One of the top medical dramas ever made, I started watching ER when I was a teenager and remained loyal to the show for 15 years until its demise, even when it lost its appeal to younger audiences and had turned into good, but not quite electrifying, entertainment for older viewers (ironically, this happened even though a younger cast replaced the original actors). I wasn’t the only one who stayed true to it; thanks to ER, George Clooney broke out of obscurity and became a movie star but wouldn’t make the mistake of leaving the show too early. He hung around for five seasons and then came back twice for special appearances. Clooney knew he owed his career to Michael Crichton’s creation.
Crichton came up with the story of young doctors working in a busy hospital emergency room some time in the 1970s, based on his own experiences as a resident. It took him twenty years and a little film called Jurassic Park (1993) to find the right moment and person to make something out of the idea; Steven Spielberg was interested in producing a drama series. The collaboration also brought writer John Wells to the show, who would go on to become its most valuable contributor over the years.
Realistic, bloody and edgy
The pilot set the style for what was to come; the original script was written for a movie and the episode was shot like one. Realistic, bloody and edgy with copious amounts of medical lingo; actual doctors in the audience were meant to think “this really is what an ER looks like”. Over the years, the show balanced gripping, human dramas in the hospital (involving both patients and staff) with the occasional spectacular accident taking place in Chicago, crises that took a toll on the doctors. The original cast consisted of Clooney as the pediatrician Doug Ross; wide-eyed intern John Carter (Noah Wyle); and ER residents Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) and Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield).
Those characters became the most memorable of the show. Clooney was loved by women who saw a caring, sexy but undisciplined doctor they longed to mold. Edwards was more of a regular guy. A figure of authority in the ER, he suffered through several ordeals; a series of episodes brilliantly portrayed Greene’s woes after being severely beaten, and his eventual demise to cancer was a heartbreaking highlight of the show.
From jumpy novice to seasoned doctor
ER was something I followed from my teens to my thirties; no wonder I found Carter easily relatable. Wyle played a character who went from being a jumpy novice to a seasoned ER doctor; to replacing Greene as a leader; to leaving the country on a humanitarian mission to Africa. Carter’s growth as a human being was inspirational and a highly emotional ingredient. He came from old money, but the challenges were plenty, not least when he was stabbed in the ER, nearly died, subsequently became addicted to painkillers… and years later still suffered the consequences in the shape of a busted kidney.
One of the most amusing characters on ER was Dr. Romano, played by Paul McCrane; a constant Scrooge on the show, the writers kept punishing him by first letting a helicopter slash one of the surgeon’s most priced assets, his left arm… and years later killed him off with the use of another chopper in what stands as the show’s most bizarre scene.
As cast members inevitably dropped off one by one, the series lost much of its grip. ER never really jumped the shark; it remained credible, offered touching stories in the emergency room, dealt with controversial subjects, had terrific guest actors as well as a sense of humor. But it stopped being must-see TV some time in the early 2000s.
ER 1994-2009:U.S. Made for TV. 331 episodes. Color. Created by Michael Crichton. Theme: James Newton Howard. Cast: Noah Wyle (John Carter 94-05), Goran Visnjic (Luka Kovac, 99-08), Anthony Edwards (Mark Greene, 94-02), Maura Tierney (00-08), Eriq LaSalle (94-01), George Clooney (94-99), Laura Innes (95-07), Sherry Stringfield (94-96, 01-05), Alex Kingston (97-04), Mekhi Phifer (02-09), Julianna Margulies (94-00), Parminder Nagra (03-09), Linda Cardellini (03-09), Scott Grimes (03-09), Ming-Na (95, 00-04), Gloria Reuben (95-99), Shane West (04-07), John Stamos (06-09), Paul McCrane (97-03), Michael Michele (99-01), Erik Palladino (99-01), Sharif Atkins (02-04), Kellie Martin (98-00), David Lyons (08-09).
Emmys: Outstanding Drama Series 95-96; Directing 94-95, 08-09; Writing 94-95; Supporting Actress (Margulies) 94-95; Guest Actress (Sally Field) 00-01; Guest Actor (Ray Liotta) 04-05. Golden Globe: Best Actor (Edwards) 98.
Last word: “‘ER’ was just a series of true episodes that actually happened to me, or that I witnessed in the ER when I was working there. Nothing more than that… just reporting. […] I think its success is due to the fact that it brought back a recognizable reality – a real workplace, real people, real issues – to dramatic television, which had increasingly over the years become Charley’s Angelized. I mean, ‘Dallas’ is fine, but that’s not all there is. So I think ‘ER’ was seen as fresh and closer to what people know to be true.” (Crichton, Doorly.com)