A highly popular, well-reviewed and influential ensemble drama, "E.R." still stands as one of (few) remaining quality television programs on-air as it nearly reaches its tenth year. The show was created by author Michael Crichton, who graduated from Harvard Medical School and spent time at Massachusetts General Hospital. Apparently, the concept of the show met with skepticism from NBC, but came around after Crichton worked with Spielberg (another of the show's producers) on "Jurassic Park". The show, which continues to pull strong ratings despite competition from other new dramatic fare, deals with doctors in an ER in Chicago. During each hour-long episode, the multi-layered stories deal with both the relationships - personal and professional - of the doctors, as well as the stories of the incoming patients. The show does a superior job balancing the pain, tragegy, emotion and drama with hope and the occasional hint or two of humor.
The first season of the series clicks into place almost immediately, thanks to remarkably good casting choices (the show won the Emmy in the first year for casting). Anthony Edwards is confident and assured as Dr. Greene, Eric Lasalle is excellent and a strong presence as Dr. Benton, George Clooney is quite good as Dr. Ross; he's better here than he was in a couple of his early film roles. Excellent support is provided by Julianna Margulies and Noah Wyle. Although not all of the early cast remain on the show, the show continues on with such talents as Mekhi Phifer, Alex Kingston, Goran Visnjic, Maura Tierny and Laura Innes.
The original season gained popularity quickly, even attracting "Pulp Fiction" filmmaker Quentin Tarantino to helm "Motherhood", the second-to-last episode of the first season. As with the majority of the episodes, "Motherhood" benefits from "ER"'s mix of strong production values, excellent writing, editing (sometimes cutting before the end of a scene) and (often handheld) cinematography. The show's characterization is stronger than many ensemble dramas, leading to an engaging program that knows when to rachet up the tension and allow a breather, although there are certainly times where the suspense of the series becomes almost unbearable. At its best, "ER" is a tremendously compelling, edge-of-your-seat drama.
The set includes 25 episodes presented across four (3 dual-sided/dual-layered DVD-18s and one single-sided, single-layered disc) discs. Menus are mildly animated and easily navigated.
1. Pilot: After a building collapses, victims are rushed to Chicago's County General, a teaching hospital, where the young residents and interns help with the injured while also dealing with other patients. Medical student John Carter (Noah Wyle) experiences his first day and Nurse Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) attempts suicide.
2. Day One: The physicians are inundated with food poisoning victims, including German tourists and members of a wedding party who ate at the same restaurant. Dr Ross (George Clooney) visits Nurse Hathaway and Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) angers his wife by turning down a lucrative job offer.
3. Going Home: A mysterious patient (Rosemary Clooney) wanders the halls of the ER, breaking into song to express herself, but nobody seems to know who she is. Carter contends with romantic advancements from a patient and Nurse Hathaway returns to work after her suicide attempt.
4. Into That Good Night: Dr Greene must decide whether to leave Chicago and follow his wife to her new job in Milwaukee, or stay behind. Carter suspects he got herpes from a patient. Dr Ross treats a pregnant woman who was in a car accident, while Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle) treats the gang member responsible for the accident.
5. Hit And Run: Dr. Ross deals with a schizophrenic mother who brings her son in to get his hearing checked because he can't hear the same voices she can. Carter accidentally contacts the wrong parents to inform them of their loss in a fatal accident. Nurse Hathaway must contend with Dr. Ross's romantic advances.
6. Chicago Heat: A broken air conditioner causes tempers to flare amongst the doctors contending with a variety of emergencies. Dr. Ross and Dr. Greene treat a 5-year-old girl who accidentally swallowed cocaine, Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) must deal with her lazy sister Chloe, who wants to move in with her.
7. Another Perfect Day: Dr. Benton is a candidate for a Fellowship against his rival, Dr. Langworthy (Tyra Ferrell). Dr. Ross and Nurse Hathaway save a 12-year-old boy injured in a boating accident and celebrate with a kiss. Carter gains confidence by performing his first spinal tap. Dr. Greene's family problems increase.
8. 9 1/2 Hours: Dr. Greene calls in sick to spend time with his wife and Dr. Ross reluctantly substitutes for him as chief resident. Dr. Benton deals with the loss of his Fellowship to his rival, while dealing with his family. Nurse Hathaway helps a young rape victim. Carter becomes infatuated with Dr. Lewis.
9. ER Confidential: On Thanksgiving Day, Dr. Lewis prepares dinner, completely unaware that her lover Dr. Cvetic (John Terry) is suffering a nervous breakdown. Carter is unsuccessful in helping a suicidal transvestite. Dr. Greene, Dr. Langworthy and Nurse Hathaway deal with reckless teenage drivers who killed a girl.
10. Blizzard: The first major snowstorm of the season causes a 32 car accident and the victims are rushed in. Dr. Greene instructs a man, via telephone, on how to deliver a baby. Dr. Ross clashes with a new physician (CCH Pounder), then is upset when Nurse Hathaway announces her engagement to Dr. Taglieri (Rick Rossovich).
11. The Gift: On Christmas Eve, Dr. Greene desperately tries to leave the hospital to buy gifts for his family, but keeps getting pulled back in. Dr. Benton clashes with a brain-dead patient's wife over organ salvaging. Dr. Lewis discovers that her sister is pregnant. Dr. Ross makes a fool of himself at Nurse Hathaway's engagement party.
12. Happy New Year: Dr. Lewis releases a patient who later dies of a heart attack. Carter tries to prove himself to Dr. Benton by attending a surgery, but then fouls it up. Dr. Greene and Nurse Hathaway try to save a young gang member with multiple gunshot wounds. Dr. Benton's sister decides to put his mother in a nursing home.
13. Luck Of The Draw: Dr. Lewis is accused of negligence. Dr. Benton is called out of surgery to find his senile mother who is wandering the streets of Chicago. Dr. Greene contends with a patient who has cocaine packed in condoms blocking his intestines. Carter helps Benton's other new intern, Deb (Ming-Na Wen).
14. Long Day's Journey: Dr. Greene deals with a woman who has been physically abused by her teenage daughter. Dr. Benton hires a physical therapist (Gloria Reuben) to stay with his mother. The doctor who accused Dr. Lewis of negligence has a heart attack and, ironically, she is the only one he trusts to care for him.
15. Feb 5, '95: Dr. Greene is offered an attending position after completion of his residency, which greatly displeases his wife. Dr. Benton has run-ins with several people, including Nurse Hathaway and his mother's physical therapist. Dr. Ross treats a boy bitten by his pet viper, while hospital personnel search for the snake.
16. Made Of Two Hearts: Dr. Ross and Nurse Hathaway treat a young Russian girl with AIDS, who was abandoned at the hospital by her adoptive mother. Carter treats three high school cheerleaders who ate chocolate soaked in LSD. Deb also eats some of the candy and botches an assignment. A policeman brings in an injured dog.
17. The Birthday Party: Dr. Benton desperately tries to leave the ER so he can attend his mother's birthday party. Carter tries to get Dr. Benton to ask him to return next year, because he's already asked Deb. Dr. Ross risks his career when he loses his temper with an abusive parent. Dr. Greene's marriage problems worsen.
18. Sleepless In Chicago: Dr. Benton pulls a 48 hour shift and the staff worries that he's working too hard, especially after his mother falls down the stairs and is rushed to the ER. Dr. Greene learns that his wife wants a divorce. Dr. Lewis is scammed by an escaped mental patient, who passes himself off as an MIT efficiency doctor.
19. Love's Labor Lost: A special episode focusing on one gripping case. Dr. Greene misdiagnoses a pregnant woman's condition and releases her to her husband, only to have her return later. He must race to save her life and that of her unborn child, but in the end only the baby survives. As a result, Dr. Greene becomes severely depressed.
20. Full Moon, Saturday Night: The ER is filled with especially strange patients. Dr. Lewis takes over for the depressed Dr. Greene and greatly impresses the new chairman of the ER (Michael Ironside). Carter and Deb help Dr. Lewis save an 18-year-old man hit by a car, then have to help the driver who hit him.
21. House Of Cards: Dr. Greene is forced to present the case of a pregnant woman, who died, before an auditorium of his peers. Dr. Benton commits his mother to a nursing home. Deb makes a grave error in judgement and decides to quit medicine. Dr. Lewis must contend with her pregnant sister. Dr. Ross's new relationship heats up.
22. Men Plan, Gods Laugh: Helpless to save his mother, Dr. Benton begins a crusade to cure every patient he sees. Dr. Ross makes plans with his new girlfriend (Lisa Zane). Dr. Greene butts head with ER Chairman Dr. Swift, when he opts to spend time with his wife instead of attending a meeting to discuss his career options.
23. Love Among The Ruins: Carter gains confidence in himself, impressing Dr. Swift and even Dr. Benton, until Benton learns that Carter's family is wealthy. Dr. Greene jeopardizes his attending job by moving to Milwaukee to reconcile with his wife. Nurse Hathaway and Dr. Taglieri bicker over the details of their wedding.
24. Motherhood: Dr. Lewis delivers her sister's baby girl, but is dismayed when she finds out that her mother (Valerie Perrine) won't let them live with her. Carter turns down an internship with Dr. Greene, in favor of one with Dr. Benton, only to discover that Dr. Benton has found someone else. Dr. Ross's relationship falls apart.
25. Everything Old Is New Again: Dr. Greene is sued for malpractice in the death of a young pregnant woman. On his last day in the ER, Carter gives Dr. Benton a low evaluation, only to discover that Benton gave him an excellent review. Benton then offers him an internship. Dr. Taglieri dumps Nurse Hathaway on their wedding day.
VIDEO: "E.R." was one of the early shows (the first?) to be filmed and presented in widescreen. However, that started later in the show's run (a couple of episodes in November 2000, then consistently starting in December 2000), which makes the new anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) presentations of the episodes in this first season a surprise. Although none these episodes were originally presented in widescreen, they appear to have been filmed with widescreen in mind, as the compositions appeared quite good.
Picture quality, on the other hand, was somewhat more inconsistent. Although certainly never poor, I did notice a few issues at times. Noticable, mild print flaws - including specks, hairs and some minor dirt - were not always apparent, but were spotted during some scenes. Sharpness and detail were an improvement upon broadcast quality and definition can appear quite good at times. However, shadow detail can be just average. No edge enhancement was seen, but I did spot a couple of brief traces of pixelation.
The show's color palette appeared well-rendered throughout, with a natural and accurate appearance. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked fine. The episodes did appear generally fine, but I was occasionally a bit dismayed to see the occasional instances of wear. These are fine transfers that often look good, but the occasional wear visible was a bit dismaying.
SOUND: The Dolby 2.0 soundtracks are quite good; while they're not "feature film" level, of course, these are complex soundtracks that manage to balance out sound effects, music and a great deal of overlapping dialogue and still manage to have it all come across clearly. The score (by Martin Davich; James Newton Howard does the title score) is surprisingly dynamic and full-sounding, adding greatly to the tension or emotion of the scene. Sound effects and dialogue remained quite clear throughout.
Commentary 1: Executive producer/creator Michael Crichton and executive producer John Wells offer a commentary for the pilot episode. This is really a fascinating commentary track that focuses right on the necessary information. Wells jumps into issues of casting, research, production and story, while Crichton talks about maintaining an appropriate level of medical accuracy and his development of the script that he'd written 20 years prior. Also discussed are technical issues - using the steadicam to try and up the pace of the show and speed of production. The gaps between comments start to get larger as the episode continues on, but the commentary is quite good at its best.
Commentary 2: Director Rob Holcomb, casting director John Levy, associate producer Wendy Spence Rosato, editor Randy Jon Morgan and sound editor Walter Newman provide a commentary for the pilot. There's a little more humor throughout this commentary, as the participants start off joking about how long they thought back then the series would last before it was cancelled. Although the Crichton/Wells commentary was certainly informative and enjoyable, the presence of more participants on this commentary allows the viewer to understand more aspects of the production of the show from different viewpoints. We learn more here about casting decisions that were made and how the actors have developed their characters, editing choices to ramp up the pace of the show and the show's complex sound design work.
Commentary 3: Director Mimi Leder, associate producer Wendy Spence Rosato, editor Randy Jon Morgan, composer Martin Davich and sound editor Walter Newman offer a commentary for "Love's Labor Lost", which won 5 Emmy awards. Director Mimi Leder talks during most of the track, going into detail about her opinions on storytelling, camerawork and staging a scene. Composer Martin Davich and sound editor Walter Newman talk about their roles in the episode and how music and sound work together for the scene. Producer Wendy Rosato and editor Randy Jon Morgan continue, after providing comments on another commentary, talking about how the show structure, pacing and other production obstacles.
Commentary 4: Producer/director Christopher Chulack and producer Paul Manning provide a full-length commentary for "Sleepless in Chicago". They provide a lively discussion of the episode; there's a little bit of narration of the story as it passes, but they also provide some good on-set stories and talk about technical and story details.
Outtakes (disc 4): Obviously, "E.R." is a dramatic show and occasionally, tension's lightened by a gag or two. This 10-minute reel (partially from episodes, partially from interviews) offers some very amusing missed lines and jokes from the cast.
Post Operation Procedures (disc 4): This 5-minute featurette leads viewers through the post-production process of "E.R." The show has a very short post-production period, so the decisions have to be made quickly and there's little room for error. As with the other featurettes (listed below), these are all newly-produced pieces.
Medical Realism in the ER (disc 4): This nearly 9-minute featurette offers interviews with the show's technical advisor and other members of the cast and crew, who discuss how they strive to achieve a level of medical realism - the toughest element of that being the enormous task of memorizing the medical terms and figuring out what's what.
Behind the Curtains: This is a 2-part documentary that can be played as separate parts or put together for a 42-minute total. This is the best of the video supplements included in the set. The opening piece goes deep into the creation of "E.R." and provides plenty of interesting information. We go into several areas, including the fears that NBC had with such a fast-paced and multi-layered show. Steven Spielberg also discusses his involvement; the director considered developing the script into a feature film before "Jurassic Park", then thought it would make for a strong television series. The discussions of the production process early on - where the cast and crew were shooting complex scripts that were nearly feature-length - are particularly engaging. Interviews with Crichton, Clooney, Wells, Spielberg, NBC pres Warren Littlefield and other cast & crew members are included.
Also: Booklet that includes cast list, awards information, episode synopsis and listing; cast notes and production info (in the handbook section on disk 4.)
Final Thoughts: "E.R." is a tense, well-written and well-acted drama that is consistently compelling and often fast-paced. Warner Brothers has provided satisfactory image quality for the episodes, good sound and quite a few supplements. The $59.99 (less at most stores) price tag is reasonable for 1179 minutes (plus supplements) of material. A definite recommendation.