Serial Watcher Special: ER at 300

In today’s fast moving and impatient TV world, it is a rare occasion when a prime-time drama lasts for 14 seasons, but ER is one of those unique shows and it marked its 300th episode this week.

When you look back at the show over the years, it’s impossible to ignore the main change which is the cast. When Noah Wyle left, he was the last of the original leading cast members. Chuny and Malik are still there but the show was never about them. It’s a credit to the show’s creators that they managed to keep it going for so long with such frequent cast changes. While Anthony Edwards and George Clooney were the leading men when the show started, it wasn’t “their” show; it was always about the ensemble as a whole. However, we can’t ignore the fact that ER is not as good as it used to be, and some of the blame has to fall on the cast changes.

In an effort to keep the show going when major stars were leaving, compromises had to be made. When Archie Morris first came to County General, did anyone believe that he would one day be one of the main characters of the show? Did anyone even want him to be a main character? But as the cast dwindled they had no choice but to “promote him” and it included a complete character overhaul. Now, it’s usually a good thing when a character experiences growth and development, but In Morris’s case it was just not believable, as he went through a complete 180 degrees turn and no-one can change that much. ER is different from another long running NBC drama, Law & Order in that the other show, which is even older, doesn’t focus much on the character’s personal lives, so it’s easier to inject new characters and bid farewell to old ones, but with ER the personal issue is so dominant, so it’s harder to accept new characters when the old ones were so loved.

But the characters change is not the only weak spot. When you’re doing 300 episodes, it’s hard to constantly come up with new storylines. Abby’s alcoholism, for example, is not the first addiction we’ve seen on the show, and in a way it reminded me of 90210, where it seemed that each character had to battle some sort of addiction on one point. While ER isn’t as bad, it did experience a lot of repetitiveness over the year and it was as if the same stories kept happening, only with different doctors and patients.

But it’s not all bad. Sometimes the writing is still very good and you get some grace moments that seem to make it all worthwhile. We had one of them this week with Abby’s confession to Luka that she’s drinking again. As I was watching again, I realized that no matter how much I miss the old cast, the new one can really act, and the writers still have it. The best word to describe this extended scene is realistic, because Maura Tierney and Goran Visnjic looked and felt like a real couple, going through a relationship crisis. That scene was beautifully written and acted. The problem is that there aren’t too many scenes like that any more.

The 300th episode was a good one, the best of the season. But as I watch the 14th season, what really sticks to mind is a scene from a few weeks ago, when everyone was in a bar and Chuny said “I still remember the days when Mark Green and Doug Ross used to run this place”. Perhaps this is my problem, that I also remember those days and miss them, perhaps that’s why I think the show has run its course. Carter’s farewell was the perfect opportunity to close the doors of County General but they missed it. The original plan was for this season to be the last, but with the WGA strike going on, it might not get the proper sendoff it deserves, and may be extended for a 15th season, which might be shorter. I’m glad that the creators and the network acknowledge the fact that ER doesn’t have much left to give and want to give it a fitting ending, so if a 15th season is needed, so be it, just don’t be tempted to stretch it too long. Please, sign ER‘s DNR papers.

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