Sunday, 5 April 2009

ER Set the Tone

In September 1994 I was eight years old. I was living in South Australia, going to school and spending the day in my grade 4 class under the guidance of my teacher Mr Harris. At that age I was not into music, was certainly not into politics, and my favourite television show was The Smurfs. Meanwhile on the other side of the world, the television show ER premiered in the United States. On Friday, its final episode was screened, leaving a total of 332 episodes over a period of fifteen television seasons.

Those kinds of statistics are remarkable for a television show, especially when matching it against ones own life journey. What were you doing 14.5 years ago? Now that ER has gone off the air, The Simpsons and the original version of Law and Order are the only prime time television shows still on air that premiered in the United States during the 20th century. That’s quite an achievement.

As always Australia was behind the eight ball when premiering quality television shows from the US before the days of the internet. It wasn’t until about 1997 that I started to watch ER on a regular basis about a year after it started airing here. I was more of a Chicago Hope fan myself, due in large part to Mandy Patinkin’s quirky sensibilities. However, the initial element that attracted me to ER was its quick and exciting pace. The show had bloody and complex operating procedures often shifting between two and three cases at one time. This was mixed in with good storylines and solid characterisation from the show’s main players, which was always compelling.

The most pleasing factor of the show was its remarkable consistency. Whilst never reaching the heights of all time classic shows such as The West Wing, the show remained solid, while the great shows surrounding it both started and finished. I’m a bit contrarian in comparison to the critics when ranking the show’s greatest seasons. Most critics regard seasons 1-4 as great, seasons 5-8 as solid and everything after that as complete time wasters. However whilst seasons 1-3 were solid, seasons 4-8 remained the best with a noticeable weak patch between seasons 9-10, with the last five seasons being above average.

I think most of it boils down to which of the main characters you prefer. Out of the first group of doctors I disliked Dr Ross (the overrated George Clooney) and Dr Lewis, but particularly enjoyed Carter, Greene and Benton. As the seasons past I became annoyed at the increasing focus of nurse turned doctor Abby Lockhart and Clooney’s supposedly hunky replacement Dr Kovac. However this period was marked by the surprising and shocking death of medical student Lucy Knight, and Dr Romano’s adventures with helicopters, with two accidents over a three year period (with the first one causing his arm to be amputated, and the second his untimely death). In later years I was particularly taken with Nurse Samantha Taggart and intern turned surgeon Neela Rasgotra. However, the loss of viewers and the show’s slight dip in quality can be traced to the death of the show’s original protagonist Dr Greene at the end of season eight. The show lost its focus with tedious Africa themed episodes as the show struggled to regain its centre.

By the time it regained its quality status the show was cast aside by Australian broadcasters midway through season ten. Thus the majority of the country did not get to witness the transformation of Dr Morris from a complete douchebag, to the show’s emotional centre. The example of the ongoing characterisation of Dr Morris throughout a five year period highlights what the show did so well over its tenure. The transformation was gradual and slow, but by the time it was complete it was hard to imagine that Dr Morris had been anything other than a competent doctor even though long time viewers knew otherwise.

The show’s two hour finale played to the show’s strengths and essentially treated it like another couple of episodes. Patients floated in and out, and due attention was played to the hospital’s past, present and future with Gilmore Girls alum Alexis Bledel introduced as a new intern as part of the finale. The most fascinating part of the finale was having Dr Greene’s daughter Rachel return as a perspective intern after just completing medical school. This allowed the last line of the finale to be ‘You coming Dr Greene?’ an intentional reference to the very first words of the pilot fifteen years earlier where a nurse uttered those words to Rachel’s father. The show, just like the hospital, had come full circle leaving a satisfying reward for loyal viewers.

Arguably the most memorable phrase of the show’s fifteen year run was ‘You set the tone.’ This would occur when the protagonist would leave the series as he would offer advice to his successor. The phrase also provides a fitting tribute to the show itself. It set the tone with regards to its longevity and consistency. Fans of the show could view about 95% of the show’s episodes and remained entertained and enthralled. As my life has progressed across two states, with the completion of three forms of education and the progression from child to adult, the show remained a valuable institution within the televisual landscape and in my own sense of popular culture.


  1. Brilliant writing. Title is perfect. I knew that ER had been around since back in the day, because my mom would watch it (she's a nurse).

    I like your style. If I were a fan of the show, I probably couldn't have said it any better than how you just did.

    Didn't know you had a blog, and I bet you didn't know I had one, either. Check it out, it's

    I will have to subscribe to your feeds. Sounds awesome.

  2. Thanks for the nice comments. After subscribing to your blog and checking it out, I'm returning the favour. Its awesome to have another great one to read.