Ten years. That's a long time regardless of what you are talking about, and given the shelf life for most TV shows, let alone the ones of quality, to hit a decade mark is no small feat. Here were are, though, ER - The Complete Tenth Season, proof that it can be done. I knew it was a milestone for the stalwart hospital drama, but until I started watching it again, I had no idea how pivotal it was in terms of the series' current history. Those still watching the 2008-2009 season know that it is the last for ER, and much of what is happening in season 15 began here, in the 2003-2004 span of twenty-two episodes. This is the year we first meet Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra), Archie Morris (Scott Grimes), and Sam Taggart (Linda Cardellini), all of whom are still in current rotation in the cast. In fact, of all the characters featured on season 10, they are the only ones still listed in the opening credits seven years later. Oh, ER, you and I have grown so far apart!
Much goes on in The Complete Tenth Season, not the least of which is the creation of a schedule that puts Noah Wyle on the bench for as much time as he is in the game. As the only original cast member to have stuck out the first ten years without a break (Sherry Stringfield, whose Doctor Lewis character is a major component of this season, took a couple of years off), Wyle was starting to grow weary of his Dr. John Carter role by now, and so the producers are using the goodwill efforts he and Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic) had begun in Africa last season as a plot device to move the doctors in and out of Chicago, where they both serve at County Hospital. The second show of the season, "The Lost," involves Carter's return to the Congo to pull Luka out, and then Carter doesn't return until the all-important Christmas episode, #10 "Makemba." The show takes us through the seven months Carter was supposed to have been overseas, showing us how the experience has been changing his life, from his medical efforts to growing a beard to meeting the new love of his life, Kem (Thandie Newton).
But what of John Carter's dangling relationship with Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney), you may ask? Well, that all gets settled in the between-Africa episodes, the handful of "business as usual" shows that set up the new directions and new characters. In one major development, Abby goes back to medical school and begins working double in the ER as a nurse and a med student. She and Neela bond sharing their studies and rotations together, and other doctors, including the cocky Greg Pratt (Mekhi Phifer) and his do-gooder counterpart Michael Gallant (Sharif Atkins), start making the emergency room their own. The department has also been taken over by the abrasive Rocket Romano (Paul McCrane), who you may recall suffered grievous bodily harm in season 9 when his arm had an unfortunate meeting with a helicopter rotor. This leaves the already angry man to now deal with decreased motor function and an inability to operate as a surgeon.
Unfortunately, the ER writers have not yet finished humiliating Romano, and the episode where his fate is decided, #8 "Freefall," is one of the lowest points the series has ever succumbed to. Granted, Romano has always been a villain of sorts on the show, but what he is put through is just cruel, and the fact that it is seemingly meant to be humorous is in poor taste. They even include a muzak version of Tom Petty's "Freefallin'" just in case we aren't getting the joke. I recall reading an interview with Paul McCrane once where he wondered what he had done to piss off the creative staff to have them dispense with his employment in such a fashion, and I do have to admit, the shenanigans come off like that bit on Friends where Joey's soap opera doctor is written into an elevator shaft after Joey claimed to write his own lines. Whatever the situation may have been, McCrane and the producers have since made peace, since the actor has directed multiple episodes of ER since.
Don't despair, however, because following this very low water mark, the waters rise again. While the Africa episodes do make for solid drama and show that the producers are capable of working outside the hospital, the real strength of the show has always been the interpersonal drama that takes place within County General. The first half of the season gets its best material from a surprise three-part storyline spanning episodes 5-7, featuring Susan Lewis (Stringfield) and guest-star Bob Newhart. The comedian plays an elderly man, Ben Hollander, who arrives in the ER after what may have been a suicide attempt. Ben is going blind, and the one-time architectural modeler finds himself alone and unable to continue with the activities he loves. Lewis befriends the old man, and for a tender trio of episodes, tries to help him out of his funk. This plot could have gone down a very schmaltzy road, but instead ends up in a surprising and dark place that is both delicate and heavy hitting.
ER - The Complete Tenth Season takes a dramatic turn midway through the run, however, with episode #12, "NICU," directed by Laura Innes (who also appears as her character Kerry Weaver). When Neela and Abby are assigned to four weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, they learn the difficult job of caring for sick newborns. A lot of important developments take root in this show, not the least of which is Abby gaining a new level of confidence for herself and respect from her peers. It also foreshadows some problems to come for Carter and Kem, who have come to Chicago for the final stages of Kem's pregnancy. ER is at its most emotionally brutal when the medical and the personal converge, when the health problems hit home for one of the doctors. Last season it was the illness of Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards), and this year it's the heartbreak and loss that comes to John Carter, the show's original naïf, a young doctor who cared too much about the pain of his patients and now has pain all his own. In fact, there's a little of that going around, and babies are a running theme. Weaver's son arrives, birthed by her wife Sandy Lopez (Lisa Vidal), and the aftermath isn't exactly smooth; meanwhile, Lewis also gets pregnant, though her nine months come with far less trouble than the rest.
It's always fun watching these old seasons and seeing what young actors and future stars got their start or an early shot appearing on ER. In season ten, one-time stops are made by Michael Pena (World Trade Center, Crash), Sarah Shahi (Life), Niecy Nash (Reno 9/11), Julianne Nicholson (Law & Order: Criminal Intent), and Napoleon Dynamite's Efren Ramirez. These roles range from cops to patients, from a substantial part of the episode to blink-and-you-might-miss-it appearances, and they are also sometimes filled by more familiar faces like J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man) as a humvee driver who caused a car accident. In this vein, there are also members of the hospital staff who get small but recurring roles, such as Lost's Daniel Dae Kim as part of the psychology team and Cole Hauser (Tortured) as Sam's ex-husband. And did you remember that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia-pretty boy Glenn Howerton played asthmatic resident Coop? Neither did I! Though he's gone halfway through the season with no explanation, long before his cohort Rob McElhenney appears as a firefighter. In addition to Bob Newhart and Thandie Newton, we also get an extended guest stay from Mary McCormack (In Plain Sight) as a Red Cross worker in the African episodes.
Of course, great guest stars only work when picked to complement an excellent cast. All of the regulars on ER are of a particularly fine quality. Wyle and Visnjic serve well in the role of leading men, Tierney is fabulous as the never-say-die underdog, and Laura Innes has never gotten enough credit for her ability to synthesize the anxiety and hubris that seems inherent in the personality of an emergency medicine practitioner. She can be feisty, stubborn, and a bit of a bitch, but she also is the most fragile, the one with everything to lose.
For its tenth year, ER managed to have another banner season. Sure, comfort has set in, we know how a lot of the scripts will go, but at the same time, much of the meaty stuff is all the better for how long the show has simmered, like a fine stew that sits and bubbles on the stovetop all day. While the future is going to have its rocky moments, and though this season could possibly be the pivot point from a show that was constantly climbing to one that's starting to work its way back down, The Complete Tenth Season has only just reached that peak.
ER continues to be one of the best in terms of DVD quality. Shot in widescreen, we get a great looking anamorphic transfer on all 22 episodes of the season. I saw no real problems, maybe an occasional hazy area in certain scenes, but overall rich colors and a good, clean image.
As far as I can tell, these are all the original broadcast versions of ER - The Complete Tenth Season. Nothing has been edited or removed. In fact, I at times wondered if maybe I was seeing more than I had seen watching it when the show first aired. There were a couple of episodes where a woman's breast was visible while being operated on. Did this make it past broadcast standards in 2004?
As with the video, the audio gets a pretty solid stereo work-up, mixed in Dolby Digital. It's a good sounding show with lots of sound effects and quality music, and everything rings through with clarity and balance.
Subtitles have varied on the DVD sets from season to season, and season 10 has fewer options than season 9. Making the cut are English Closed Captioning, Chinese, and Portuguese.
A little less than usual, though sticking to the formula of previous seasons. First are deleted scenes on a surprisingly paltry four episodes (season 9 had 17 episodes with cuts)--though the outtakes for episode 15 are substantial, comprising a nearly complete story line. Second is a 9-minute, 20-second gag reel on DVD 3. It's mostly flubs, and basically funny.
The look of the packaging keeps the trade dress of seasons 1-9 but changes the basic package, trading the old folding box to a far more sturdy, fat plastic case with hinged interior trays. The case fits inside an outer slip cover, and in addition to being designed to look like the sets already in your collection, The Complete Tenth Season is the same size as the others despite the new set-up, meaning storage will remain uniform. A paper insert lists the episodes with production credits, summaries, and an indication of which ones have deleted scenes.
It turns out that ER - The Complete Tenth Season is an important one for the show's fans, particularly for those who have been sticking it out through the final year of the series. This is the one where a lot of the characters that would populate the next seven seasons would emerge, with the arrival of Scott Grimes, Parminder Nagra, and Linda Cardellini to assume their roles at County General. These and story shifts in many of the other major characters would make it another excellent year for the hospital drama, finished off by a convergence of thematic material involving new life and the tragedy of parental loss. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.