Season 3 is when Michael Crichton's ER well and truly started to hit its stride. Clooney was still around, Anthony Edwards was a pleasant-yet-commanding presence, and the rest of the original ensemble was clicking together on all cylinders. Season 3 is also when Noah Wyle's Dr. Carter graduated from intern to bona-fide doctor, and it was this character's everyman "likability" that allowed the show to become more character-driven than medical jargon-intensive. (That worm would turn a few years later.)
I'll come clean: I never missed an episode of ER during its first five seasons, and it's the one and only medical series that I've ever watched on a religious basis. So it was with much enjoyment that I settled down to revisit this third season. It was great to get reacquainted with all my favorite medical professionals: the crutch-wielding Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes), the gruff and glowering Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle), and (of course) Dr. Greene (Edwards) and Dr. Ross (Clooney). If there's a weak link in this ensemble, feel free to drop me an email and let me know who it is.
Season 3 also boasted a solid collection of multi-episode story-lines; ER has always been great at balancing the "stand-alone" episodes with a handful of soap opera-style plot threads. This is the season in which Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben) found out she was HIV-positive and decided to keep the sad news from her co-workers, an on-again off-again romance between Dr. Greene and Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) gets kicked into high gear (kind of), Carter wars with Benton, and sees his personal life become a shambles as his professional life starts to soar, Nurse Hathaway gets stuck in a hostage situation … and the season finishes up on a particularly intense note when Dr. Greene is violently attacked by a raving nutcase.
Not surprisingly, you'll also find a stellar collection of guest stars in ER's third season. William H. Macy drops by numerous times, and each visit is a delight. Glenne Headly, Omar Epps, Jorja Fox and CCH Pounder deliver great work in recurring roles. Kirsten Dunst also pops up in a few episodes and actually lets loose with some of her best work … ever. Jami Gertz, Harry Lennix, Veronica Cartwright, Khandi Alexander, the guest stars just keep on coming! And the fate of Epps' Dr. Gant still strikes me as one of the most effective shockers ever conceived for a medical series. It blew me away eight years ago, and it still delivers a deliciously dramatic jolt.
But hey, you're not really reading this review to "figure out" if ER is a quality TV show or not. Those who've clicked onto this article are almost definitely fans of ER already. And you guys want to know A) how's the transfer quality, B) what kind of extra goodies are included, and C) if the overall package is worth your 35 bucks. So let's just cut to the meat. First, the episodes:
Dr. Carter, I Presume (original airdate: 09/26/96)
Let the Games Begin (10/03/96)*
Don't Ask, Don't Tell (10/10/96)
Last Call (10/17/96)
Fear of Flying (11/07/96)*
No Brain, No Gain (11/14/96)
Union Station (11/21/96)
Ask Me No Questions, I'll Tell You No Lies (12/12/96)
Homeless for the Holidays (12/19/96)
Night Shift (01/16/97)*
Post Mortem (01/23/97)
Fortune's Fools (01/30/97)
Whose Appy Now? (02/06/97)*
The Long Way Around (02/13/97)
You Bet Your Life (04/17/97)
Calling Dr. Hathaway (04/24/97)*
Random Acts (05/01/87)
Make a Wish (05/08/97)*
One More for the Road (05/15/97)
The * denotes my personal favorites, but you should absolutely watch the full season in chronological order before you start to revisit specific episodes a second (and third) time.
Video: Do not adjust your set! Yes, ER's third season was originally broadcast in the TV-typical full frame format, but here the episodes are reformatted to employ a lovely Widescreen Anamorphic transfer. And it looks pretty darn great, especially when you remember you're watching a season of television from 1996!
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, which sounds just dandy. I wonder why the DVD producers would upgrade the video from full frame to Widescreen and not bump the audio to a 5.1, but that seems a rather specious complaint when the 2.0 suits the series just fine. Dialogue and music are balanced together quite concisely, and the result is a perfectly serviceable (if not entirely spectacular) audio presentation.
Disc 2 contains an audio commentary on episode 8 (Union Station) from director Tom Moore and editor Kevin Casey. Both Emmy nominees for this particular episode, Moore and Casey discuss how it was meant to be the last episode for Sherry Stringfield, who wanted to leave the show to raise a family. (Stringfield would, however, return to the series five seasons later.) The pair are full of interesting tidbits (Clooney was shooting this season and Batman & Robin at the same time, most of the series' externals were shot in Chicago, etc.) and effusive praise for the cast and crew.
Disc 4 offers an audio commentary on episode 14 (Whose Appy Now?), and it's practically a party. Writer Neal Baer, director Felix Enriquez Alcala, editor Jacque Toberen, and actors Noah Wyle & Veronica Cartwright (who earned an Emmy nomination for her work here) settle in for a chatty sit-down, and it's a whole lot of informative fun. Bear explains how this was a "sweeps" episode, and that he was required to tie a lot of dangling plot threads together, while the rest of the participants toss out their own thoughts and mental flashbacks regarding this particularly excellent episode.
Disc 5 contains a handful of extra features:
ER Specialists: Fear of Flying – ER producer/director Christopher Chulack, co-producer Near Baer, and actors Noah Wyle, Glenne Headly, Gloria Reuben, Bellina Logan & Sherry Stringfield go into detail regarding the specifics of the Emmy-winning "Fear of Flying" episode. It's pretty clear why the cast and crew chose to highlight this specific episode, and this featurette makes you wish they did the "specialists" treatment on every episode! (16:53)
CUTups – If you think that ER's non-stop and rapid-fire medical jargon would lead to a whole lot of tongue-twisting bloopers, well, you'd be right. Here we have nearly eleven minutes of seriously funny ER outtakes, which is probably the only place you'll ever get to see Dr. Benton smile!
ER Game Trailer – Did you know there was an ER video game?? I sure didn't, but it looks pretty darn cool! It's a Sim-Hospital concept injected with a healthy dosage of RPG goodness. Neato!
Lastly, disc 6 delivers a pair of goodies:
The Nurses Station – Actors Yvette Freeman, Bellina Logan, Connie Marie Brazelton, Deezer D, Abraham Benrubi, Ellen Crawford, Lily Mariye, Charles Noland, Laura Ceron, and Dinah Lenney, all of whom have played nurses on the show, contribute their thoughts, opinions, and memories regarding the ER experience. The actors bring a warm face to the various nurses who inhabit the hospital walls, and they clearly take great pride in portraying one of the world's most overlooked and underappreciated professions. This is a great little featurette all around. (16:16)
Outpatient Outtakes – A compilation of 17 deleted scenes from various season 3 episodes. You can pick and choose the clips individually or opt to employ the handy-dandy Play All feature.
ER is that very rare example of a series that's steeped in realistic, fascinating science yet never loses sight of the most important thing in any story: the characters. You might get a behind-the-scenes thrill at seeing an emergency room up close and personal, but without a big handful of flesh & blood people to care for … the gimmick would get pretty old pretty fast. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that ER will be remembered as one of the finest medical dramas ever brought to television, and its third season ranks among its very, very best.