April 2, 2009

Why ER is My Favorite TV Drama Ever

NBC's television drama ER is airing its final episode tonight after 15 years on the air. I have been watching since the pilot episode aired, dating back to my first apartment in Austin, and I think I can say that of all of the series I have watched or followed over the years, it is the one that has not only touched me the most, but also taught me the most.

Although the show has inspired several generations of med students, including some friends, watching the grueling process of becoming a doctor made me realize that I didn't want to become one myself, while allowing me to learn a lot about both common and unusual diseases and procedures. I found myself watching the show with the subtitles on so that I could better understand the symptoms each patient presented with, and the doctors' diagnoses and prescriptions. I remember being kind of thrilled when I was doing a temp job 14 years ago at a local hospital, and I knew what all of the orders and supplies were on the bills I was processing: CBC--check; Chem 7--check; #10 French--check. Watching ER also helped me ask my doctors more intelligent questions.

I have long felt that the passage of time is the most heartbreaking thing we humans experience. It is what brings meaning to life, to friendships, to families, to relationships. It gives us new friends and family members, yes, but also ages us, and takes from us the ones that we love. Television shows, especially sitcoms, but also dramas, often succumb to the instant viewer gratification of instantly revealing everything about a character, or creating short-lived goals or personality traits to satisfy a story line.

ER's writing team always recognized the importance of focusing on long-term character and story arcs, and rewarding viewers who stayed with the show and got to know the characters. Some doctors, like Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic), were introduced as distant and mysterious, and the show took several seasons before viewers found out exactly what had happened during the war in Yugoslavia, and why he had lost his faith in God, the catalyst being an archbishop (James Cromwell) who was an ER patient. Because this was revealed so gradually, our knowledge felt earned, like our getting to know a close real-life friend. Knowing how he had tragically lost his first family enriched the experience of watching all of his subsequent romances, and finally the birth of his son. Likewise, knowing Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) had been through with her bipolar mother, made it easier to understand why she was fearful about becoming a mother herself. I have to give a special commendation to Sally Field, whose portrayal of Abby's mother was so carefully observed that it enabled me to recognize bipolar disorder in a family member.

Sure, there were plenty of spectacular sweeps-month stunts, in which trains derailed, torrential floods washed through Chicago, apartment buildings exploded, psychotics drove tanks through the streets, ambulances crashed, and helicopters went amok. It was as dangerous for actors to star on ER as on the Sopranos, since it seemed that every season, a character or their relative had to die in some spectacular or melodramatic fashion. But always, the characters and their struggles continued in long storylines that were consistently involving, and illuminated complicated social issues--mental illness, war, religion, gay rights, drug abuse, interracial relationships, and work-life balance.

ER has been a sort of residency program not just for fictional TV doctors, but also for an array of actors whose talent was encouraged to blossom on the show. Of course, George Clooney is the most recognizable alum, but Maura Tierney, who was best known for her comedic role on NewsRadio, turned in moving dramatic performances season after season. Visnjic even got to use his experience in a Croatian production of Hamlet in one episode. John Stamos became more than "Uncle Jesse" on "Full House," and Parminder Nagra (Dr. Neela Rasgotra) was able to go beyond the teenage soccer player of "Bend it Like Beckham." Laura Innes (Dr. Kerry Weaver) has gone on to direct award-winning episodes of ER, and I have also been reminded of how much I loved and missed Noah Wyle's* portrayal of Dr. John Carter, the dedicated doctor who begins the show as a clueless med student, but becomes the battle-scarred survivor.

My sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to this show's success over the years. Your characters and stories have touched our hearts.

*Incidentally, at a grand total of 254, Wyle also wins the prize for starring in the most episodes. Next are Laura Innes and Laura Cerón (Nurse Chuny Marquez).

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