Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the 2016 television season slowly staggering in after the holidays, there are not many new releases to inspire us. Instead, we’re using the weird winter weather as an occasion to revisit our favorite episodes about freakish storms.
ER, “Hell And High Water,” season two, episode seven (originally aired 11/9/1995)
The medical ensemble drama ER was a ratings juggernaut in the mid-’90s, and continued for 15 full seasons. But in its early days, a few seminal episodes aided the show’s shift into high gear, particularly season one’s “Love’s Labor Lost,” which helpfully propelled fear of childbirth into the 20th century, as Anthony Edwards’ Dr. Greene loses control of a seemingly textbook delivery.
The ER creative forces were looking for another powerhouse episode for season two’s November sweeps, and wanted to frame it around another prospective ER breakout star. When describing to TV Guide years later how the Emmy-winning “Hell And High Water” came to be, writer Neal Baer remembered that one of the main goals was to get George Clooney in a tuxedo, as no one had looked that good in formal wear since Cary Grant. For the first time, ER left the E.R., as Clooney’s Dr. Doug Ross heads to a gala event (hence the tux) and gets a flat in the middle of a flood-inducing rainstorm. He then gets asked for help by a kid, Joey, on Lake Shore Drive (in a Chicago-shot location sequence). Joey’s brother Ben (Erik Von Detten) is stuck in a tunnel, and will most certainly drown in the flood if Dr. Ross can’t get him out.
The ER brass was banking on Clooney’s then-still-untapped star power to carry the entire episode. As we have seen innumerable times since, Clooney was up to the challenge, ditching his gala event, and refusing to give up on the trapped boy, because he’s a doctor, dammit, and committed to trying to save a life, no matter the odds. Dr. Doug then performs a series of superhuman feats: He somehow keeps Ben from succumbing from hypothermia by singing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game.” He uses his car jack to pry the kid’s leg loose. He uses a cop’s pen to perform a tracheotomy. Then he hijacks a news chopper to get Ben to the E.R. faster, becoming a reluctant media star in the process. The flood scenes in this edge-of-your-seat episode are all the more tense juxtaposed against infrequent cuts back to the gang at County General, who are listlessly playing Doom II on a clunky (by today’s standards) computer.
Nowadays, many series try to pitch episodes as event TV, “the one you can’t afford to miss.” But “Hell And High Water” was an out-of-the-box episode that could live up to any superlative moniker the promo monkeys could throw at it. (It remains the most-watched ER episode ever, with 48 million viewers.) In its aftermath, Clooney settled easily into starhood, taking some time out for feature films (he even survived Batman & Robin), sticking with ER for longer than many actors (*cough* David Caruso *cough*) would have. He even returned for a surprise guest spot years later to help his longtime ER love, Julianna Margulies’ nurse Carol Hathaway, get a proper send-off. But we all remember the moment when Dr. Doug Ross became Dr. Doug Ross, and Clooney became Clooney: It’s when he and Ben are flooded out of the tunnel, and he dives down a few times to save him, then raises him up—Christ- or Superman-like, take your pick—under the lights of that news chopper. Future purveyors of “event television,” please take note.
Availability: Like all ER episodes, “Hell And High Water,” is available for individual purchase on Amazon.