Around the same time as Boris was telling the nation, you must stay at home, I for reason, decided to finally binge US medical drama ER. It’s not quite as a left-field of a choice as it may appear. My podcast colleague Matt had spoken about his love of the show on many occasions and when the show arrived on HULU in the US, all the television critics I follow and admire had only ever intended to rewatch the pilot and ended up rediscovering its magic and started writing long think pieces as if they’d stumbled across a series that no one else was watching. In actual fact, it had finished in 2009.
I had dismissed it because of the over the top trailers I’d seen for it during the ads breaks of NBC’s other 90s’ hit Friends. These ads had painted it as the sort of drama I still don’t really like. Melodramatic, silly with over the top stunts. When I started hearing Matt and other critics I’d come to trust talk about the series so affectionately, I wanted to reevaluate the show. Luckily, I got my chance when, somewhat out of the blue, the series landed, in its entirety, on All4. That coupled with a difficult national lockdown, gave me the chance to sit down with it properly.
The first thing that struck me about ER (which was created by novelist Michael Crichton and turned into the TV obsession it became by veteran writer John Wells) even in its pilot episode, is how frantic it is. The genius of placing a show in a hospital’s ER (Emergency Room) is that the pace of an episode can shift as soon as the next stretcher comes bursting through the doors. Whilst, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, which started five years after ER on the same network, gets a lot of plaudits for its use of ‘the walk and talk,’ I’d make the argument that ER did it first.
When a new emergency comes in, the doctors race through the waiting area, into the operating theatre. People rushing to be in the right places, shouting orders to each other, using medical jargon that the script doesn’t have time to explain to us. The camerawork is complicated and choreographed, moving in and around the operating theatre, up and over patients, into spaces that doctors used to occupy. If you stop to think about it, you might realize how little logical sense it makes, but it captures the emotion of a tense hospital, where life and death stakes are the norms. While these moments do feel heightened and ramped up, it’s impossible not to be swept away by them.
At the heart of the show is the core cast. Anthony Edwards as ER Head Mark Greene who is struggling the pressures of his job and balancing that with his wife and young daughter. Julianna Margulies’s Nurse Carol Hathaway who comes into the ER as a patient having tried to commit suicide. Noah Wyle, as wide-eyed medical student John Carter. Carter is the audience proxy, he’s thrust into the world of County General Hospital as a trainee and is as confused, disoriented and mesmerized as the audience. Wyle does a superb job at making Carter feel real and down to earth, portraying his willingness to learn and eagerness to succeed. Pairing him with gruff, no-nonsense surgeon Doctor Benton (Eriq La Salle) is perhaps the first of the show’s strokes of genius. That’s not forgetting George Clooney as charismatic, womanizing paediatrician Doug Ross. The core team gel so well and feel are so solid as a group, that it’s a pleasure to get to know them.
The first truly great episode of the first season is an episode entitled, Love’s Labor Lost. The episode seemed routine in its ordinariness at the start, but by the end, it was both epic and intimate and was the first truly devasting episode of the series.
After Dr Greene misdiagnoses a pregnant woman’s pre-eclampsia as a minor bladder infection, he is determined to see the case through while short-staffed. Things soon escalate from a series of retrospective errors, and the mother dies following a crash C-section. The episode focused on one character. The deeply moving and harrowing episode served as a solemn reminder that doctors, while heroic, are not indomitable gods and that the fragility and unpredictability of life don’t always immediately tip on one action; tragedy can silently build and build until it finally, horrifically unloads. It also proved that this somewhat soapy procedural drama was more than capable of telling powerfully moving stories. Because the episode places its spotlight on the deeply in love and hopelessly excited new parents Sean and Jodi O’Brien (Bradley Whitford and Colleen Flynn) the trauma they go through hits especially hard because the episode takes its time making sure we know these people. It’s a skill the series would employ time and time again. It wasn’t the case that someone would come into the ER, be treated and be sent away, we got to know each and every one of these patients.
Perhaps the biggest strength of those early years was the student/mentor relationship between Carter and Benton. Of all the original characters it was their dynamic and power struggle that kept me coming back when the series did something I wasn’t a fan of. Carter begins his time at County as the new kid, (not a doctor until the third season and not working full-time in the emergency room until the fourth), He grew into perhaps the most mature and sensible voice in the hospital. That’s the power this sort of serialised television has. You can follow the trajectory of a characters’ journey from the new guy to a sensible and steady hand, it’s where the medium is at its very best for me.
Carter was, in many respects, the polar opposite to Benton. The two men are equally ambitious but they go about their achieving their goals in very different ways. Initially, it’s easy to dismiss Benton as the stereotypical arrogant young surgeon. Eriq La Salle’s portrayal is so nuanced and subtle that instead of bristling at him, I found myself rooting for him. His commanding and brooding nature in the operating theatre gives way to a softer side. He’s able to transform into a soft-spoken and empathetic Doctor when he’s face to face with patients and their loved ones. Benton is perhaps the most interesting and complex character in the show’s history. I can’t understand why he’s not held in greater regard as one of the best representations of a man of colour on television.
He’s acutely aware of being a black man in a field that doesn’t have a lot of them, working in an urban hospital where many of the patients look like him. That’s not to say Benton is defined by the colour of his skin. He has tremendous self-belief and proves himself capable of becoming the best surgeon anyone has ever seen.
His biggest challenge comes when his son Reese is born prematurely and is diagnosed as profoundly deaf. It’s something that forces Benton to soften further and seeing him converse in sign language with the son he loves is properly moving.
Benton and Carter had plenty of interesting stories outside of each other but both were at their absolute best when sparring with each other. It was the kind of chemistry that you can’t explain. It wasn’t a romance, and it wasn’t even really a friendship, because the two didn’t see each other outside of the hospital. On the handful of times circumstances forced them to, it was incredibly awkward and uncomfortable. It was a straightforward mentor/protege combination, pairing two men with opposite but complementary temperaments — Benton the gruff genius, Carter the warm social butterfly — to bring each other to heights neither was capable with without the other.
Benton rarely had a kind word for his student — even his encouragements have to say a lot with a little, like Benton simply telling Carter at the end of the first season that he’ll make a good doctor one day — but he’s also not a cruel or spiteful taskmaster. He sees the potential in young Carter and works him hard enough to realize it, and Carter in turn becomes determined to win the tough but mostly fair surgeon’s approval. It wasn’t all fractious as the writers realised they could have fun with the power dynamic — most notably when Carter is given the chance to perform an appendectomy on his mentor.
When La Salle decided to leave the show midway through the eighth season, his final interaction with his former student is as moving as I’d hoped. Carter has grown up, become a great Doctor and man and Benton can see that.
As I grew more invested in the Benton/Carter stuff, I slowly fell totally in love with the show. It’s important to say that the show wasn’t written to be consumed in a ‘binge.’ It was made in an era before DVR’s and even the biggest fans of a show would only typically watch one in every three episodes. Strangely though, it’s a show that stands up really well to that model. I consumed episodes at an unhealthy rate. I found I couldn’t stop. I used the excuse of the National Lockdown which meant I wasn’t being lazy, I was abiding by the rules/guidelines and ‘staying at home.’ I perhaps should have taken advantage of the hour of exercise we were allowed, but I could squeeze one a bit episodes in in that time, and I wouldn’t enjoy the walk as much as a trip to County General.
Outside of Benton and Carter, I found myself just as invested in the on and off again relationship of Doug and Carol, the romance between Alex Kingston’s Elizabeth Corday and Edwards’ Mark Greene (I never quite warmed to Kingston’s character, I thought she was written rather clumsily at times) and to newbies to the initial era of ER like cantankerous surgical attending Robert Romano (Paul McCrane) and bright-eyed medical student Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin). Whenever a character left County the writers managed to replace them with someone I found as endearing or interesting.
When I was deep into my binge I asked on Twitter where I should stop. It’s not that I wanted to, but I wanted to know where people felt the show started to show signs of decline. America has a habit of letting their hit shows run and run until they barely resemble what made them so successful. I was enjoying my time with ER so much I didn’t want to reach the point where the show declined and I fell out of love with it. The replies I got suggested the end of eight would be a good time to stop. I’m hoping reading this piece will inspire you to seek the show out, so I won’t spoil why eight was a good time to hit stop, but it was certainly the end of the first era of the show. By this point, the majority of the main cast had moved on. Doug leaves midway through the fifth season to allow George Clooney to fully pursue his film career, He returns for a pricey and incredibly clunky reunion with Margulies’s Carol when she departs the show. Benton leaves for pastures new leaving Carter the only member of the core team still standing.
By this time though, the writing staff had expertly crafted characters to replace those who had come before. Maura Tierney’s nurse Abby Lockhart (an obvious replacement for Margulies) was instantly engaging. A personable nurse who got along with everyone but who was hiding a traumatic childhood having grown up with a mother who suffers from bipolar disorder. Sally Field’s guest appearances as Abby’s mother Maggie in the seventh season are among the best of the series and this is a show full of memorable guest actors coming in to blow me away. Seeing Abby attempt to deal with her mother during her manic phases gives the character another level of depth. Like Carter before her, Abby’s time at County sees her mature and progress from NICU nurse to ER nurse, to a Doctor responsible for patients. She’s joined by Luka Kovač. Portrayed by Croatian actor Goran Višnjić, Luka filled the ‘hunky, dark and handsome role’ that was left when Clooney headed for Hollywood. The power of ER is that even though I’m aware these new faces are here to replace the old, they don’t feel any less interesting. It’s a trick the show would deploy at least once before its conclusion in the fifteenth season.
What kept me watching episode after episode, was the masterful writing and character development. Part top-notch soap, part golden era drama, the show kept surprising me, moving me and shocking me. Though Benton might be one of the most important characters in the show, my favourite character turned out to be someone I had dismissed as an irritant.
Kerry Weaver played by the incredible Laura Innes, arrived quietly towards the end of the second season. A fiery redhead who walked with a crutch, Kerry perhaps had the best and well-written arch across the 249 episodes she appeared in. A character that grated me on initially, her role seem to consist of telling my favourites characters not to do what they were doing, gradually, I had to respect Kerry Doing research for the piece, I’ve seen her described as having a “brash” and “power-hungry”. I never viewed her that way. I see your ‘power-hungry’ and raise you ‘passionate’. Admittedly, that’s a word that could be attributed to the majority of the show’s characters, but I don’t feel like anyone was as devoted to their work as Weaver. Though herself a highly skilled ER doctor with years of hands-on experience, Weaver took on an administrative role that organized the chaos around her into a precision life-saving, crisis-managing machine. The times she did have to jump into the fray, she wasn’t easily shocked or insulted, rising to the occasion with the same black humour that echoed through the rest of the ER.
Weaver was an important character for so many reasons. She was a calm collected presence, she was an ambitious career woman who took on all comers. Over the course of the series, she went from Chief Resident, Emergency Medicine Attending, Chief of Emergency Medicine and Chief of Staff. She was someone who made sure County was the best place for its patients, a task that was never easy. But she was just as impressive outside of her work. I can’t think of a better representation of disability on television. Whenever a new member of staff joined the team, they’d ask someone else what Kerry’s disability was, they’d always reply they didn’t know. It wasn’t a way of protecting Weaver, it was because she didn’t tell them. It’s not until her final season when she’s offered a hip replacement to correct her limp that we finally learn the reason for her unusual gait. As with everything she ever dealt with, it wasn’t a decision Weaver took lightly. It was something she wrestled with. Though her disability never stopped her and certainly never defined her, it was part of her. The behind the scenes reason the story was developed was to allow Laura Innes to stop using the crutch that became synonymous with the character. Years of walking like Weaver had actually damaged the actor’s spine. “My real back was getting screwed up,” Innes said of the experience. “I got a bone density test and the bottom of my spine is starting to curve on one side from 10 years of raising my hip.”
Kerry had a lot of stories with the writers layering more and more into her and personal life. Innes handles it all superbly. When she came out as a lesbian in the seventh season, she initially kept her personal life separate from her work. I always admired Kerry professionalism. Having kept her sexuality a secret, she’s forced to out herself to homophobe Romano, who is visibly shocked and agrees to keep her secret. That’s what I loved so much about Kerry she was fierce, took no-nonsense, but she had a beautiful vulnerability to her. Innes expertly balanced the many sides of Kerry’s personality handling each story with humanity and believability. When she meets her birth mother, when she becomes a mother herself and when she decides to leave the ER, every moment had a poignancy and dignity to it.
I can’t tell you how highly I regard ER. It’s the rarest of beasts: a US network show that ran for fifteen years and didn’t really show signs of its age. Even the final season is a triumph. With Angela Bassett joining the cast as Catherine Banfield, a new Attending who brings wisdom, experience and discipline but who is haunted by losing her 5-year-old son at County. It’s a clever device that leads to one of the best episodes of the final season. It’s a flashback episode back six years. Cate Banfield comes to County with her husband Russell (played by Bassett’s real-life husband, actor Courtney B. Vance) and their 5-year-old son, Daryl.
She is smiling, which was never seen by the show’s audiences until this point. In the episode, she tells Dr. Mark Greene that she worked as an ER attending physician at the University of Chicago. During a day out in the city park, Daryl was struck with a mysterious seizure. With Daryl’s history of febrile seizures, Cate initially didn’t see it as anything serious and argued against calling 9-1-1, even though her husband Russell insisted. After Daryl began vomiting blood, Cate brought him to County General where he was treated and diagnosed by Dr. Greene. It’s a clever episode that delivers on two levels. It serves to provide details of Banfield’s tragic backstory and it also reunites cast members who viewers hadn’t seen in years with Anthony Edwards, Paul McCrane and Laura Innes all reprising her roles in a way that feels organic rather than a clunky bit of fan service shoehorned into the final season.
The final episode is poignant and moving without feeling over-sentimental. When I reached the end, I had a desire to start it all over again. I don’t understand why it isn’t spoken about among the best of television. The Golden Age of Television began with The Sopranos in 1999, but ER had already done some groundbreaking things before then. I don’t want to spoil Lucy Knight’s story and I’m not sure I could do it justice. There are so many moments, guest appearances and story arcs that I could have chosen to write about. The storyline featured Kirsten Dunst as a young homeless girl who Doug Ross tries to save or Alan Alda’s five-episode run as Dr. Gabriel Lawrence, a highly respected physician who had trained Weaver but who is quietly suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The later years that saw Mekhi Phifer’s, Greg Pratt, Parminder Nagra’s Neela Rasgotra, John Stamos as Tony Gates, Linda Cardellini’s Samantha Taggart and the comedic exploits of Archie Morris (Scott Grimes) all worked. It’s a show I count it as one of my favourite shows of all time. It’s a show that was ahead of its time, made at a time when network television was king, but one also works surprisingly well as a modern-day binge. I’ve found every aspect of the pandemic difficult to cope with, but I don’t think I would have ever had the time to properly devote time to a show of ER’s length. Every cloud as they say…
ER is available in full on ALL4