I gave up watching ER in the fall of 2002, the season after Anthony Edwards left the show. I hadn’t really enjoyed Edwards’ last season—or the torturously slow death of his character, Mark Greene—nor had I gotten a lot out of the two seasons before. I still remember that feeling of relief when I just… stopped. I quit recording ER without telling my wife, who didn’t really notice we’d stopped watching even though she still considered herself a fan. I think we both just wanted to hang on to our fond memories of ER’s phenomenal first five seasons, when the series redefined the workplace drama and introduced a cast of formidable new TV stars—many of whom had been kicking around the business for years. During its heyday, ER was one of the rare shows that I looked forward to each week with a mixture of eagerness and sick dread. I knew each episode would put me through the wringer, emotionally and even physically. (ER started airing around the time that I was having frequent stomach troubles, and more than once the show literally nauseated me.) And I knew that each week, when the hour was up, I’d feel disappointed that my weekly ER time was done.
In anticipation of ER’s series finale, I returned to the show at the start of this season, and in watching Season 15 in full, I’ve often been reminded of why I dropped ER from my weekly rotation seven years ago. For all its ongoing relationship dramas and personal crises, the key to ER’s early success was the white-knuckle emergency procedures, filmed with a constantly moving camera (and scored with a rhythmic soundtrack). But after 100 or so episodes of that stuff, there wasn’t much ER could do to surprise longtime viewers. So the medical emergencies started becoming either predictable or ridiculous. And even the quieter moments after the crises started to feel a little pat. During Season 15, I’ve found that I’ve been able to predict the outcome to most of the patients’ stories: which ones are secretly on drugs; which ones have been sexually abused; which ones the new interns are going to almost kill; and so on. The major difference is that after seven years off, I haven’t had much connection with the current cast (aside from Maura Tierney, who left after the first couple of episodes of this season). All season long, I’ve had absolutely nothing invested in the various goodbyes and concluding storylines—and very little desire to go back and catch up.
That said, I’ve enjoyed a lot about how ER has been wrapping up. For one thing, the show has been doing a lot more standalone-type episodes than it did when I used to watch. In the early years, ER would work up one or two “very special” episodes per season—something for the Emmy voters—but by and large the series followed the steady grind of endless days at a hospital where the traumas never relented. ER was never a show with high repeat value; it was more like a soap, in that fans were compelled to keep coming back to see what would happen next. Once whatever that might be had happened, there was very little reason to go back and see it again.
This season though, roughly a quarter of the episodes have been more playful in their structure. One episode was told mostly in flashback; another followed three possible outcomes for the same doctor on the same day; another cleverly brought Anthony Edwards back into the fold by jumping between an old case and a current case; one took the form of a documentary about emergency medicine. The season’s best episode, “Old Times,” showed the returning Dr. Carter getting a kidney transplant thanks to his old mentor Dr. Benton and—unbeknownst to all concerned—Dr. Ross and Nurse Hathaway at a hospital across the country. It was a nice reunion—not heavy-handed in the slightest, and one that played to the actors’ and the characters’ strengths.
Watching “Old Times” also cemented for me what I’ve enjoyed most about this season, during all of its final bows from the ER veterans. When ER debuted in 1994, it presented a vision of the American workplace in which people weren’t always “one big family.” Some characters barely interacted with each other; some actively disliked each other. County General wasn’t really a warm place to visit every week; it could be as gray and forbidding as the Chicago winter. We came back because we knew more about the characters individually than they knew about each other, and we wanted to see them make it through another day. We were kind of their support group.
“Old Times” was a reminder of why these doctors’ and nurses’ lives were so tough back then. It was because they were just starting out, and still learning the ropes, and enduring the 48-hour days. When "Old Times" showed Benton comfortably settled in at Northwestern and talking about taking his deaf son to a Bulls game, and Ross and Hathaway enjoying marital bliss and a thriving practice out west, it was a way for ER producer/co-creator John Wells (who wrote and directed the episode) to indicate that life goes on after County, with potential happy endings for those who make it through the wars.
There was a little of that vibe in tonight’s series finale too. “And In The End” shuffled between two main storylines: one a typical 24 hours of teaching, tears and terror in the ER, and the other the dedication of Dr. Carter’s new clinic, with appearances by a lot of familiar faces. The overriding theme: life will continue to go on, but someday the current residents will graduate to a better life, and the current interns will become residents, et cetera.
Perhaps “And In The End” would’ve been better—or at least more memorable—if it had been more like one of those offbeat episodes that ER has been doing lately. But with two hours to fill, Wells and company chose to go a different route, using the extra time to include more quiet scenes of interaction and valediction, peppered with the “Holycraphesbleedingout!” moments that have made ER so indelible. It was really just another ER episode, only longer and with more emotional “buttons.”
That said, there were a few special twists for longtime fans. Mark Greene’s daughter Rachel came back, to apply to med school. Dr. Carter attended at a horrific birth that recalled the Season One classic “Love’s Labor Lost." That erstwhile Gilmore girl Alexis Bledel made her ER debut, playing an overwhelmed new doctor—shades of Carter in the pilot. Dr. Gates shot hoops with Carter, like Drs. Ross and Greene used to. In the latter-day ER tradition, the episode was peppered with celebrity guest stars like Marilu Henner, Ernest Borgnine and Thandie Newton (the latter two of whom have been on the show before). There was a little awkwardness between Drs. Benton and Korday, whose love affair ended badly many, many seasons ago—and then a nice moment of reconciliation. And for fans of the later seasons, it was nice to see a resolution to the on-again/off-again love affair of Gates and Nurse Sam.
The episode was also littered with those quick bursts of humor, adrenaline and mini-plots that ER has always done so well. During the traumatic birth scene, there was a quick cut to the tide of gore pouring out of the patient and around the doctors’ feet—showing how fragile the human body is. Later, an HIV-positive cancer patient sat with his partner and took a moment to remember all their dead friends from decades’ past—summing up a character and a situation in under a minute of screen time.
It’s a shame in a way that NBC let ER drag on so long. The show ceased to be a sensation right around the time I quit watching, and the current season’s viewership has been so low that I don’t know if this finale will have the same impact it might’ve had five years ago. But I’m glad I took the final lap along with the show, so I could fully appreciate the achievement of ER reaching the finish line. “And In The End” proved that the ER formula has retained a lot of vitality after all these years. And now, the best way to keep it fresh is to put a stopper in it, and stick it on the shelf. This medicine has served its purpose.
For The Episode: A-
For The Season: B
For The Series: B+
-It’s a testament to how well Anthony Edwards played Mark Greene that when he showed up in the one-hour retrospective preceding this episode, I said to myself, “Huh, I guess his cancer went into remission.” Part of me thinks that Anthony Edwards is actually dead.
-The shot of Archie Morris waking up at the hospital at the start of the episode was a direct homage to a similar scene in the pilot, right down to the appearance of the night-shift nurse whose name I never bothered to learn during all her years on the show. (Only this time she talked about her grandkids instead of her kids.)
-I thought it was cool that all the returning characters made it into the opening credits, with images of themselves from the show’s classic years. It complemented the closing shot, with the CGI of the El and the top of the County building… an image I don’t believe we’ve ever seen before (even though ER-watchers have spent so much time around that hospital and on that train that we could’ve probably sketched that shot ourselves).
-The warm farewell between Benton and Carter would’ve been more meaningful if they hadn’t reconnected so movingly in “Old Times.” Still, I'd like to think that since they'll be living in the same city, they'll stay in touch.
-I’m curious: For those of you who watched tonight but hadn’t watched in a while, didn’t you find it easy to fall back into the rhythm? That’s the grace and the curse of ER: It hasn’t really changed much in 15 years.