Dangerous Universe


ER in the 5th Season

Ask any television guru: 5 years is the life span for a dramatic series. A successful sitcom dies a slow death, lingering on for years after it has run out of life while fans gather around, seeing a comeback in every odd laugh or spurt of old comedic brilliance. But a dramatic series crashes harder than a junky after a week long binge. It seems to happen overnight, or at least over the summer. At the end of the 4th season finale its the best show on television: interesting characters, compelling stories, plot twists that seem to sweep you up and send you flying down the story arc. But then the 5th season premier comes along and its just. . . blah. The characters have nothing to offer, you can't buy the conflicts and, worse yet, can't seem to bring yourself to care. Who are all these new faces running around? And didnt they do this story in the 3rd season?

     The 5th season has it's icy claws around the throat of ER. It won't be long now, and like one of the shows conflicted but dutiful medical specialists confronted with a difficult illness, I can't tell you why or how its happening, I can only show you the symptoms.

     One of the strengths of ER and the one of the keys to it's incredible success is that it's essentially a soap opera. The "real" drama of the emergency cases gives ER its credibility, but as exciting as those cases can be, that's not what has kept the ratings so high for so long. We don't turn in to see what new trauma comes banging through the doors during the episodes first 8 –11 minutes (of course, when you count next time, thatll be the exception). We tune in to see if that rapscallion Doug Ross will do right by the tough-but-vulnerable Carol Hathaway; we tune in to see what new horror the shows writers will throw at long-suffering saint Jeanie Boulet; we tune in to see if super-woman Carrie Weaver will reveal the human being behind the steely faade of efficiency; we tune in to see if male ingenue John Carter will ever turn interesting; we tune in to see if ex-family man Mark Greene. . . You get the picture.

     Doubtless you have your own favorite character. And doubtless this character joined the cast in the 3rd season at the latest. Because if you give a damn about any of the characters added after that, you're far more into ER than might be healthy.

     Its a sure sign that a show has lost the plot when they start (a) loading us with new characters; and (b) these characters are all babes. And its another sign of trouble when a show starts slapping them with problems that dont seem to stick or yield much story material. That Lucy Knight character is a perfect example. She was added last season as a foil for John Carter. The sexual tension between the two was about as spicy as applesauce, and their conflicts were boring. And then, she was addicted to Ritalin for about three episodes. So, does that mean Carter wasnt being overbearing earlier in the 4th season? That Lucy was indeed immature/irresponsible/too young, because of her addiction? No. It means the character had already run out of steam, and the producers were desperately looking for something for her to do.

     And what have they given us this season as far as new characters go? Some Greek model/doctor: will he and Carol get together? Oooo, ya think? Good-looking black woman doctor: can she reign in her youthful idealism and learn to work within the system? Can she learn to accept that she's fallible? Haven't they done this story before? A young rah-rah jocko doctor: can he tame his youthful fire and learn to accept. . . ahhh, who cares.

     There are probably a few others, but I can't remember who. Oh, yeah. Alan Alda. True, he may not fit my theory since he is neither young nor a model, but hes also not a character. Hes Alan Alda. And hell be leaving soon. Older doctor faced with the fast-paced ER finds hes not as quick on his feet as he used to be. Haven't you seen this one coming?

     The only new characters to really make an impression are Doctors Corday and Romano. Yes, Corday is a babe, but shes an interesting looking babe, and an interesting character. In fact, for a newer character, shes very believable. You can't predict what her response will be, and the shows producers seem willing (or at least they used to) to take chances with her like they used to with the original cast. She's sometimes sexually aggressive, a little pushy, kind of tough, but at the same time entirely sympathetic. In short, there are many facets to her personality, just like a real person (sort of).

     Romano may be a babe. I don't know. (Actually, to me hell always be the "You-have-something-I-need" guy from that X-FILES episode). And I'm not sure hes all that interesting. I know hes not that believable. Hes too much the EVIL Dr Romano. Hes Simon Legree with no moustache and a shaved head. But the sad truth is that the tension he generates is SORELY lacking in ER these days. He was the impetus in the only real cool thing that has happened so far this season: Weaver stabbing Green in the back. I used to roll my eyes every time Romano came on. Now I can't wait for him to show up to relieve the boredom.

     So, what do you have? An aging and rapidly shrinking original cast who have run out of story lines and are comfortably settling into wise-elder roles. A handful of young bucks that look like models. A cartoon villain. Sound like a soap opera to you?

In the original cast, only Peter Benton seems to have some mileage left. Sure, we all want to know "what happens" to Carol and Mark, but do we really want to see it? Mark Green was a great character, but they've done all they can with him. we've never been all that in to his professional career, so that leaves his love life, and at this point he's either going to marry Corday or not. Does he think he can do better? Do we want to see him start all over AGAIN? And then theres Carol Hathaway. . .

     Lets get right to the point. Its 5th season. Give Clooney the money so can come back long enough to ride off into the sunset with Carol. Thats all were really waiting for. Then, wrap it up. Give Green and Corday and Weaver and Carter and Benton and whoever else their destiny. Pull the plug. We no longer have the energy to invest our interest in a bunch of models in hospital greens. And we've come to expect more from the show.

     No offense to ER. Its been a great show. But its 5th season, and even the best of em aren't immune (though I dont know how NYPD BLUE manages). End it now. 11/1/99


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