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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Emergency! - Season Five
Emergency! - Season Five
Universal // Unrated // January 20, 2009
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted January 19, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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"Station 51, 10-4. KMG 365."

Zero growth. Absolutely zero growth as far as character development, scripting, and direction from Season Four to Season Five...and thank God for that! Remaining remarkably, reassuringly consistent in its execution and delivery from season to season, Emergency! - Season Five delivers more of the same realistic firefighting thrills (as well as healthy doses of laid-back, family-friendly comedy) courtesy of Los Angeles County Fire Department's Station 51 that kids and their parents had come to rely on all those years back on NBC's mid-70s Saturday night line-up. I've written before about Emergency!, in detail, so considering the unchanged structural template that the series rigorously followed (at least up to this next-to-last season), I'll lift a little bit of my Season Four review here, and add some additional thoughts I've had about the show, along with comments on the Season Five episodes from Universal's five-disc, 24-episode set, towards the end of the review.

"Zero growth." Perhaps that's not entirely accurate. Certainly Emergency! had a prescribed pattern to its stories that remained largely unchanged throughout its run. But at the same time, the writers showed a seemingly inexhaustible supply of imagination in coming up with ingenious action scenes, as well as routine medical situations, to test Squad 51's firemen. If you're not familiar with the series, Emergency! detailed the daily adventures of Firefighters/Paramedics Roy DeSoto (Kevin Tighe) and John Gage (Randolph Mantooth), who worked for Los Angeles County Fire and Rescue. DeSoto was one of the first graduates of the newly formed paramedic unit, and senior to Gage (although by this point, they operate as equal partners, with no one assuming a superior, order-issuing position). Operating out of Station 51 ("Station 51, KMG 365."), DeSoto and Gage were dispatched in their Squad 51 Dodge D300 1 Ton to various locations around L.A. County, responding to calls as mundane as a cat caught up a tree, to as dangerous as an exploding chemical plant. On hand at the fire station were the remaining members of Engine 51 Company (who accompanied Johnny and Roy on the bigger calls), including solid Firefighter Captain Hank Stanley (Michael Norell), jokester Firefighter Chet Kelly (Tim Donnelly), who usually handled the heavy equipment, and Firefighters Marco Lopez and Mike Stoker (same named). Seeing as both Gage and DeSoto were paramedics, and not licensed doctors, they were in constant radio communication with nearby Rampart General Hospital, where the dedicated staff gave the paramedics vital information necessary to stabilize the patient before they were transported to Rampart. Dr. Kelly Brackett, M.D., F.A.C.S. (Robert Fuller) was the dreamy head of the emergency room; laid-back Dr. Joe Early, M.D., F.A.C.S. (Bobby Troup) was a senior neurosurgeon, and sexy Dixie McCall, R.N. (Julie London), was Rampart's head nurse. Frequently on hand was cool, competent resident Dr. Mike Morton (Ron Pinkard), who assisted Drs. Brackett and Early in their duties.

Prior to Emergency!'s debut midseason in 1972, executive producer, writer, director and actor Jack Webb had a solid ratings hit with his revamped Dragnet, and a long-running, bona fide smash with Adam-12, so he was on a hot streak with his long-time network, NBC. Emergency! may never have been a Top Ten performer in the Nielsen's (it's highest rank was 30th the previous season), but it won the advertisers' coveted younger demographics year-in and year-out, reliably performing for five-and-a-half seasons against tough competition, including what many think was one of the greatest nights of TV ever: CBS's mid-70s Saturday night line-up, which included over the years All in the Family, M*A*S*H and The Jeffersons, all three of which competed directly across from Emergency! at one time. That reliability was a hallmark of Webb's TV productions. Having helped pioneer practices that streamlined television production (the extensive use of Teleprompters, utilizing a small, core group of supporting players for numerous character roles, even limiting wardrobe choices for continuity between disparate episodes), Webb's characteristic reliance on absolute (or as close as he could get) authenticity when it came to police procedures and story content, along with a straight-ahead, dramatic framework that eschewed histrionics, had created a stylistic approach that was wholly his own. His aesthetic imprint is unmistakably on every one of his productions.

That being said, Emergency!, whose main, day-to-day production was supervised by series' co-creator, executive producer Robert A. Cinader and producer Edwin Self, certainly has Webb's almost obsessive need to be as nearly accurate as possible in its depiction of the firefighter/paramedic procedures. But it's also much lighter in tone than Dragnet and Adam-12. Certainly, the fact that Emergency! usually doesn't deal with cops and criminals eases up Webb's authoritarian tone. That's not to say Emergency! isn't serious; it frequently is, particularly when the action takes place back at Rampart. Victims of drunk drivers, sick children, and a myriad of complicated medical emergencies keep those scenes quietly intense. It's important to note that at this time, the medical/hospital drama genre was enjoying its last hurrah, with hits like Marcus Welby, M.D. and Medical Center pulling in big numbers, until the 90s and E.R. revitalized it. And Emergency! has a fair number of scenes back at Rampart that play very much like those "doctor shows" we all grew up on.

The complicated, intricate action sequences, with the big blockbuster stunts and gags always anchoring the episodes' third acts (with Mantooth and Tighe obviously doing quite a few of the dangerous stunts themselves, remarkably), are what make Emergency! stand out from other Webb productions. As any kid who grew up on Emergency! will tell you, the series was fascinating just from a "big machines, bit thrills, bit explosions" aspect. Watching this fifth season of Emergency!, I was again surprised at how well the production elements of these final big rescues come off after more than thirty years of ever-increasing sophistication in filming such sequences. There's a reality to these staged rescues, enhanced by the flawless So-Cal location work, that you just don't feel in today's CGI-enhanced TV world.

Where Emergency! is really smart, though - just like Webb's other procedural shows - is that it never just depends on those big action sequences, ingenious and varied though they are. Equal time is also devoted to the rather mundane aspects of firefighting (cleaning up the station house, inventorying the equipment), as well as humorous calls that, while they may seem silly at times, still have a strong sense of reality to them, particularly when the writers twist a comedic scene into a potential tragedy (in Election, Cliff Osmond is laughing at his brother-in-law who's arm is stuck in a drain pipe...until Osmond isn't laughing anymore when he aspirates a beer can pull-tab). Adventure rigidly planted in reality and authenticity is the hallmark of Emergency!; that's probably why its dramatics works so well to this day. Watching Emergency! - Season Five, and thinking more about this terrific show, I was impressed again with the almost direct cinema feel of the series. Whenever a call comes in, and Squad 51 rolls, the jokes and joshing stop dead, and the characters become cool, collected pros, assessing the situation and acting with resolve to solve it. And to Cinader's credit, these sequences are allowed to unfold in a close approximation of "real time" as the camera impassively records the paramedics' actions (I love that steady drumbeat "duh da da dum dum dum dum" that endlessly recycles in the background audio track during the action scenes - it gets right into your head and really ratchets up the tension). Emergency! is a series that actually show you how things are done (that's why kids love it, I believe). Thinking about today's television, there are entire cable channels and networks that owe their programming days in part to Emergency!'s influence, for what else are shows like Axe Men or Ice Road Truckers or even something like Mythbusters, than the natural progression out of Webb's and Cinader's devotion to showing professionals reacting to outsized problems through the use of rigid procedure and the implementation of technology (and often, brute strength) to solve that problem?

What I also noticed this go-around with Emergency! (and which shouldn't have surprised me, considering Jack Webb's influence on the show) is the unapologetic "judgmental" (for lack of a better word) aspect of the show. These guys aren't screwing around. The paramedics, firefighters, nurses and doctors back at Rampart are professionals. And when you break the law or do something stupid that endangers someone's life, they're not just going to treat you - they're going to tell you you're stupid. Now, they'll be understanding after they've told you, but they're not going ameliorate what happened. In Election, Dr. Brackett immediately calls out the mother of a child who denied the child life-saving treatment because of her fear over divorce proceedings. Not only does Brackett say she's irresponsible, he immediately suggests she see a shrink for her obvious problems (can you imagine seeing a cold, logical scene like that in today's TV world?). In The Lighter-Than-Air Man, a couple drives right up to the station, the trailer they're pulling engulfed in flames. Their child was riding (illegally) in the trailer, and they had no idea it was on fire, until it was almost too late. The child is badly burned and almost dies. When the couple admits to Captain Stanley that they knew it was against the law to let the kid ride back there, Stanley cooly replies back, "Now you know why it's against the law." Bam! No excuses. Sympathy, yes. But no one is letting anybody off the hook. In Emergency!'s world (as well as in other Webb-Land shows), the law is there for a damned good reason, and those that break it shouldn't be surprised at the consequences that follow - nor should they expect others to keep quiet about it (the direct opposite of today's "who are you to judge me?" morally equivalent TV).

Here are the 24, one hour episodes of the five-disc box set Emergency! - Season Five, as described on their slimcases. PLEASE NOTE: there is a small disclaimer at the back of the DVD slimcases that states, "Music may differ from television version." There is no further explanation of what cuts, if any, were made. I don't have a photographic memory of the series, but I'm suspicious that more than just music was cut from episodes in this collection. Some of the endings just feel abrupt, as if the final 30-second "codas" that so many series had at the time, after the final commercial break, are missing. As well, the sub-par quality of some of the prints used for Emergency! - Season Five (see the "Video" section below) also points towards syndicated versions used for this release - most of which were edited for time. Edited TV shows are one of the hottest topics concerning DVD releases, and as a reviewer, I've taken both sides of the issue, depending on what title I'm reviewing. As always, the final decision should stay with the consumer, and what he or she is willing to put up with as far as refusing to buy cut series, or enjoying what's out there. It's usually a case-by-case basis.


The Stewardess
Paramedic Gage falls for a flight attendant during a trip home, but he's not the only one skipping a beat when another passenger onboard suffers a dire heart attack.

The Old Engine Cram
A fireman falls into the very chemical that his station is testing to combat the flames, and it's up to the paramedics to save the man's life and future as a hero.

Suffering for the sake of art is taken to new extremes when the paramedics must help a sculptress who has accidentally entombed her model in quick-hardening plaster.

The paramedics feel unusually incompetent when equipment shortages impair them in saving the life of a heart attack victim.

The Inspection
Squad 51 prepares for a station inspection but a parachutist stuck on a power pole, a woman concerned about her husband's heart transplant and a crash in the LA river bed distracts them from the matter at hand.


The Indirect Method
It's the battle of the sexes when a female trainee deals with the male chauvinism amongst the paramedics and proves her worth when it matters most.

Pressure 165
The paramedics encounter a recipe for disaster when they meet a chef who's too embarrassed to admit that he set his own kitchen on fire.

One of Those Days
A series of drastic emergencies have the staff racing to assist, but all the frenzied action comes to a pause when a deaf child gets stuck in an apartment building during a fire.

The Lighter-Than-Air Man
A professional accident victim with a penchant for suing finally gets trapped when he has one incident too many.

Simple Adjustment
Looks can be deceiving, especially when Gage and DeSoto encounter a flirty beautician who has been "enhanced" by too many diet pills.


Dr. Brackett faints after receiving a catfish bite, but Rampart General seems to have patients dropping right and left after a flash fire and a gas explosion.

On Camera
A TV commentator and photographer are disappointed when they're assigned to do a documentary on Squad 51, but they find much more action working with the guys than they expected.

The Squad 51 paramedics find themselves in a moral quandary when a flight attendant refuses treatment for her overdose of sleeping pills.

To Buy or Not To Buy
As he considers becoming a property owner, DeSoto must endure unsolicited advice from Gage as they respond to fire alarms and emergency calls.


Right at Home
DeSoto's sympathy for the child of an accident victim leads to trouble when the boy goes on the attack.

The Girl on the Balance Beam
A former athlete's Olympic dream for his daughter becomes a nightmare when he pushes her too hard.

An unhappy nurse who has retired from Rampart General Hospital makes a suicide attempt and then rooms with a paraplegic teenager.

Above and Beyond...Nearly
Gage and DeSoto feel uncomfortable after they are honored for bravery above and beyond the call of duty.


A married couple rescued by the Count Fire Department tries to express their enthusiastic gratitude, but only gets in the paramedics' way.

The Great Crash Diet
When a nutritionist declares that the diet at Firehouse 51 is unhealthy, Chet Kelly takes over...and the result is a fat failure.

The Tycoons
Gage dreams of success in the hot dog business, but the demands of his job take a bite out of the fantasy.

The Nuisance
A hit-and-run accident causes Gage to be hospitalized and DeSoto to partner with a hard-nosed perfectionist.

The DVD:

The Video:
The full screen, 1.33:1 video transfers for Emergency! - Season Five haven't improved over Season Four. These are quite rough. Noticeable scratches, splices, dirt, and sometimes even huge screen anomalies are present. It's a shame that Universal isn't putting any money into securing new or restored prints for this fine family show. Picture image can be a little soft at times, and the color does wash out or go pink in spots, as well. Compression issues aren't a problem, though.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono audio track accurately recreates the original broadcast presentation. All dialogue is clearly heard, but warbling is noticeable on some of the nastier prints. English subtitles are available.

The Extras:
As a bonus, there's an episode from Adam-12's fifth season, Lost and Found, which briefly features some of the cast from Emergency! in this cross-over episode (there's a brief text card indicating that the release of Season Five of Adam-12 is coming up from Shout! Factory - this is good news, since only Seasons One and Two have so far been released. Evidently, it looks like there's a commitment, then, to release the whole Adam-12 series).

Final Thoughts:
Full-blown, large-scale action sequences vie with the more mundane aspects of firefighting as Jack Webb's and Robert A. Cinader's Emergency! - Season Five continues the exciting adventures of paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto with metronome precision and repetition. Rigidly structured, there's something enormously reassuring about Cinader's adherence to Emergency!'s set mechanics. A terrific family show, particularly for young children who can learn a thing or two in-between watching the spectacular actions sequences, Emergency! doesn't pull any punches when it calls out people for breaking the law and endangering lives - an invigoratingly moral blast from the past for people sick of today's wishy-washy "who are you to judge me? TV. The transfers are a disappointment, to be sure, but content triumphs over presentation here. I highly, highly recommend Emergency! - Season Five.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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