I was addicted to ER way back in the mid-nineties, and Mrs M caught the bug when a friend of hers lent us a huge pile of DVDs last year. Once she had reached season 5 or 6, I picked up where I had left off, and we both became more and more obsessed, until we practically sprinted through the last few episodes.
Bizarrely, the Japanese DVDs use Roman numerals, so it wasn’t until I accompanied Mrs M to the local video shop that we realised season XV was in stock, although the show’s secondary title in Japan is a helpfully literal translation of the phrase ’emergency room’: 緊急救命室 / Kinkyu-kyumei-shitsu. Mrs M watched some of the early episodes dubbed into Japanese, but this always felt a bit odd, particularly as the voice actors performed as if they were working on a more, as it were, ‘grown up’ production. So for the most part we chose the original soundtrack with Japanese subtitles, which gave Mrs M her English listening practice and me my Japanese reading practice (not that I’m ever going to use words like ten-teki – 点滴 / intravenous drip – hin-myaku – 頻脈 / tachycardia – and hohwa – 飽和 / saturation – in real life, but anyway).
To be honest, the glory days of ER were its first few seasons, when the show was fast-paced, technically superb and genuinely gritty (in a way that I assume Hill Street Blues used to be, although I never saw it). Somewhere around series 11 or 12, the makers seemed to lose their mojo, and we nearly gave up on it altogether, as the pace slowed to a crawl and it all began to look a bit daytime-y. But while the budgets had clearly been cut, with noticeably fewer set pieces and special effects than before, there was enough good acting and good writing that, by the two-hour finalé, we almost didn’t want it to end at all.
What the early shows in particular did well was to keep several story strands going at the same time, balancing action, romance, comedy and tragedy, against a backdrop of (so far as I could tell) realistic and well-researched medical-type stuff, and all wrapped up in a smooth, stylish, studio-based package. (Geeky technical note: as a former sound engineer, I was particularly impressed with how they managed to avoid post-synching dialogue when such liberal use was made of the steadicam, and with so many of the actors wearing radio mics.)
At the peak of its success, the show’s stars were getting paid seven-figure sums per episode, which is pretty mind-boggling when you consider they were making 22 a year. The sequences set in the Congo in seasons 9 and 10 really did look more like a feature film than a TV show, and I suppose from that point onwards, they only way they could go was down.
While the female characters remained strong until the end – Angela Bassett acts the rest of the cast off the screen as Doctor Banfield in season 15 (where on earth had she been since What’s Love Got To Do With It?), and Parminder Nagra (of Bend It Like Beckham fame) got better the more seasons she starred in – once Anthony Edwards and George Clooney had left, no one ever quite managed to fill their surgical gowns. Doctor Kovac, Doctor Gates, Ray what’s-his-name: they were all a little too pretty and a little too shallow. Mekhi Phifer as Doctor Pratt was the pick of the bunch, although Mrs M’s vote for studliest doc went to Noah Wyle as Carter.
Carter was in many ways the heart and soul of the show: he started pretty much when it started and the two grew up together, and you could almost say we saw the world of the ER through his eyes. Carter also starred in what was probably my favourite episode, in which he and a medical student are stabbed by a psychopathic patient, although the way he left the show, by being dragged off to Africa by his frankly annoying wife (sorry, Thandie Newton – it wasn’t you, it was the role), was a little anti-climactic.
Conversely, if I had to choose my least favourite episode, it would probably be the one in which Ewan McGregor adopts one of the thoroughly unconvincing accents for which he has become so renowned, playing a ‘Chicago’-ite who holds up a convenience store (McGregor is so rubbish at accents that on occasion I even find myself doubting his Scots, although I should probably leave it to someone better qualified for the job to trash the likes of The Phantom Menace).
Another stand-out episode (a double- or possibly even triple-bill, if I remember rightly), was the one in which Doctor Romano gets his arm chopped off by a helicopter rotor blade, which leads me on to one of the few gripes I have with the normally excellent scriptwriting.
Because there is more time in a TV series than a movie in which to create realistically complex characters, it’s very satisfying to watch those characters develop as time passes, but for whatever reason, Romano was never allowed to do so. He was bullying and insensitive from the very first minute he appeared on screen until the very last, and particularly after the arm / rotor blade incident, you felt there was a chance he might redeem himself. In one of the more bizarre curtain calls the show has seen, however, he died just as he had lived: as the guy everyone loved to hate.
In contrast, there are characters like Frank: on the surface, Frank is a doughnut-eating, old-school conservative, racially insensitive male chauvanist. While his main function is to provide comic relief to contrast with the blood-and-guts being spilled around him, in a couple of key episodes we are given insights into his life that cast him in a completely new light. In one we meet the daughter to whom he is devoted, and who happens to have Downs Syndrome, and in another, when he finds himself on the wrong side of the reception desk as a patient, he delivers an anaesthetic-induced monologue about the African-American soldiers he fought with and came to admire in the Vietnam war.
In the old days, when the writers had run out of ideas and the film crew needed some time off, sitcoms used to do a flashback episode: scenes from previous series would be interspersed with ‘Hey, do you remember when so-and-so did that hilarious thing?’ dialogue and wiggly screen special effects straight from an episode of Scooby Doo. Apart from one very short sequence just before Doctor Rasgotra jumps ship, mercifully, the makers of ER didn’t stoop to such nonsense. While a lot of the actors who had left the show returned for cameos in season 15, it was all done with a reasonable amount of subtlety, so that rather than a big, back-slapping party scene in the final episode, characters pop up in relatively credible circumstances – or in Doctors Greene and Romano’s case, a rather ingenious and newly filmed flashback that fills in some of Doctor Banfield’s back story.
Sure, there are a few more loose ends in the plotlines than before, the way in which characters are introduced and retired from the show is sometimes perfunctory, and the camerawork isn’t quite as easy on the eye as it used to be, but even season 15 is gripping, and funny, and moving, and stomach churning, and all kinds of other things that make you want to keep watching, and for those many reasons, I shall continue to feel a bit depressed for at least another couple of weeks – or until Mrs M and I start watching seasons I to VIII of XXIV, whichever comes first.