When it comes to long-standing entertainment traditions, I only have two rules; for rock bands, I like my Van Halen with as much David Lee Roth as humanly possible. (This was back when the creativity and recreational drugs were flowing without abandon), and when it comes to ER, I like it oversaturated with George Clooney and Anthony Edwards. Not that I have man crushes on them or anything, but like Roth's Van Halen (version 1.0), they were hungry for bigger and better things.
Like everything else, including Van Halen, things just get a little sad as they get older because they're either chasing younger, more hipper things, or they completely miss the mark and go on their own warped path. The latter is the case with ER's twelfth season. The focus of County General Hospital is on Dr. Kovac (Goran Visnjic, Elektra) and the blossoming romance with fellow doctor Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney, NewsRadio) even as the one with nurse Samantha Taggart (Linda Cardellini, Freaks and Geeks) is winding down. Dr. Barnett (Shane West, A Walk to Remember) is deciding between his love for music and his interest in medicine, Dr. Pratt (Mekhi Phifer, 8 Mile) is trying to balance time between helping his inner city friends and time in the hospital, and Dr. Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra, Bend It Like Beckham) hopes to become a surgeon while her husband debates returning to Iraq as a medic.
In the last few years of the show, it had become known for casting more recognizable names, be it for one episode or for several, and the show seemed to have an episode each season that allowed everyone a chance to bring it, dramatically. This was the case of "Body & Soul," when a former doctor (guest star by James Woods) stricken with ALS returns to have his health evaluated. Those in the hospital who knew him (he taught medical school classes) reflect on days when he was in better health. Woods' performance was excellent, and Tierney, already an outstanding actress, brings the emotional goods to boot.
Then you have the bad side of casting. Kristen Johnson (3rd Rock From the Sun) is brought in at the beginning of the season to serve as the Head of Nursing. Portraying a former doctor with loads of knowledge of the industry, her role as an antagonist feels underused and even wasted. Perhaps the presence of previous show villainess Dr. Weaver (Laura Innes) is the reason why, but the show's characters have so much distracting exposition that whatever impact Johnson had was quickly forgotten.
Then you have Dr. Clemente, played by John Leguizamo (Righteous Kill). Clemente is a gifted surgeon, but he has a tendency to spend his off time living on the edge of life and never stays very long in each hospital, in part due to a consistent cocaine habit. Both this character and Johnson's are gone by the end of the season, but Clemente goes down in flames, and his exit includes an instance where he damages (and urinates on) a taxi before being sent upstairs for a psychiatrist's exam. Perhaps he subscribes to the thought that if he burns a bridge, he's going to make sure he has some napalm.
Clemente's season leads me to the Rasgotra subplot. Her husband is one of the many Iraq war fatalities, written into the sweeps period for full effect. While the many jabs at the war seem to foreshadow this development, the death of the character gives some of the show regulars a chance to sound off about the war. Hooray, nice and all, but Clemente takes the cake, berating the military bereavement notification team as "storm troopers" who aren't welcome in the ER. That's right son, because Clemente, a coke-addicted doctor with frequent nosebleeds while at work who is seeing a married woman (a choice that leads to him being shot) is a model for society, I'm sure.
Then you have the "Two Ships" episode earlier in the season, when the staff has to treat a series of casualties from a plane that separated over Chicago. The plane crash sequence serves as the genesis for Lost, so I'm guessing this is the show's chance to hang onto something that was a popular plot device at the time. Sad, pathetic, but likely.
The show wasn't a complete train wreck during the season. Tierney's evolution into drama had been occurring for several years and she was becoming a quality dramatic actress, and Visnjic is an underrated actor. Combined with the show's pre-existing cast, it did have its moments, but it's like Van Halen with David Lee Roth now. They try to capture the magic, but there's nothing in the tank and it's like seeing your older and less cool relatives on stage, rather than the group you once knew and loved. Pity.
22 episodes over six discs are presented in their original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen format and look good. The show had been broadcast in high-definition for a few prior seasons, so they certainly knew what they were doing, and the resulting image looks pristine without any edge enhancement or haloing. Overall, it's a quality presentation from Warner.
While I wasn't surprised to get a two-channel Dolby stereo track, I was surprised at the activity by all speakers during the season. With the occasional camera work, when a patient gets brought in from the ambulance, there's an understated amount of activity in the rear speakers that doesn't just mirror the show's sound. In the airplane sequence and some car accident sequences, the subwoofer even fires. The show might have been on its last creative legs, but it sounded good while circling the drain.
"Outpatient Outtakes," otherwise known as deleted and extended/alternate scenes, appear on 16 of the series' 22 episodes (46:27), but they don't really offer much to the experience.
At this point, ER appears to be knocking out the season series DVDs like an obstetrician assigned to Kate Gosselin, so I'd expect a complete series set with more robust extras in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, unless you've got a proclivity for hospital shows, you're better off skipping it.