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Why ''ER'' needs fresh blood, stat

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Noah Wyle, E/R
ER: Robert Trachtenberg

The lifesavers on NBC’s ”ER” (Thurs. 10 p.m.) are undergoing a medical emergency of their own. With series staple Anthony Edwards (Dr. Mark Greene) preparing to vacate Cook County General very soon, the show is scrambling to find the right doc to don his scrubs even as other cast members make for the exit… or at least try to. In a surprising move, producers recently flip-flopped on the farewell of longtimer Eriq La Salle (Dr. Peter Benton), deciding to bring the actor back for more episodes after airing his swan song Dec. 13. They also enlisted Mekhi Phifer (”O”), who scrubbed in April 4.

But the upcoming changes (and reversals) are just the latest symptoms to plague ”ER.” Since hitting a ratings peak four years ago, the show’s numbers have declined by 25 percent, and many fans feel the series has been malingering for months, emphasizing over-the-top drama instead of compelling storylines. ”Eight years is just a long time for a hospital show,” says Jon Hein, creator of jumptheshark.com, a website that determines the point when hit TV shows begin losing steam. ”And ‘ER’ has covered so many of the clich├ęs you see on dying shows, such as Dr. Knight’s murder and Dr. Weaver’s lesbian plotline, I wouldn’t be surprised to see [”Love Boat” star] Ted McGinley guest star on a very special episode soon.”

The show certainly isn’t flatlining for lack of histrionics. In the last three seasons Dr. Greene alone has weathered his father’s death, a marriage, a birth, a brain tumor, a petulant teenager, and most recently his infant daughter’s accidental Ecstasy overdose. It’s a parade of pain that might better fit a well-coifed doc on ”General Hospital.” But that doesn’t mean Edwards’ departure will be a welcome one. ”Since George Clooney and Julianna Margulies left, Anthony Edwards had really become the stable, sympathetic center of the show,” says casting director Billy Hopkins (”The Shipping News”). ”And when he leaves, there isn’t really anyone left who can fill those shoes.”

Though the show hasn’t suffered from its revolving door casting in the past, it may be less resilient this year. The recent exits of Erik Palladino, Michael Michele, and the on-again-off-again La Salle have left the usually overcrowded ensemble short-handed, while those who remain have been either sidelined or saddled with unflattering storylines. This season Alex Kingston’s Dr. Corday was transformed from blushing bride to evil stepmother, while Ming-Na’s Dr. Chen was reduced to a thorn in the side of Laura Innes’ already prickly Dr. Weaver. ”Goran Visnjic [Dr. Luka Kovac] had potential to be the next Clooney, but now his character is just irritating,” says Hopkins, citing the doctor’s less-than-charming dalliance with a French thief (Julie Delpy) and his break-up with Nurse Lockhart (Maura Tierney). ”And why bring back Sherry Stringfield and barely use her?”

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