviously this isn't normal behavior, as I said, I was obsessed. Nothing caused me to miss an episode, not over-sleeping, not Friday afternoon Quarter Beers on my school's main bowl. I would excuse myself at 5:45 on those days, and while my friends did what they did, I taped the show and made careful notes in the specific notebook that was dedicated to the show. It's a little hard to say at this point what it was that drew me in so decisively; what was the thing that I saw in those early experiences that made me think there was something there for me, intellectually and fanatically? It's tough to say especially as now it has become something wholly foreign to me; before last night, I'd watched only three episodes in the last six years: two previous episodes from this season which included former cast members returning and whatever episode it was that made me decide to stop watching. I have absolutely no recollection of what that one may have been or what made it so different from what had come before.
And what had come before it was surely great. ER worked on so many levels that it was absolutely impossible to ignore the power of the early seasons, and it was this multi-layering that made the time I devoted to it worthwhile. This was as well what gave me something to write about. Many of these elements sucked you in: the rapid-fire medicalese that was spouted without exposition or explanation, the unbelievably long Steadicam shots that moved in and out of trauma rooms, around gurneys, under various medical equipment and came back to their start without a cut, the millions of actors incorporated into those shots throughout the show's run whose presence gave the show both a realism and a closeness that was hypnotic, the short arcs that worked so well. It's hard sitting here to sift through some of it, various plots wash over me as I try to keep this organized. And even though I keep cycling through the moments that were so affecting, it's the show's larger ethos that is truly what made it great and eventually lead to its downfall.
What made ER so great, simply, was that it was the antagonist who always made the ethical decision. As much as we rooted for Doug Ross, Carol Hathaway and Mark Greene, they rarely made the ethical choice; much more often it was the show's antagonists who were the voice of ethical and moral reason, Peter Benton first, then Kerry Weaver and later Robert Romano. Doug Ross is of course the epitome of this. His penchant for "rule breaking" is really about doing what he wants to do, what he perceives as the best line of action, and while this seems like a most admirable trait, what he doesn't ever do is look at a scope wider than the case in front of him. He breaks into clinical trials and misrepresents his patients' afflictions to get them treatment to the detriment of other patients. He ignores legal documents like DNR's and power of attorney, he pushes his own view of the situation onto unsure family members and gullible patients. This is what lead to his dismissal from County General, he ignores various legal documents and aids a mother in euthanizing her son. And even though not every episode (obviously) has examples as strong as this one, his time on the show is littered with these sorts of moral indiscretions. This sort of behavior is exhibited by other heroes of the show: Greene won't shock a suspected murderer shot by cops when alone with him in the hospital's elevator, Carter decides to auto-infuse an alleged rapist in Season 4 ("Carter's Choice"), deciding to pump his own blood back into his body instead of taking from the blood bank. Even Elizabeth Corday allows a medical manufacturing company to take the blame for a mistake she made while performing surgery in record time and paralyzing a patient (Season 7's "Rock, Paper, Scissors").
When we talk about great television shows, what we're really talking about is our ability to connect with the characters on them, and there is nothing that better connects us to fake people than their flaws. When we see their weaknesses, their shortcomings, their struggles, we're able to assign to them motive, especially in this case, the motive to do good and help people. ER, and the characters central to the early seasons, epitomized this connection because we didn't just see faults in their love lives or their relationships with their families or even excessive drinking, though we did see all those things. What made it so easy to connect to these characters was that their faults made us question that motive even as it reinforced it. We have no doubt at any time that Greene, for example, wants to save the mother in Season 1's "Love's Labour Lost," and we know how much it kills him to have killed her; when he rides the El home at dawn and weeps, it is one of the show's most powerful moments. But, we end up doubting something about his philosophy and about his character and it is this doubt in the face of so much admiration that makes you come back each week.
This is also what eventually lead to the show becoming stale and overly cyclical. After several years of watching the antagonist be right, eventually we start rooting for them. It's no coincidence that the episode after George Clooney's Season 5 departure is the episode that makes a hero out of Peter Benton ("Middle of Nowhere"). Once Benton is made protagonist, the show brings in Kerry Weaver who takes over his old role of moral relativist. And later on, once she has become a protagonist (mostly), we get Robert Romano. Eventually, the student-teacher dynamic and moral complexity of rooting for the unethical tact becomes tiresome and the show devolved into something much less compelling. It never totally lost the presence of the medical aspect, never made the hospital entirely just a backdrop for the ups and downs of the characters' personal lives, but it lost what had made it so fresh. On a certain level, this why the show went through its own post-Greene cycles: the seasons that were obsessed with AA and addiction (Carter and Lockhart) and later on the seasons that were largely pre-occupied with an approximation of Doctors without Borders (Carter and Kovac, even Weaver got in on the action).
I spent a lot of time when working on my ER project thinking about what it means to act in a moral way when so much is on the line, about as much time as the show thinks about it. In many ways, the entire run of ER is really about the struggle for the soul of John Carter. When he first enters the pilot, he is a naive and bumbling med student assigned to Benton, who basically beats the hell out of him. At the end of the pilot, Carter is propped up by Greene and the show lays out the two philosophies of medicine that Carter for years is torn between, each embodied by one of his mentors. The education of Carter was the show's true through-line and it was a good one. As a new entity in the ER and medicine in general, Carter was the perfect character to experience this world through the eyes of. The show should probably have ended when Noah Wyle stopped being the star, but I take it that he had as much reluctance about leaving the show as his character had about leaving County, as was made clear in the finale. (Quick sidebar: if you found that brief summation of my take on the ethical ehtos of ER hasty, remember that it's a condensing into four paragaphs what was once sixty pages written over the course of several months.)
The show should have ended after the death of Mark Greene, with Carter having made his decision to stay in emergency medicine, and running the department with the knowledge and morality that he had gleaned through his years of tutelage under both Greene and Benton. But, of course that didn't happen. Instead, it went on for years and years. They brought in Parminder Nagra fresh off the success of Bend It Like Beckham. I don't have anything against Nagra, she's very nice to look at and perfectly charming, but snagging her in the wake of that film to me seems a little like coming out of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and casting Alex Winter in something. They brought in John Stamos at some point to attempt to impersonate Clooney, his character even dates a nurse. Somewhere along the way, Angela Bassett got mixed up in all this. And instead of ending after nine seasons of tight and affecting television, ER just kept plugging along.
Until last night, obviously.
What I found so interesting about last night's finale was that it truly was like deja vu. The finale had the same 24 hour structure as the pilot, it included (as obvious homage) a redux of the 'waking up the attending' scene. The Ernest Borgnine plot line was nearly identical to the Red Buttons plot line from the beginning of the second season. The death of a new mother recalled that "Love's Labour Lost" episode noted above, only this time without the complicated moral and emotional issues. But, I kind of loved it. It was so deeply nostalgic that I didn't feel betrayed by the way it went out. Right from the beginning, the intention was to play off the nostalgia, why else would they bring back the title theme and credit sequence that had been excised at some point? From the moment I heard those first few bars, it was all clear, what John Wells was doing with this finale and that in the end, he does know what he's doing. By highlighting the major emotional crux of the show, parents and children and letting go, he ended up doing alright. That's why you don't have to really know the backstory of the Borgnine character or of Stamos and Cardellini's characters to be affected by the shot of Borgnine laying on the gurney with his recently deceased wife; it recalls something so basically inherent to the show that the lives of the characters are less important than the truth of the moment, and all the moments like it that it references. There's probably no other way to end this show than at the beginning, since so much of it is about doing the shift and then coming back the next day, that life keeps going no matter what. I imagine for many people who loved the show, those doctors will always be seeing patients at County.
Of course, I was much more stirred by the hour-long retrospective that ran before the finale, not that I was at all surprised by this. Thinking again about those little things in the early seasons that made the show so great, to listen to Eriq La Salle, Julianna Marguiles, Noah Wyle and Anthony Edwards talk about what it meant for them and what it was like to live through it was rather touching. (Hard not to notice the absence of Clooney, though I imagine that was to be expected.) Of course, it also recalled the moments that I constantly remember: the death (possible suicide) of surgical intern Dennis Gant in Season 3 ("Night Shift"), Div Cvetic's descent into madness in Season 1 ("The Gift"), the list is endless. The retrospective also made blatantly clear that it was the first six or eight seasons of the show that really mattered, probably eight since that season saw the death of Mark Greene. I found this both reassuring and pretty depressing.
It's depressing because it means that ER so obviously lost its greatness years ago but not its time-slot. Typical of American television, the show was meant to extend forever and without a plan to close it out and thus an amount of time to let a viable story play out in, it's tough to expect the writers to keep coming up with compelling material that works in a larger narrative after the fourteenth season. It's the nature of the way our television industry has chosen to operate, shows must be instant successes and if they are, they usually languish on the air long after they've become shells of themselves. Just look at ABC, Desperate Housewives is still on after having lost relevance completely and Life On Mars gets canned after one season; it makes absolutely no sense. During ER's life, NBC went from having a slate of "must see" shows to giving up four hours of primetime a week to Jay Leno. This move is possibly the end of scripted, serious drama on NBC. Friday Night Lights had to be saved by DirecTV (thankfully), and something tells me that Kings isn't going to make it. We'll see how Southland fares. Indeed, the entire landscape of television changed during ER's run, the advent of reality television, the explosion of HBO and other cable venues making smart, intensely interesting shows changed everything. We've also got a lot more options now, but even so, it's unlikely that we'll ever see a drama pull in the forty-five million viewers each week that ER peaked at.
This wasn't the first show that I've felt close to, it also wasn't the first finale that was deeply affecting. I love television and consider myself a student of the medium, I watch the pilot of every new show just because. In my adult life, I've thought about it more critically than most people who aren't paid to do so, and ER was the beginning of that for me. No matter how long it had been since I'd watched a minute of it, the act of studying it so intensely for two years (and watching for two more) meant that it was rarely far from my thoughts, so it's hard not to be nostalgic now that it's been over for a few hours. I've spent so much time watching it, thinking about and boring people with my thoughts on it and I feel the loss intensely right now. I felt similarly when Seinfeld ended, except I still watch the reruns and I own all the seasons on DVD and often spend rainy Saturdays watching episode after episode, which is to say it's not gone in a permanent way. ER was even more a part of my life and consciousness than Seinfeld was, which is crazy considering I'm a Jewish guy who grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, not one friend has been spared my pontificating about the show, and even when I stopped watching it, I've been unable to resist telling the story of writing my "thesis" about ER to newer friends. It's basically standard material for me, and because of that, I've really never stopped thinking about the show. It literally has consummed me for years, it was the definitive element of my collegiate experience, it has occupied more brain power and idle thought time than my favorite sports team. But I don't own a single season of ER on DVD. And I'm sure I'll never watch an airing again. It's time to let go.
Come on, Eldrick.