I shouldn’t be admitting this in as public a forum as a blog, but nevertheless I will: I was blubbering like a baby two minutes into the E.R. Retrospective that aired last night on NBC, right ahead of the series’ two hour final episode, one of the most anticipated television events of the season. It’s funny what makes us cry- and nothing moves me more than Being In The Presence Of Greatness. And that is what this television series has meant to me, at least for most of its history.
Actually, I must admit that I have been something of a fair weather friend to ER over the last several years, unable to follow it like I had – and judging from its slipping ratings, I was far from alone. But when I began to hear that the series was about to head into the sunset, I was powerfully reminded of how important this series had been both to me and to Kathy, and I was bound and determined to reconnect with this series. And my timing proved to be impeccable because the first night I tuned it in was the night that George Clooney and Julianna Margulies returned to the fold as well- which was all I needed to fall back in love with this series just in time to say goodbye to it.
And last night’s retrospective was a veritable masterpiece – touching on powerful moments from the past without moving at such a frantic pace as to leave us dizzy and unsatisfied… and among the highlighted programs were several that were some of my very favorites. Just about every major actor and actress from past and present casts spoke – not George Clooney, however – and they spoke with such sincere warmth and gratitude about the experience of being part of this. And one of the neatest moments came when actress Alex Kingston (a British actress whose character I think was named Corday) recalled what it was like to film the final scenes with Anthony Edwards before his character, Dr. Mark Greene, died from brain cancer. As she recalled those last few days and the double-decker difficulty of playing those heartbreaking scenes while also saying a real life goodbye to this actor whom she admired and liked, she – that is, actress Alex Kingston – started to cry and finally said “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to shut that off” because she was too moved to continue talking about it. And by that point, I was crying too – realizing that the best television takes hold of us and just does not let us go. Years and years after the fact, certain moments still put an enormous lump in my throat . . . moments such as:
“The Healers”- This was an episode in which a terrible fire and cave-in led to the serious injury of several firefighters, including Shep- the then boyfriend of Nurse Hathaway – and his best friend, whose burns were so serious that he was beyond saving. At the very end of the episode, Shep – so distraught by his friend’s plight – is persuaded to allow himself to be wheeled in to his room to say something to him….. and after a brief exchange, all he can say – over and over, through his sobs and a torrent of tears, is “I’m Sorry.” Over and over and over. “I’m Sorry. I’m Sorry. I’m Sorry.” If scripted television has a fault, especially these days, it’s that too many characters talk like writers instead of like regular people. (And way too many shows have people delivering torrents of words. You wonder after awhile if the writers are being paid by the page.) Anyway, in the hands of a more commonplace writer, Shep would have been given some polished, plush speech to render – but instead he delivered these stark, simple words because there was nothing else his character could think to say. . . and the heartbreak of that moment hangs with me still, all these years later.
“Hell and High Water” – I don’t even remember all of the particulars of this, except that Doug Ross (George Clooney) rescues a young boy from a flooded drainage pipe – nearly perishing in the attempt – and there is something about the way that was filmed that gave it an almost unbearable intensity.
“Love’s Labors Lost” – I have never seen a more remarkable hour of television than this harrowing story of a pregnancy gone terribly wrong, and Dr. Greene making some crucial mistakes which ended up costing this young mother her life (and very nearly causing the death of the newborn as well.) I can still remember the first time I watched this episode (we lived at the Nimmer house at the time, so it was probably 1993 or 1994) and all of the times when I leapt to my feet and ran out of the room because of the raw intensity of what was playing out on the screen – and I don’t just mean all of the blood. What was most graphic about this episode was the sight of a good doctor, doing the best he could but making unintentional errors that sent him and his patient down an awful spiral from which there was ultimately no escape. In the grief-laden final minutes, we see Dr. Greene going into the hospital’s nursery, where the new dad is sitting in a rocking chair with his new baby – going there to deliver the news that the man’s wife is dead. We do not hear the words – we only see the exchange through the window. . . but even that is too close for comfort. And at the end of the episode, as Dr. Greene rides home on the train, we see him for the first time breaking down and crying over the painful awfulness he has just experienced – and we seriously wonder how he will ever be able to walk back into that hospital again.
Which brings to mind another remarkable episode in which a man dies of a heart disorder while waiting for a transplant that never materializes in time. At one point, the man’s young daughter confronts Dr. Greene in the hallway and asks him if her dad is going to die – and then with quivering lip asks why they can’t fix him. Dr. Greene pauses for a moment before he finally answers, “We can’t fix everything.” Simple words but O so true! And of course part of what it means to be in the medical profession is confronting this inescapable reality.
It’s true that this program did not portray a typical E.R. in any way shape or form – – – and after awhile the explosions and chemical spills and tank attacks and helicopter crashes got to be a bit much. . . and yet the writing and acting on this show was of such a high standard that we were willing to put up with more than a little incredulity for the sake of such riveting drama, especially if it meant being in the company of such vivid and fascinating characters. And by the way, my friend Marshall was right when he pointed out that one of the best things about this program was the second tier of characters. . .. the nurses and aides and receptionists who gave this show such texture. It was neat during the final episode to see so many of those familiar faces dating back 15 years still there after all this time. And I was especially happy that Dr. John Carter, the main character who has been in more E.R. episodes than any other lead, played such a prominent role in the finale. He started out as a largely bumbling if well-intentioned resident who over time bloomed into a fully assured doctor – and in many ways he has been the heart and soul of this show.
And now it’s gone – one more stark reminder that commercial television is fast becoming a wasteland studded with ultimately worthless shows like “The Bachelor” that peddle selfishness or shallowness or even out and out brutality. Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon (who’s not yet fifty, but getting as crabby as those old geezers who spend three hours in a booth at McDonald’s every morning complaining about the world) but I can’t help but mourn Television’s precipitous decline and wonder when – or if – it will ever find its way back again to its former glory . . . glory exemplified in a show like E.R.
pictured: a moment from the episode in which George Clooney and Julianne Margulies returned to the show – and Susan Sarandon delivered a knockout guest appearance.