By Ken Tucker
April 03, 2009 at 07:47 AM EDT

ER ended as it began, 15 years ago, with a big-scale medical emergency, ambulances roaring up to County General, and doctors rushing out to help bring in the wounded and the dying. The two-hour finale didn’t go in for anything fancy — no dream sequences; no teases for a spin-off — but I liked the fact that the surprises were small but effective.

I’m thinking of the way John Wells, in his final script for ER, worked the daughter of Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Mark Greene back into the episode: Now in her 20s, Rachel (Hallee Hirsh) wants to be a doctor herself, took a tour of the hospital, and ended up going out for drinks and laughs with series stalwarts including John Carter (Noah Wyle), Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle), Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston), and Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield).

There were engaging medical cases, chief among them a teenage girl admitted for alcohol poisoning, whose condition rattled John Stamos’ Dr. Gates. This is one of the things ER did very well: for a series that was often more about the doctors than their patients, at its best the show didn’t allow their emotions to overtake any given hour — ER did its best to resist soap-opera histrionics.

ER was always more wobbly whenever it went outside its hospital. I never really thought the story arcs in Africa, starting in the ninth season, were as moving as the smaller-scale ones set in County General. Similarly, on this final night, the scenes involving the opening of The Carter Center, John Carter’s contribution to serving the community, as well-executed as they were, interrupted the urgent flow of the hospital plots.

But that’s a very minor complaint. These farewell two hours did a mostly-excellent job of working in guest stars. It was great to see Alexis Bledel as a new intern. I could have done without the Marilu Henner subplot: all that tedious yelling over a wedding brawl. However, Ernest Borgnine’s fine performance, as a grieving husband to his dying wife, was both moving and a sharp rebuke to a TV industry that doesn’t use great, aging talents like his more frequently.

NBC, I must say, did a disservice to two of its new shows, Southland and Parks and Recreation, by pummelling us with so many repetitive ads, I felt as though I’d seen both shows in their entirety before ER had concluded. But ER itself prevailed. I won’t try to fool you: I haven’t been a regular viewer of the series over the past few seasons. Once I started watching the hour-long retrospective that preceded the final episode, however, I was enthralled by more than nostalgia. I was caught up in the artistry of this show, which managed to combine technical grace (all those swooping, single-camera scenes) with equally graceful characterizations. By the end, I was almost as sorry to see minor characters like grumpy desk clerk Frank (Troy Evans) and nurse Haleh Adams (Yvette Freeman) leave the screen as I was major players like Wyle and Stamos.

That’s one measure of a first-rate series, isn’t it — making you care about everyone in its ensemble?

Did you watch? What did you think of the final episode of ER?