The Common Good
January-February 1996

ER's Missing Ingredient

by Danny Duncan Collum | January-February 1996

I confess to being a year behind the curve on this whole ER thing. I know it's supposed to be the bright hope of network drama-dom.

I confess to being a year behind the curve on this whole ER thing. I know it's supposed to be the bright hope of network drama-dom. And, in fact, it was playing weekly at my house throughout the first season. But I could never stay in the same room with it more than 10 minutes at a time.

That isn't a statement about the show, it's a statement about me. At the time my real life was a lot like the inside of an urban emergency room on a Saturday night. I was cramming a three-year grad school program into two years, with a part-time job and two book projects on the side, and spending about half my daylight hours in the company of a 2-year-old.

It wasn't the heart attacks and heavy bleeding that drove me away from ER; it was all those times when Eric LaSalle was doing surgery and looking at the clock knowing that he was 20 minutes late getting home to his sick mama. Or when Anthony Edwards was missing yet another date with his increasingly estranged wife. Or...you get my drift.

Those time-crunch situations are woven into every ER episode. Every time they came up, it would remind me of some project or task of my own that was hopelessly behind schedule and the nervous tension would start to build. Why, I wondered, would anyone find this amusing?

The constant refrain of "I'm late, I'm late, I'm late..." is still an integral part of ER's narrative drive. This season brings the weekly adventures of the doctor who's always late to fetch her sister's abandoned baby. But my life has quieted to a dull roar, and I've finally gotten with the mass entertainment program.

NOW I WATCH ER like everybody else. And, I admit, it is a classy piece of work. The writers, producers, and directors wind up their story machine until it is ready to fly apart, and then it does...almost. And the actors who much of the time are rushing from one mechanical task to another-like assembly-line workers on speed-up-manage to make each cog in the machine feel like a human being. Even the marginal players, such as the burly desk clerk with Shakespeare in his blood, are unique and believable Chicagoans.

But for all the high melodrama and manic pacing, there is still something lightweight about ER. To this viewer, at least, it rarely carries the human gravity even of an L.A. Law (in the early years) or a Hill Street Blues (to harken way back to the most illustrious ancestor). The reason is related to all those "machine" references in the previous paragraph. The actual "work" of the show, the thing around which every character's life is organized, is something a lot like plumbing or welding. The doctors and nurses patch the holes and test the joints and move on. The patients come and go so quickly that, even when they are conscious, they never become characters.

Yes, you could say, this is true, but it is only symptomatic of the deeper problems of the medical-industrial complex that oppresses doctors, nurses, and patients alike. And you'd be right. But that's not what ER is about. If it were really about the operation of a major American medical institution, the main characters would be the insurance claim clerks. No, in ER the inherent impersonality of mass-produced medicine is just being exploited as thrill fodder. The thrills are classy, not cheap. But it is still titillation.

During that long overbooked season of mine, the only television shows I really watched were The X-Files and Homicide: Life on the Street. Those are not lighthearted affairs, of course. But I don't think it was diversion I was seeking, it was catharsis. I was looking, as always, for moral content and spiritual gravity, and thrills, cheap or otherwise.

For Mulder and Scully, and for the blue-collar Sherlocks of Baltimore, there is always a point to the quest. They are not rats on a treadmill. And the point is not just to close the wound or set the bone. The point is Justice and Truth. And the protagonists, in spite of everything, remain convinced that justice is attainable, and that the truth is out there.

I don't get that deeper sense of catharsis from ER. To put it crudely, I never get a sense of how the world would be different if these particular medical workers weren't there to bind up these particular wounds. The sound and fury, the blood and tears, ultimately signify little.

The ER producers try to pump in some meaning through the collision of the doctors' work and their lives. And that sometimes works. The conflict between George Clooney's child-saving medical grace and his off-hours depravity approaches the tragic, and could open up some new dimensions in the drama as it plays out. Or Clooney's character could end up like L.A. Law's Arnie Becker, a one-dimensional moral caricature, endlessly rerunning a cliched set of male foibles. n

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches creative writing at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

 

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