By Ken Tucker
Updated March 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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ER

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Some time during George Clooney’s don’t-let-the-emergency-room-door- hit-you-as-you-leave farewell episode of ER, NBC ran a Gap ad featuring William H. Macy. He’s the actor who used to play ER‘s Dr. David Morgenstern but who has, as they say in Central American politics, been disappeared from the show, without explanation. In the spot, Macy puffs on a harmonica, wiggles, and grins; he’s loose, funny, and attractive — and, I gotta say, more entertaining in those few seconds than the ER episode he was sponsoring. The contrast was so stark, in fact, it made you wonder: How did this immensely popular show get so immensely frustrating? Clooney’s exit process is symptomatic of everything now wrong with the medical drama: It was done at a very fast pace and made absolutely no sense. Yes, yes, we’ve known for years that his character, pediatrician Doug Ross, was an ethics-defying hot dog when it came to saving kids, but the case that set up his departure (the mercy killing of a little boy) was no worse than any of his other blunders, not to mention a shameless retread of too many sick-kid subplots already trotted out. (Only Valerie Mahaffey’s heroically measured portrayal of the child’s mother gave the story any dramatic weight.)

Too much of ER these days is similarly amnesiac; from week to week, it’s as if the characters are being made up on the spot, without reference to pasts with which fans are very familiar. To cite just one example: Kellie Martin’s neck-snapping personality turn. Her Lucy Knight seemed to go from mewling wimp to tush-wiggling vamp in the space of a week. (The Feb. 12 episode, in which Noah Wyle’s Dr. Carter was obliged to ogle Lucy after being told she was wearing a thong, was probably the series’ lowest point. Please stop this pair’s entanglement before they become pathetic cartoons.) And while ER has recently nurtured a top-drawer villain in Paul McCrane’s horny-shark Dr. Romano (see box, page 49), it has wasted the talents of Alex Kingston as Dr. Elizabeth Corday, reducing what was a vivaciously funny, steely character last season into a perennially exhausted, snappish woman.

When you think about it, this show has always been very hit-or-miss with its female creations. Sherry Stringfield’s long-gone Susan Lewis went from competent professional to professional drip in record time. The producers also squandered the brisk authority of CCH Pounder as Dr. Angela Hicks (is she still even a semi-regular?). And boy, do I miss Maria Bello, who had such promise as tough Anna Del Amico before she (I respectfully think prematurely) skipped out for a feature-film career.

Storytelling here has suffered as well. Not that long ago, ER knew how to spin out longer tales in the midst of all the emergency-room razzle-dazzle, the best example being the recurring role Kirsten Dunst had as Charlie, a druggie teen runaway who would pop up at sudden, surprising times, looking for help from a helpless Doug Ross. Now, the pleasures of the show are glimpsed only in fleeting images:

— Of Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle), holding up his beautiful baby boy — so tiny he seemed to fit into one of Benton’s cradling hands;

— Of one of those just-when-you-thought-you’ve-seen-everything emergency scenes, such as the patient with the knife sticking out of his forehead in a shudderingly memorable October episode;

— Of the reaction of Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben) when recently told she’d tested positive for hepatitis C, a shock at once so ironic (her character had been faring well under her treatments for HIV) and profound, her face went blank — for an instant, lifeless.

Although the official NBC line is that Clooney will reap pear for an occasional episode (though at this point, it’s difficult to imagine why we should care, unless he returns not as Doug, but as the cool guy he was in the terrific Out of Sight, or, better yet, Batman — he could punch out Dr. Romano!), that still leaves another struggling character as the human center of ER: the once-vital Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), who’s steadily deflated into a punching bag.

But I’ll try to look on the bright side: If the newcomer nurse played with crisp exasperation by The Larry Sanders Show‘s Penny Johnson takes over Carol’s walk-in clinic and gets some face time on this show, she could develop into a formidable, three-dimensional figure. And it certainly looks as if Laura Innes’ passed-over-for-promotion Dr. Weaver is going to be cranky and hard-nosed for a while, always a good thing in a show that’s getting more softhearted and -headed by the minute. ER needs a backbone transplant, stat. C

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ER

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  • 331
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