Review by KC Carlson
ER is the longest-running medical drama on television, playing in our living rooms from 1994 to 2009. It managed to survive the eventual loss of all of the original cast (over time), including the excruciating death of its central character — Dr. Mark Greene — in Season 8. This event subtly changed the show, effectively making ER two almost completely different (but linked) shows. The later seasons often included many out-of-the-hospital storylines, which often strayed close to sensationalistic “stunt” programming and soap opera — a far cry from the character-driven high drama storylines of the earlier seasons. Season 15 — the final season — tied everything back together, making both the show and several of its characters whole once again. A pretty remarkable feat in modern TV, considering many shows don’t even finish their first season.
ER: The Complete Fifteenth Season is a five-DVD set which includes all 22 episodes (including the double-length finale), as well as the one-hour (less commercials) special series retrospective Previously on ER, which aired on the same evening that the finale originally aired. The retrospective covers the entire 15-year history of ER, featuring dozens of previous and “current” cast, writers, directors, and producers. (Steven Spielberg even makes an appearance.) There’s also a tribute to original creator/producer Michael Crichton, who passed away while the 15th season was still in production. Most all of the major cast members appear (pretty much everybody except George Clooney), and the documentary also features some moments from notable short-term cast members who went on to greater things, including Maria Bello (the upcoming Prime Suspect) and Jorja Fox (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation).
In addition, ten of the episodes (including the finale) include “Outpatient Outtakes”, special scenes that were cut from the aired episodes (most likely for time constraints). Many of these scenes feature previously unrevealed — and occasionally important — background info about the lives and motivations of the regular characters and guest stars.
Living on Borrowed Time
By all rights, ER Season 15 shouldn’t have existed in the first place. The previous season was slated to be the final season, but that year’s writers’ strike caused a shutdown and a shortened Season 14, so NBC decided to extend the show for one more season. It was a good choice. The extra time allowed for additional “callbacks”
to storylines featuring previous cast members — including all six of the lead actors who anchored the show in its earliest years: Noah Wyle, George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, Eriq La Salle, Sherry Stringfield, and Anthony Edwards.
The latter’s character of Mark Greene, who memorably passed away in Season 8, returns in a special flashback episode in Season 15, in a well-crafted storyline that is also a major reveal of the backstory of the newest ER character — Dr. Cate Banfield (played by Angela Bassett). This episode also allowed another previously deceased character (the extremely — and memorably — dead Dr. Robert Romano, played by Paul McCrane) to return for a curtain call.
All told, more than 15 regular or recurring characters returned to the series as guest stars in Season 15. That sounds like enough for a full seasons of shows by itself, but despite all this guest activity, the ongoing storylines and new characters (the show also introduced a new group of interns in this final season) are the real spine of the season. The overall 15-year story of Chicago’s County General Hospital is — despite the personal successes and frequent tragedy among its staff — that the hospital always endures, because there are always people in trouble and pain who need help.
There are a number of special episodes in this final ER season. “Life After Death” is the shocking season opener and the final appearance of Mekhi Phifer as Dr. Greg Pratt in a heart-rendering performance. Two episodes later, in “The Book of Abby”, Maura Tierney’s character Dr. Abby Lockhart also departs the ER, although much less explosively. A much welcome cameo from Goran Visnjic (Dr. Luka Kovac) helps to recall how important these two characters were to the show in transitioning away from the original cast. In her last regular appearance, Abby learns a very special secret about the ER, one that serves as a recurring emotional touchstone for the final season.
“Heal Thyself” is a powerful episode that resolves a number of ongoing storylines, as well as providing an ingenious flashback segment — featuring Drs. Green, Weaver, and Romano — in a storyline subtly echoing one of the series’ most compelling episodes, Season One’s “Love’s Labors Lost”. It pulls the series together as a whole body of work (a much-recurring theme of Season 15).
“Dream Runner” is an experimental 3-episodes-in-1 “What If?” centering on Dr. Neela Rasgotra (Parminder Nagra) and her mental turmoil over deciding on a course of action regarding both her professional career and romantic entanglements. It’s great fun to watch, and Nagra’s performance is amazing, but the episode becomes so convoluted that several plot threads have to be definitively resolved in the opening minutes of the following episode, simply because we’re not sure what (if any) of what we saw in this episode was “real”. Plus, we see another ER alumni in a new role.
“A Long, Strange Trip” is, subtly, one of the best episodes of the series, but you don’t actually realize this until the final moments. An elderly patient is “hallucinating” that the ER is actually set in the 1960s (with the regular cast attired in era-authentic clothing and hairstyles). We have no idea what’s going on until Dr. David Morgenstern (the always amazing William H. Macy) returns, identifying the patient, as well as making the connection between the patient and the never-revealed “origins” of the ER.
“The Beginning of the End” is truly the beginning of the wrap-up to the series, as a much-different, older Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) returns to the ER. He bears at least one secret and also provides the reason for the big cast reunion in the final episode. It’s the kick-off for a series of “greatest hits” episodes including “T-Minus-6” (a full-alert disaster show), “What We Do” (a navel-gazing episode featuring a camera crew filming a documentary of the hospital, although it cleverly avoids being a cliché by having the cut-from-the-real-documentary desk crew filming their own hysterical self-serving doc), and “I Feel Good” (a largely out-of-the-ER episode where the remaining regular cast get their storylines together before the guest stars take over in the series finale). In it, Archie Morris (Scott Grimes) becomes less Archie-like and Sam (Linda Cardellini) and Gates (John Stamos) get more smoochy.
Before the finale, “Old Times” brings back the classic ER couple of Doug Ross (George Clooney) and Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) in an episode largely set in Seattle, where we see how the couple are doing. Old meets new when Sam and Neela fly to Seattle on a special organ donor pick-up. Little do Ross and Hathaway know that one of the organs is going to their friend John Carter, whose kidney is failing, ultimately saving his life. The episode also features the returning Dr Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle) to supervise Carter’s surgery.
There are a few surprises in the “And In The End…” finale that I’ll not ruin here. But the double-length episode is notable for not doing anything spectacular. It’s simply a final look at 24 hours in the ER, a classic ER theme. Its structure allows us to see many returning supporting characters — many nurses and staff — that we discover have moved over to the seldom-seen night shift of the hospital.
As mentioned, several regular characters of ER exit the show this season before the final episode — some in logical ways that satisfy their ongoing narrative, and some in spectacular, life-altering ways, as sometimes the unexpected triumphs. To provide the life-goes-on, rock-solid base of the ER experience, a new character, played by Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), is introduced in the very last episode. She is obviously intended to be a new ER character, even though we (as viewers) will never see her again. And many of the ongoing soapy storylines of the current regulars are not completely wrapped up either, although we are given clues that there are at least glimmers of hope and redemption for the future (again, ultimately unseen by us viewers).
To underscore this, the final shot of the series is both spectacular and outstanding — which for a show that often went out of its way to capture the spectacular, including a couple of gotta-still-frame helicopter stunts, a “can’t believe I just saw that” building collapse, various explosions, car wrecks, and heartbreaking shootings — tops itself by showing something unlike any of those. The final five minutes of ER shows what is usually the beginning of another episode (like the excellent Season One episode “Blizzard”). The ER gets a call that there has been a very bad accident and “mass casualties” are on their way to the hospital. As the outside ambulance bay starts filling up with incoming vehicles, the camera slowly pulls out so we can see the action in all its widescreen glory. Yet the camera pulls out further and further, until the scurrying doctors and patients look like ants.
Then we realize we are seeing the entire exterior of the hospital for the very first time in 15 years’ worth of shows! And the building is huge! A multi-story tower of healing, just as you would expect an inner-city hospital to be. To seal the deal, an ‘L’ train rumbles into the picture — at about the level of the third floor (as the actual ‘L’ trains in downtown Chicago do). It’s hard to watch this without a lump in your throat — especially if you’ve seen all the previous 331 ER episodes. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty monumental feat in itself.
Quality Wins — If You Let It
When it first debuted in 1994, ER was often included in many discussions of what was then called “quality television”. Television critic and historian Robert J. Thompson positions ER as a show that “brought quality into the mainstream” with its hyper-kinetic pacing and pretty faces. That it’s fared better than many of the original quality television programs (the original MTM sitcoms The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati or the the dramas that epitomized the movement, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere) is really no surprise.
I give credit to Warner Bros. for seeing the entire ER series — all 15 seasons — through to DVD, unlike most of the aforementioned series which all still linger unfinished at Fox. Quality television really hasn’t fared well at all on DVD with many of Steven Bochco’s (L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) and David E. Kelley’s (Picket Fences, The Practice) series either stuck in limbo or not available at all. I fear that we’ll never see series like China Beach or WKRP or The Wonder Years on home video (at least in their originally broadcast forms), because of their complicated (and expensive) music licensing issues.
So having all of ER available on DVD is both wonderful and inspiring. I enjoyed re-watching Season 15 so much that it has inspired me to seek out some of the previous seasons that I’ve missed. It’s a great series full of excellent storylines and performances. All in all, at Fox received 124 Emmy nominations over the years — the most of any television show in history — and won 23 times, including Outstanding Drama Series in 1996 for Season 2.
I’m so glad, in the end, that the patient survived and thrived.
(The studio provided a review copy.)