Sunday, October 02, 2005

TV Review: Time to pull the plug on ER

Thursday night's uninvolving ER episode had us reflecting on a time when the show actually mattered and wondering what could be done about ER at this late date.

In it's first year, ER was a heavily praised drama. We weren't too impressed. One of us watched the Quentin Tarention directed episode that year, the other made do with the crossover on Friends. We didn't feel we were missing much.

Then Julianna Margulies became the heart of the show as Nurse Carol and we were hooked. We didn't mind that Noah Wylie never learned to act. Oh sure, we laughed at the attempts to "butch up" his Dr. Carter, his bad acting, his George Jetson hair -- we just ignored him.

We watched for Carol and Doug. Doug was played by George Clooney. They had chemistry and Thursdays weren't Thursdays if you couldn't check in on Carol and Doug. Carol got pregnant. Doug split. Not 'cause he didn't dig Carol, you understand. He dug Carol. He really dug her. Dug her like to the bottom of his heart. But, man, this whole concept of hospital rules and regulations was just too much for a renegade like Doug.

That plot development might have made sense in 1963. It didn't in the nineties. But Clooney had a movie star career to get to so everyone pretended that it made sense. We wondered how Carol and the twins (yes, she had twins) would make it through. We took comfort in the fact that despite the hassles of being an ER nurse, a single mother of two and remaining on the show while other regulars checked out (and some back in) like it was a hotel and not a hospital, Margulies continued to have the most amazing skin on television.

When Carol left, the powers that be were smart enough to send her off with a brief scene reuniting her with Doug. We didn't care that Clooney had needed a shave at least five days before the scene was shot, that the Don Henley song was so loud it drowned out what little dialogue there was, or that living so close to the sea probably wouldn't be good for Carol's skin.

We were happy for Carol. We were happy for Doug. We were happy for the twins.

We might have stopped watching then. But they'd added the character of Abby played by Maura Tierney and Maura could act. She wasn't the heart of the show, she wasn't ethereal enough for that. But she quickly became the soul of the show.

We watched as Abby became involved with Luka, as she dealt with a her brother who was struck with the family illness, as she sought to leave nursing behind and become a doctor, we even watched, without laughing mind you, when Abby and Dr. Carter did their slow flirtation dance.

Sally Field did a turn on ER and she was one of the few guest stars that actually worked within the framework of the show. (All get praised by critics, few deserve it.) As Abby's mother, she was allowed to touch on emotions she hadn't been able to do in films. She was a powerhouse and riveting. Somehow Tierney held her own next to Field.

Goran Visnjic's Luka, who always seemed way too slick with the whole "my wife just died" as a pick up line, even became semi-tolerable once he hooked up with Abby.

And let's be honest, we really started to care about the supporting characters. Not the new ones. The new ones dropped faster than the Bully Boy's poll numbers. (Think Kellie Martin who had the impossible task of humanizing Wyle's Carter.) But hospital enforcer Kerry, we really grew to enjoy her scenes. Not the character because she was so impossible. Until it was revealed that she was a lesbian. By the time she let "Deb" take the fall for her own screw up, we were having complex emotions about Kerry.

And what of Mark and Elizabeth? His daughter from a previous marriage was a frightmare. Always showing up at the worst time and doing the most damage. Who couldn't watch? Then we learned Mark had cancer . . . before Elizabeth did. Then we watched as Elizabeth prepared for the end that we the viewers already knew was coming because Anthony Edwards' contract was up. It was one thing after another for poor Elizabeth. She must have woken many a morning and wondered why she ever crossed the Atlantic. Then her mother would pop up, visiting from England, and she'd remember why.

But Mark died and, suddenly, they didn't know what to do with Elizabeth. Around the same time, Luka started dating a lot of skanks (including the miscast Julie Delpy). He got drunk and had a nasty car accident with one of them. The sort of thing that made Doug's mini-rebellions look like conformity.

Somewhere along the way, Elizabeth left. Sherry Stringer and Ming Na went the way of Gloria Rueben and Erica Gimpel as well. Pretty much everyone you cared about is now gone. As consolation, the departure list also includes Noah Wylie who never "matured" onscreen. The only thing worse than seeing him strike poses with regulars like Stringer and Tierney and guest stars like Rebecca de Mornay was the show's attempts to show case Carter in a different locale that found him surrounded with new characters you didn't know and few you could care about.
(When an actor can't can't find some onscreen connection with Thandie Newton, a very generous actress who draws out the best in most performers on screen, there's a problem.)

The show debuted in the fall of 1994. It's fall of 2005 now. Eleven years on and the show hasn't learned much. The lessons of Noah Wylie should be quickly applied to Shane West who has yet to be given an ER character (or to create his own) but still takes up a lot of space and wastes a great deal of time. Bland as any hospital food, West sinks every scene he was in Thursday night as he came off like a little boy whose Mommy just took away his Playstation.

There may not be anything to do with West at this point. They've covered every story, medical and soap opera, several points over. Watching Tierney and Parminder Nagra deal with a self-involved patient brought a gentle smile, nothing more. ER's been there (many times) and done that (many times).

On Thursday night, we learned that Luca's broken up with a character we've never cared about and that the breakup is effecting her son (whom we never cared about). We learned that throughout the show. In multiple scenes. It dragged on and dragged on to the point that you looked around for the mangy mutt that had to be responsible before realizing that the dog is in fact ER. The show's tempo was so slow that Abby and Neela's leisurely stroll at the beginning may have been the most fast paced things ever got.

A woman, a surrogate, wanted to give birth naturally. While the parents-to-be bickered and whined ("It's my last egg!" or some such nonsense the woman cried) and the father-to-be made noises about a court order, the baby was born brain damaged. There's a time when that moment might have carried weight. We could see Carol quietly going about the business of taking inventory of the supplies after that incident -- the sort of moment where the show would have breathed and you would have realized that the heart of the show was yet again grieving. Instead we got one chatter box scene after another. Nothing carried weight. Moments came and went. It was as though the only goal was to fill up an hour's time minus commericals.

As season eleven begins, we've truly seen it all. The show could do something about that. They could, for instance, make a gay or lesbian character a real lead. That might shake things up a bit. They could realize that Shane West currently has nothing to offer but his looks and play that up.

Let him be half-dressed and seducing every woman in sight in scene after scene so that when he finally falls for one of the female doctors or nurses (as we know he will if he hangs around long enough), there's conflict because we've seen him as a player. They can probably set West up with a revelation scene at that point where we find out the reason for his behavior and feel like we've made a discovery.

But this is a show that fails to realize that Kerry without someone to really knock against is a waste of both the show and Laura Innes. It's as though everyone's just collecting paychecks and marking time at this point. Luka's little nothing he just broke up with wouldn't have rated as more than an illness of the week five years ago. Instead she's hanging around, dragging down the show with her low energy levels and glum face.

Worst of all there's Abby. It's not that Tierney's become a bad actress. It's just that we've seen it all before. She makes the retreads of the-ghosts-of-ER's-past watchable but even she can't make them fresh.

Somewhere along the way Abby stopped smoking and that was around the time the show started really going for a high gloss soap opera feel. (Think Marcus Welby meets Melrose Place.) It's hard to be the soul (smoking or not) of such a hollow show.

One that wants you to care about characters even though it gives them nothing to do and it doesn't provide any evidence that the writers think, "How would ___ react in this scene?" Instead, they just try to do the storyline equivalent of a mix tape and there's no weight to it and no reason to care.

Thursday night, catching up with the gang from St. Elsewhere . . . Oops. ER. They only look like the cast of St. Elsewhere these days (and no, that's nothing to strive for).

But watching Thursday we thought of how the female lead in Smallville is contractually bound from cutting her hair short (call it the Felicity rider) and how strange, by contrast, it was that supposed dream boat Goran Visnjic was allowed to sport a hair style with a flip in the back that Florence Henderson couldn't have carried off at the height of The Brady Bunch.

The writers don't pay attention so why should anyone else? Why should a producer pull Visnjic aside and tell him the hair style looks ridiculous when everyone's just collecting another year of paychecks? Even the Warner Bros. website that tracks each episode hasn't felt the need to start up this year. That's how little energy there is in the show and around the show.

Some are hoping that Kristen Johnston will manage to shake things up (her first episode airs this Thursday). We have nothing against Johnston, we think she's funny and are sure she can handle drama; however, when a Third Rock From The Sun cast member is being hailed as the potential savior of a medical drama, that gives you an idea of how bad things are.


Here's the hard diagnosis no one wants to hear. There's no quick fix for the show. They've attempted that in years past and its kept the audience around but done little to advance the show.

Here are our recommended treatments.

1) Johnston and Innes will be at odds. It's time to sacrifice Abby. She's got to get her hands dirty. The only reason anyone will care about the story is if Abby's involved in it. Johnston and Innes should both appeal to her and, in this no-win situation, Abby will choose a side and live to regret it.

2) Shane West. We've seen the young lothario a million times on ER already. Keep him shirtless because that's the only reason anyone's going to look when he's onscreen at present. But how about something really radical? Instead of making the token overture to the gay community, how about letting West play a gay lead? Kerry's not been a gay lead character, not when she's unable to have a love life and a career (partly due to her own disposition). How about giving the audience a real gay storyline with gay leading characters? Ray can keep it on the down low for a brief time but when Pratt finds out, there should be an explosion. The ER chooses sides and the audience waits to see who's left standing.

3) Luka's done everything the character can. Send him out of town with the little nothing Sam or else give him a death scene with Abby by his bedside early on in the season. This isn't Doug & Carol. There's too much between them for this to be a reunion. But give Tierney something to tear into. She's watching a man she once felt something for die.

4) Neela and Archie in bed immediately. And for the twist, Neela's not the one who regrets it. The experience awakens Neela who's ready to start living as a functioning adult with or without Archie.

5) Having watched Luka die and got caught in the crossfire between Kerry and Eve (Johnston's character), think seriously of sending Tierney's character off at the end of the season. She's given all that a character can be expected to give to the show. The future that awaits Tierney (if the show's renewed for next season) is what Sherry Stringer returned to: audience favorite abused by writers who don't know what to do with her.

6) New blood comes in during the month of January. Character are introduced and given ample time so that when fall of 2006 rolls around there's not the usual let down of "Who's left to watch?"

Will ER implement any of the above medical recommendations? No. They won't. Visnjic is thought to be popular. Ratings should prove otherwise to any sane person but sane people don't usually run networks. (Fred Silverman, anyone?) Sane people wouldn't allow Tierney to be trapped in one "cute" scene after another as though, just because Sally Field played her mother, she's now Gidget Goes To The ER. Sane people would grasp that a character like Samantha, who is hopeless and a do nothing, is not exciting to watch. Sane people wouldn't have fired Alex Kingston (Elizabeth). Sane people would have found a way to keep Erica Gimpel on the show.

So we're dealing with the chronically insane. They're not fit to make decisions at this point. You've got ER on life support. It's up to the audience to find the living will to pull the plug.


ADDED: ER has worked on hard on a storyline that will continue to develop. See "One voice applauded, one not heard?" which is hopefully the beginning of the show reconnecting with the real world.
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