It's been a long 14 years since NBC premiered a gritty little hospital drama called ER in September of 1994. Over three hundred episodes later, it's difficult to remember what couch potato life was like before the show became a Thursday night staple. While a smash success in its time, winning Emmys and big Neilsen numbers alike, the show has not aged well. Mercifully the proverbial plug will be pulled next spring amid much fanfare from the NBC promo people.
If you've caught ER in the last few seasons you'll see that it's very much stuck in the 1990s. You haven't missed much.
It's not the show's fault. There are only so many stories you can tell in Cook County General's emergency room (especially when you're juggling at least four subplots in every episode for 15 seasons) and this show has told them all.
* Co-workers sleeping together and then breaking up, then getting back together.
* Doctors under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, which leads to Difficult Questions for coworkers regarding whether or not to blow the whistle.
* Ugly bureaucratic politics as unpopular doctors get promoted while the truly skilled doctors get the finger.
* Movie stars making a guest appearance to play a patient dying of a terminal illness. The hope for an Emmy nomination is painfully obvious.
* A very dire situation involving a lack of resources, whether it's beds, blood, or staff.
* Shootouts, explosions, virus outbreaks... in the hospital lobby where no security guard has ever proved useful.
* Train crashes, plane crashes, car crashes, all of them bringing in mass casualties and the frantic shout "We have to shut the ER down to triage!"
* Extreme weather that Makes Things Even Worse, from blizzards to heavy rains to heat waves.
* Messy domestic situations for the main characters, particularly those involving dying, crazy, addicted, or pushy parents. Immature siblings and bratty children also count.
* The tragic, unexpected (and ideally quite gory) death of a major character, typically in sweeps weeks. This is an emergency that has surely been marked with a gypsy curse.
* The miraculous recovery of a hopeless cause, reminding us that You Have to Have Faith...
* ...and the sudden demise of a seemingly simple case, reminding us that You Just Never Know.
* Patients in adjoining rooms that Share a Dramatic Connection (rival gangbagers, drunk drivers and victims, parent and child, husband and wife). Hopefully, one is worse off than the other so the one who's still conscious can look over through the glass doors and see the frantic, hopeless work being done on the other.
* Difficult personal choices involving mutually exclusive dichotomies (work-vs.-personal-life, following-hospital-rules vs. saving-the-patient).
* Dangerous procedures that have to be performed immediately (there's no time to get the patient to the OR) by a doctor who's Never Done This Before.
* An underage girl who's pregnant and can't tell her parents, the boyfriend, or both.
* The administering of a central line. Or the bungled administering of a central line.
* A strange object impaled somewhere strange.
* The arrival of a new doctor, who immediately rubs everyone the wrong way because of his/her A) incompetence or B) arrogance. Even better, this new doctor will be someone's new boss, thus adding to the friction.
It all sounds so familiar, huh?
Even the more shocking elements of the past have been recycled recently out of necessity. The 2002 twist in which Dr. Romano lost one arm in a freak accident thus becomes the 2007 "twist" in which poor Dr. Barnett's loses both legs. (I see your arm and raise you two legs.)
It's impossible to pick the best episodes, not out of a list of 300. But we can think back and remember the more memorable episodes, those that still stick out.
"Love's Labor Lost" (1995) - The one where Mark really screws up a baby delivery and the mother's dies. Still the best episode of the series.
"Hell and High Water" (1995) - The one where Dr. Ross finds some redemption for his self-destructive ways by saving a kid who's drowning in a culvert pipe during a flash flood.
"The Healers" (1996) - The one where Shep's paramedic partner suffers fatal burns.
"Ambush" (1997) - The gimmicky one that was shown live and had Dr. Ross watching a baseball game on TV in real time.
"Fathers and Sons" (1997) - The one where Mark Greene and Doug Ross go on a road trip together and deal with their strained relationships with their fathers.
"Night Shift" (1997) - The one where Dr. Gant dies and the only way they know he's dead is that they page him for help and the beeper sounds on the mangled patient on their gurney.
"All in the Family" (2000) - The one where perky little Lucy Knight dies on the operating table of her stab wounds moments after Dr. Romano actually shows some real emotion and promises her she'll be fine.
"Such Sweet Sorrow" (2000) - The one where Carol reunites with Doug and viewers get to see a special surprise return by George Clooney in the last shot.
"Damage is Done" (2002) - The one where Abby tries to help a battered neighbor and gets herself beat up by the abusive husband... which leads Luca to beat the hell out of him in a pool hall.
"On the Beach" (2002) - The one where Mark Greene dies of a brain tumor while sleeping in a bed in Hawaii.
Notice that none of these moments occurred after 2002. The death of Mark Greene is without a doubt ER's jump-the-shark moment. It's been all downhill from there. Just look at the character of Dr. Morris, the kind of goofy knucklehead that Ross and Benton would have taken out back and beat to hell had he dared to show his face in 1999.
That's not say the show was perfect pre-2002. With so big and sweeping a show, there were always imperfections. Case in point is the irritating surly character of Dr. Benton, who never met a patient or fellow doctor he didn't loathe. Special mention goes to the interminably tedious storyline involving his dying mother and his romance with nurse Jeanie Boulet.
And so the Cheese Fry bids a fond goodbye to ER. When it was good, it was great.
Now if you'll excuse us, we have a CT and C-spine to order.