One day while I was busy trying to avoid reviewing yet another hospital drama, I came across a rerun of ”St. Elsewhere” (I put off work at every opportunity, even if it means watching TV shows to keep from writing about other TV shows). ”St. Elsewhere,” you may recall, was the 1982 to 1988 series about an eternally underfunded Boston hospital, St. Eligius, that had a young, cute Denzel Washington on its staff. Arriving in the wake of ”Hill Street Blues,” with a similar approach to layered, continuing plotlines, ”Elsewhere” was a class act, even if it gave Howie Mandel a mass audience. But watching the show now (which you can, twice daily on Bravo), I was struck by how soothingly slow and earnest it was.
Compared with ER, which turned the arrival of patients into an Indy 500 race of spurting blood gurneys, ”St. Elsewhere” seems like a Chekhovian ”Marcus Welby, M.D.,” full of thoughtful debates about ethics versus efficiency. ”ER,” which premiered in 1994, was initially a real viewer grabber that ramped up the pace of the hour long drama, shoving five or six subplots into a format that usually accommodated three and conveying relationships between doctors, and between the docs and their patients, in quick conversational slang and tongue twisting medical jargon.
That said, the main reason to tune in to ”ER” this season is to see the full blooded character Maura Tierney is creating with scant help from the writers, who increasingly think the best way to hook viewers is to either endanger a baby?s life or have someone shoot a gun in an operating room. Amid such shamelessness (including Noah Wyle?s drug addiction subplot, which plays to the actor?s worst slapped puppy instincts, and the gooey romance between Alex Kingston and Anthony Edwards), Tierney?s Abby Lockhart has quietly been revealed as a recovering alcoholic who?s now also suffering from an extended visit by her bipolar mother — guest star Sally Field, tapping into her old ”Sybil” craziness to good effect.
In Tierney?s performance, you can see exhaustion, hope, and bitter humor flash across her face in a single scene — she?s raising the bar for performances in a well acted series. If only the other characters were less one dimensional. The worst example: Paul McCrane?s once fun Dr. Robert Romano, who?s been turned into a hapless tyrant (he?s starting to look like an evil Ron Howard). In the old days of ”St. Elsewhere,” William Daniels served a similar purpose — an imperious surgeon belittling his charges — but his Dr. Mark Craig character had a core of decency that Romano has been denied. So, too often, has ER these days.