We'll miss the drama: 'ER' bids farewell
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Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT) - In 1994, a network drama about Chicago doctors struggling to save patients and salvage their personal lives, wheeled into a luxurious Thursday-night slot, prepped to take its place as one of TV's most popular destinations.
It was called "Chicago Hope."
David E. Kelley's highly anticipated series survived an honorable six seasons, earning seven Emmys along the way. But the show barely registers a blip compared with an eerily similar drama that debuted the same week.
"ER" has run for 15 years, chalking up 22 Emmys (eight in the first season alone) and catapulting George Clooney to superstar status. It elevated the pace, depth and rawness of the medical-drama genre, making past efforts like "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "Dr. Kildare" look like children playing doctor in the living room.
And now it's coming to a halt.
The series ends Thursday with a one-hour retrospective, followed by a two-hour finale. That's a long goodbye that could be as excruciating as sitting in a typical hospital waiting room. But recent episodes have been remarkably restrained. The writers have avoided tissue-box dramatics, and cameos by original cast members have been poignant, touching and smooth. (I applaud the producers for resisting the urge to shower Clooney with champagne and superimpose a halo around his head during his appearance earlier this month.)
It's also important to note that the staff at County General has logged 331 hours. The only dramas with longer runs: "Gunsmoke" and "Law & Order." At its peak, the show drew 40 million viewers, about double the audience of anything resembling a contemporary hit.
I spent last weekend watching episodes from the second season, the only year "ER" won the best-drama Emmy, trying to recall what made the show such an addictive treat way back when. While the show was crammed with actors, the focus remained squarely on six primary characters. (It would have been five, but Julianna Margulies' character, who supposedly died in the pilot episode, got a second life after she tested well in focus groups.)
These characters, particularly Anthony Edwards' Mark Greene and Eriq La Salle's Peter Benton, sidestepped stereotypes, giving us complex, charismatic, flesh-and-blood figures who were unpredictable and irresistibly watchable.
The dozens of performers who followed in their paths have served as little more than carbon copies and, with every rotation, their images have gotten dimmer and dimmer.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that the show has leaned more on melodramatic story lines, in-house hanky-panky and bizarre cases. It's also no surprise that the emphasis in the series' second half has been on guest stars _ Alan Alda! James Woods! Forest Whitaker! _ and not the take-'em-or-leave-'em regulars.
In an interview I did with Edwards just one month after the show's blockbuster debut, the actor accurately summed up the show's appeal.
"There's an expression in acting where you 'throw things away,'" he said. "I think ('ER' creator Michael Crichton's desire from the beginning was to throw things away more: not to over-sentimentalize things. In doing so, it shows you respect the audience enough not to insult them by bombarding them with emotions. They get the choice to react the way they want to."
Crichton passed away last year, but that philosophy died seasons ago, about the same time Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) was stabbed to death by a schizophrenic, next to her would-be lover, John Carter (utility player Noah Wyle), in a scene straight out of "Dallas."
There are other reasons to criticize "ER," including the fact that Asians were woefully underrepresented on its cast. That won't stop me from spending all three hours this Thursday in the "ER" zone and, yes, I'll probably even shed a few tears _ but not because I'll miss the current staff. With Jay Leno taking over the network's final prime-time hour in the fall, the chance of another grown-up drama on NBC has fallen sharply. That's reason enough to get the sniffles.
'ER' BY THE NUMBERS
Here are some stats to chew on that reflect the drama's longevity, from Season One through the beginning of Season 15:
_1,250: Trauma patients who have been treated.
_750: Patients arriving by ambulance.
_180: Gallons of fake blood.
_23: Resident doctors.
_8: Chiefs of staff.
_10: Desk clerks.
_450: X-rays ordered.
_160: Chest tubes.
_130,000: Sets of hospital scrubs.
_447,000: Latex gloves.
_8: Oscar winners (George Clooney, Ernest Borgnine, Marlee Matlin, Red Buttons, Sally Field, Forest Whitaker, Susan Sarandon, Louis Gossett Jr.)
Neal Justin: email@example.com
© 2009, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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