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Emergency Operation: NBC's 'ER'

The medical drama that propelled George Clooney to stardom premiered six years ago

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Few predicted it would be such a hit. Not its creator, Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, who worried that the frenetic, densely plotted drama (based on his own experiences as an intern at Boston’s Mass General) would freak out couch-potato viewers. Not its network, NBC, which was skeptical of an hour-long, Chicago-set medical series succeeding in a TV landscape crammed with sunny sitcoms. And certainly not an irritable L.A. Times critic, who sniffed that ”left untreated, [the show] may have less than a year to live.”

Well, hook ’em up to a mind-expanding serum drip, stat: On Sept. 19, 1994, the two-hour debut of ER drew roughly 24 million viewers, holding its own against perennial powerhouse Monday Night Football — and eventually forcing the competition (David E. Kelley’s similarly themed Chicago Hope and Diane Sawyer’s PrimeTime Live) to switch nights when ER settled into its regular Thursday slot.

Audiences were adrenalized by the hyperkinetic pilot that featured no fewer than 57 speaking parts and 33 story lines, which included attending physician Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) wrestling with the prospect of joining a cushier private practice; head nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) nearly OD’ing on pills (in the original script, she was supposed to die); earnest resident Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) counseling a hotheaded cancer patient; and third-year med student John Carter (Noah Wyle) dealing with his demanding supervisor, Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle).

The pilot ”was [filmed] in this decrepit old hospital and it was a little bit creepy,” says Abraham Benrubi, who plays desk clerk Jerry. ”It kind of made everybody a little loopy — it was sort of punch-drunk fun; the energy required to make everything happen was infectious.”

The premiere also introduced the series’ breakout star, George Clooney, who starred as the womanizing pediatrician Dr. Doug Ross. (Ironically, Clooney’s first TV role was as Ace, a wisecracking med intern in a 1984 CBS sitcom also titled, eerily enough, E/R.)

The drama — a bubbling cauldron of medical suspense, workplace politics, and romantic quandaries — was an instant hit. Within a month, ER was securely ensconced in the top 10 — breathing new life into a genre in dire need of CPR since St. Elsewhere checked out in 1988 — and it has ruled network TV as the No. 1 show in three of the last six seasons. In fact, ER‘s prescription for success (it has also won 17 Emmys) was deemed so vital to NBC’s vaunted Must See TV schedule that the network shelled out a record $13 million an episode to keep the show in the wake of Seinfeld‘s departure in 1998.

That’s the kind of health-care policy Hollywood really pays attention to.


Time Capsule: Sept. 19, 1994
At the movies, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s sci-fi flick Timecop earns $12.1 million and becomes the Muscles from Brussels’ first film to hit No. 1. On TV, ABC’s one-two punch of Home Improvement and Grace Under Fire starts the new season at the top of the Nielsens. In music, Boyz II Men’s ballad ”I’ll Make Love to You” holds on to rule the Billboard singles chart. And in the news, American troops land in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, beginning a U.S. operation to restore the Caribbean nation’s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power.

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