Earlier this week Slate put out a desperate call to its readers:
Over the last three months, we in the magazine’s culture department have been trying to prepare the perfect eulogy for ER, the medical drama whose finale airs Thursday. We have approached both staff writers and a series of reliable correspondents, inviting them to weigh in on the final episode and the legacy of the drama’s 15-year run. No one wanted the assignment.
The Web site—I mean, magazine—was forced to ask its readers, posing the question to them, “Why do you still watch this show? What is it that has kept you coming back to County General season after season?”
When even one of the best Web sites (I mean, magazines—sorry!) on the Internet is forced to seek out citizen critics (seriously, what is this, the Huffington Post?), it’s time for a deeply ambivalent but steadfast ER fan to scrub in and offer some heroic measures to save this ailing show’s legacy while—lump in throat—disconnecting it from life support.
It’s not easy for me to admit that I still tune to ER each week. Or that my DVR is set to record it. Or that once in a while I watch it on Hulu. And, it’s especially difficult to admit that while I was living in China in 2007, I relied on several Bit Torrent sites to download new episodes. (Hey, it was China: Bootlegging TV shows and movies was practically a requirement of computer ownership.)
But admit it, I must, even in a world where it’s not only acceptable for people over 14 to watch The Hills or Gossip Girl, but in which several dozen writers and bloggers pushing 30 (and beyond) earn their page-view bonuses by rhapsodizing about Serena, Blair, Spencer, Heidi and the other stars of these ethnographic studies of the decline of Western Civilization as if they’re anything more than paper dolls animated by tiny bursts of compressed air.
And yet I and 10.4 million others (according to last week’s Nielsen ratings) are stigmatized for tucking into a solidly crafted, consistently well-acted, A-list-guest-star-packed series that’s been on the air 15 years. As recently as a month ago, I had a dinner guest over who caught a glimpse of my DVR menu and mocked me for having several weeks’ worth of ERs recorded. Had I not been so tongue-tied with embarrassment, I might’ve said to her what I’m saying to the whole world right now: 10,400,000 ER fans can’t be wrong! (But 11.1 million Two and Half Men fans are. I know, it’s weird, right?)
Here’s why I still admire ER:
It’s the only show on television about making tough calls and living with the consequences. When the doctors on ER decide to, say, intubate—long-time viewers know they intubate a lot—they’ve got to carefully weigh the risk of damage to the patient’s throat or if loss of speech will result in the patient not revealing a serious drug allergy. Sometimes they get it right and it’s doughnuts for all from the convenience store across the street; sometimes the patient dies and it’s time for a serious, teary discussion with the next of kin.
It’s the realest depiction of working life on television. If The West Wing (also a John Wells-executive produced series like ER) was the fantasy of the workplace as perfect gemeinschaft full of Algonquin roundtable-ready wits and Nobel-level brains, and The Office is Studs Terkel’s Working re-imagined as a comedy, ER is the only show that captures the fluid nature of office politics, the way today’s annoyingly ambitious intern can become tomorrow’s wizened elder statesman. (Paging, Dr. Archie Morris.) Over the years, even the sloppiest, cockiest attending can grow into a compassionate, capable doctor with the right experience and some good mentorship. (R.I.P., Dr. Gregory Pratt.)
Furthermore, despite the fact the show’s love triangles (and occasional dodecahedrons) made up the weakest plot lines, the reality of colleagues accidentally falling into bed with one another (especially after 20-hour shifts) and having to deal with the awkwardness makes even the most cringe-worthy episode of The Office seem like easy viewing.
It reminds you that life is full of ‘secondary characters’ who deserve our respect. I’d be hard pressed to name any of the nurses or the big white guys who work the desk on ER, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important parts of the show. Far from relegating these figures to the roles of glorified extras, ER has kept the same nurses, allowing them to act as the show’s institutional memory as the prettier, younger (and, let’s be frank, better-paid) leads have rotated in and out over the last 15 years. This fact was driven home beautifully this season as Nurse Haleh Adams (played by the wonderful, empathic Yvette Freeman since the show’s debut) has taken departing staffers down to the basement of County General where she had them stick their locker nameplates on a makeshift wall of fame where other departed, beloved characters’ tags reside. So, to Nurse Chuny Marquez (Laura Cerón), Nurse Malik McGrath (Deezer D), Nurse Yosh Takata (Gedde Watanabe), and receptionists Jerry Markovic (Abraham Benrubi) and Frank Martin (Troy Evans), thanks for your hard work and support.
It’s a show where TV lifers could be born again. Its most famous alum might be the onetime handyman from Facts of Life who rather famously failed to get 15 pilots picked up before he landed on ER, but George Clooney is just one of the many journeymen actors who found his groove in the show’s ensemble cast. Sara Gilbert, who played Rosanne Barr’s sarcastic younger daughter on Roseanne, also put in a few rounds on the show. So did Freaks and Geeks‘ Busy Philipps, Life Goes On‘s Kellie Martin, and Twin Peaks‘ Mädchen Amick. But perhaps the best ER-assisted professional 180 was performed by Paul McCrane, who was best known (if he was known at all) as the befro’d redhead who sang “I Sing the Body Electric” in Fame.
Speaking of George Clooney, I’ll miss his signature nod of gravitas. If, as Sharon Waxman reported in her 2005 book Rebels on the Backlot, Three Kings director David O. Russell objected to George Clooney’s acting on ER as consisting mostly of “a lot of head-bobbing and mugging,” he was right in fact, wrong in interpretation. As software developers are fond of saying, Mr. Clooney’s Signature Nod of Gravitas was a feature, not a bug. How else can a heroic but flawed TV doctor signal his decency and kindness than a well-placed (and well-paced) nod of his head?
Most of all, I’ll miss Maura Tierney’s face. I can think of no actress on television who can mix the same amounts of intelligence, compassion, snippiness, and weariness in quite the same way as Ms. Tierney. When her Abby Lockhart spiraled into a bender last season (aided in no small part by Stanley Tucci‘s Dr. Kevin Moretti), it wasn’t that it felt “so real” (because, frankly, I’m not so deluded as to think a character on a television show is a real person), but that it befell a character I like and respect. When she turned it around and reunited with her fiancé, Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic), their relationship felt hard-won and yet still very fragile. Show me anything on Gossip Girl that nuanced, that real, and I’ll eat my hat. (That said, if Ms. Tierney guests on Gossip Girl—or The Hills—I’ll tune in.)
Of course, there are things I won’t miss about ER, like the stunt episode directed by Quentin Tarantino in 1995, those over-the-top season finales with crashing helicopters and tanks, all those babies covered in fake afterbirth who look like Peter Venkman post-sliming in Ghostbusters (who are these awful stage parents willing to put their newborns on TV?), and that annoying Australian actor whose eyes well up with glycerin tears every time a child is in danger. But these are small complaints, trifles really compared to what I’ve liked—and still like—about the show, and, damnit, I refuse to be embarrassed anymore. So what if Slate has to undermine its entire editorial model to find someone who will cop to watching ER? I’m here to tell you, I watch ER and I’m not ashamed. (And I vote!)
Tonight, I’ll be tuning in to see how it’ll all end. Will John Stamos‘ Dr. Tony Gates finally settle down with Linda Cardellini‘s Nurse Samantha Taggart? Will Angela Bassett‘s Dr. Cate Banfield get to adopt that abandoned baby? I won’t be alone, as I suspect a few million of my fellow ER viewers and some looky-loos will be tuning in. It might not be the 105.9 million viewers who tuned in to the finale of M.A.S.H., but the culture—and the country—has fractured a lot since 1983.
You know who can help with a fracture? A good ER doctor. I even know where you can find one.
Follow Matt Haber via RSS.