Except for little details like this, the now decade-old ER seems almost new. The program has dated hardly at all. And yet, watching a run of episodes as good as ER: The Complete First Season comes with a certain sadness. The contrast between this and its current season is startling. Most of the original characters are long gone. Worse, the current season especially has been mired in a long series of cheap, visceral shocks. The show always mixed tragedy with comedy -- it is, after all, set in an emergency room -- but recently ER has simply been unpleasant and mean, particularly during the November and February sweeps. It's still the slickest-looking (and probably most expensive) show on television, but this year it's been traumatic and depressing in cheap, unredeeming ways. ER's hapless staff dodge falling helicopters, runway tanks, lose limbs in freak accidents, and endure unthinkable war atrocities deep in the Congo. It's no longer insightful or life affirming, just unpleasant.
How refreshing then, in its first season, to see ER's residents and nurses simply trying to get enough sleep, to work some semblance of a personal life into their busy schedules, and to keep pace with the grueling pressure while attempting to earn the respect of their colleagues. As originally conceived, ER was designed to show just that, a kind of Paper Chase about doctors.
This reviewer didn't watch the first few seasons of ER (nor its Thursday night rival, Chicago Hope) during its original run. A devoted fan of St. Elsewhere (1982-88), the ingenious hospital drama/black comedy that paved the way for both shows, ER initially seemed like a high concept imitation, which in some ways it is. Only when the show first went into syndication some years later did the program's considerable assets become apparent.
Mainly, ER's writers and its regular cast fashioned more than a dozen compelling characters, presenting them with dramatic situations that are believable and involving. Medical student Carter (Noah Wyle) is overwhelmed by everything he is expected to learn, yet has a natural gift for bonding with his patients and winning their trust. Conversely, second-year surgical resident Benton (Eriq La Salle) is exceedingly talented yet a cold fish with his patients and something of a prick with just about everyone else. One of the best things about the entire run of ER is Carter's relationship with Benton.
Meanwhile, Susan Lewis is a responsible doctor whose relative togetherness sharply contrasts that of her troubled adult sister Chloe (Kathleen Wilhoite). Chief resident Mark Green (Anthony Edwards), a doctor whose intelligent, calm demeanor is the unit's anchor, sees his home life disintegrate as his dissatisfied wife (Christine Harnos) becomes an attorney and moves their daughter out-of-state.
Finally, troubled nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) loves her job but not life outside the ER, especially after ending an affair with gonzo pediatrician Doug Ross (George Clooney), a womanizing doctor. Though talented and compassionate, Ross refuses to play by the rules constantly butts heads with hospital administrators and, frequently, the parents of his patients.
All of this is eminently watchable. It's hard not to get sucked in, even on repeated viewings. Each of the 26 episodes typically consist of a half-dozen story threads. Some of these are self-contained, though many are spread over multiple episode (even half-season) arcs. This format, coupled with its roving Steadicam, semi-documentary look, keeps things moving at a breathless clip.
Like St. Elsewhere, the show mixes black humor with complex life and death issues, and the show deserves praise for dealing head-on with the often shameful inadequacies of both private and government health care policies.
The show's enormous budget and the freedom given its famous executive producers also allowed a groundbreaking level of realism. Never had a hospital drama seemed so real, and never had its cases been presented with such clinical realism. As former NBC executive Warren Littlefield says in the DVD's documentary, "This didn't look like Quincy."
Video & Audio
Presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, ER looks great on DVD. The show plays like it was framed with 16:9 format in mind; in any case, the framing never seems cramped. (The opening titles remain in standard format, however.) The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (with optional French subtitles) is state-of-the-art, circa 1994, though at times the effects and music tracks threaten to overwhelm the dialogue at times. The season is spread over four discs on seven dual-layered sides.
The First Season DVD of ER is crammed with extras, most of which can be found on Disc Four. Behind the Curtains is a 41-minute documentary which includes interviews with most of the key staff and all of its first season stars save Eriq La Salle. The documentary does an excellent job discussing the show's origins from a corporate point of view, but it doesn't dig very deep on individual characters and their direction over the first year. Several interview subjects depict the show as an underdog, a David to Chicago Hope's Goliath, and a program no one at the network believed in. This, of course, is ridiculous: the show had the backing of Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton, on the heels of Jurassic Park (1993) no less. Overall, the impression one gets is that it's amazing that a show as good as ER could come out of a program made by committee with no clear single voice. No Rod Serling or Norman Lear here.
One thing the documentary does get right is its small tribute to the incredible list of character actors who drifted in and out of the show as "guest patients" like John Randolph and Sanford Meisner or as semi-regulars like William H. Macy and CCH Pounder. Hopefully, subsequent DVDs will do likewise for the show's below-the-title supporting cast, some of whom have been with the show since its inception.
On the Cutting Edge: Medical Realism on ER is a nine-minute piece on the show's dedication to medical verisimilitude, and watching it one can certainly appreciate the enormous production complexities involved in achieving this. (Wyle amusingly recites a long, jargon-filled monologue he still remembers ten years after it was filmed.) Additional Scenes offers three brief clips (running four minutes in all) which are offered up without much explanation and make little sense taken out of context. Outtakes consists of 10 minutes of mildly amusing bloopers. All of this material is in 4:3 standard format.
Three episodes include Audio Commentaries. The pilot has two tracks, the first with executive producers Michael Crichton and John Wells, the second with director Ron Holcomb, casting director Wendy Spence Rosato, editor Randy Joe Morgan, and supervising sound editor Walter Newman. "Sleepless in Chicago" features a commentary by producer-director Christopher Chulack and writer Paul Manning, while "Love's Labor Lost" (with won five Emmys) features director Mimi Leder, Rosato, Morgan, Newman, and composer Martin Davich. All these participants also appear in the documentary.
A gimmicky First Year Intern's Handbook includes character and patient bios, a medical glossary and the like. Finally, a full color booklet offers brief descriptions and airdates of each episode.
ER's best years may be behind it, but its early seasons remain funny, sad, and involving, often raising the kind of moral questions many of us never consider until confronted with them in the emergency room. The show's likeable cast and its good writing keeps us interested with 20-odd hours of solid drama.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.