• Post category:Television
  • Post last modified:October 11, 2020

St. Elsewhere: Denzel’s Doctor Days

stelsewhereI first discovered this show a few years ago when I was in college and had time to delve into the networks’ daytime line up. For a number of months, one episode a day was aired and I caught most of them, getting ever more excited about the show. Never a huge hit on NBC in the 1980s, a key demographic still understood its brilliance and that was reason enough for the network to hold onto it for six years.

A staff that beat the odds
Produced by the same company that brought us¬†Hill Street Blues, the show had the same gritty style and look. The hospital, St. Eligius in Boston, was referred to as ‚ÄúSt Elsewhere‚ÄĚ by doctors who worked at the city‚Äôs better-equipped hospitals. St. Eligius did not have much except for a dedicated staff that always beat the odds.

The memorable cast included Ed Flanders as the paternal chief of staff, William Daniels as Craig, a rude but brilliant surgeon, and Norman Lloyd as the friendly Daniel Auschlander who spent much of the series trying to heal his own cancer. Several young actors got their breakthrough here, including Ed Begley, Jr. as the hopelessly insensitive Ehrlich, David Morse as the sympathetic Morrison whose wife died tragically, Howie Mandel as the fun-loving ER resident Fiscus, and of course Denzel Washington as Chandler who could barely stand being a successful black man when so many others led miserable lives in the projects. There were plenty of familiar faces; Mark Harmon played an attractive doctor for a few years before his character contracted AIDS and departed. We should forgive the heavy-handed approach; it was unusual seeing a TV show deal with the disease at that time. 

St. Elsewhere was a bit confusing at first; the cast was large and getting to know the characters took a while. Once you did though, it was easy to get attached to them and the show only improved after the first season. It was always ambitious, aiming at being credible, but the writers soon started experimenting with the storylines and ended up with something that was often funny, quirky and moving, with plenty of inside jokes. There was even an episode where some of the doctors visited Cheers, a certain bar in Boston run by former baseball star Sam Malone…

Never boring or uninteresting
There were spectacular moments as well, such as that time when one of the doctors (Terence Knox) was exposed as a rapist and shot dead by a nurse. Credibility may have suffered, but the show never became boring or uninteresting. In the final season, a huge corporation took over the hospital; the quality of the show was declining, but that change gave the writers an opportunity to examine the financial realities of a hospital being swallowed by a company that forces it to think about the bottom line first and the patients second. The matter of universal health care coverage was always prominent as well, considering what kind of patients St. Eligius had.

Still, it was the characters and the actors who made all the difference. Daniels was my favorite; he knew how to play a superior swine, but also how to make Dr. Craig a complex human being. Let’s not forget to mention Dave Grusin’s electronic music theme; it is positively infectious.

The final episode became one of the most famous in television history. In the very last sequence, we learned that the entire show was a figment of the imagination of Dr. Westphall’s autistic son. A cop-out, you might say now, but it was pretty damned sensational at the time. And completely in style with some of the crazier moments in previous episodes.

St. Elsewhere 1982-1988:U.S. Made for TV. 137 episodes. Color. Created by Joshua Brand, John Falsey. Theme: Dave Grusin. Cast: Ed Flanders (Donald Westphall), William Daniels (Mark Craig), Norman Lloyd (Daniel Auschlander), Ed Begley, Jr., David Morse, Howie Mandel, Denzel Washington, Christina Pickles, Bonnie Bartlett, Ronny Cox (87-88), Cynthia Sikes (82-85), Terence Knox (82-85), Eric Laneuville, Mark Harmon (83-86), Stephen Furst (83-88), Bruce Greenwood (86-88), Ellen Bry (82-85), Sagan Lewis (83-88), Cindy Pickett (86-88), France Nuyen (86-88), David Birney (82-83).

Emmys: Outstanding Directing 87-88; Writing 83-84, 85-86; Actor (Flanders) 82-83, (Daniels) 84-85, 85-86; Supporting Actress (Bartlett) 85-86, 86-87; Guest Actor (James Coco) 82-83; Guest Actress (Doris Roberts) 82-83.

Last word: “We were in a hospital here in the midst of ‚ÄėSt. Elsewhere‚Äô and the doctor came into the room that wasn‚Äôt our doctor when my wife was in labor and I guess he just wanted to meet people because they loved the show and it represented him. He didn‚Äôt want to say that he was just a fan, so he checked how much my wife was dilating.‚ÄĚ (Mandel, ABC News)

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  1. Kathleen Serrano

    I loved the show. I first started watching it because David Birney was in it (and what I saw of him in it, God was he good and soooooo danged cute!) I kept watching it even after he left (which they never explained and that really ticked me off) because the show was that good (and okay, Mark Harmon was really cute too!) right up to the end, but that ending has always bothered me. My younger brother is severely mentally disabled. He is severely autistic and severely mentally retarded. On the one hand, the ending shows what I and many people who have relatives who have severe autism (or other severe mental disabilities) believe: there is so much more going on in their heads that we do not have a clue about. However, dramatically, at least for me, the ending just does not work.

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