When it was originally on: 1994-2009
Original network: NBC
Where you can stream it now: Hulu
Had I seen it before: No
What IMDb says: The lives, loves and losses of the doctors and nurses of Chicago’s County General Hospital.
Why I picked it: While we’re on this medical drama kick, it seems fitting to end with one of the most famous of all time, ER. This show was on for 15 seasons. That alone makes it prime List material. With a run that long, it’s pretty much inevitable that later medical dramas would borrow from it. If any medical dramas were to be included on The List, ER would have be one of them.
What I liked: There’s great world building going on here. I know that more often than not we use the term “world building” in reference to sci-fi and fantasy stuff, but that’s part of what makes the ER pilot work as well as it does. It takes us into a setting we think we know, and gives us an even deeper, richer understanding of it. I love the way there’s pretty much no world outside of the hospital. I love the sense of urgency we get as each new patient comes in. The ER is this all-consuming thing and doctors simply can’t afford to have lives outside of it.
As Dr. Benton shows a new medical student the ropes, we get this baptism by fire. We’re overwhelmed by how much there is to do and how quickly we have to learn it. And that feeling doesn’t really ever go away. We maintain the same level of intensity through pretty much the whole pilot and this show’s ability to completely immerse you in its ER life is its greatest.
What I didn’t like: One of the greatest things about this pilot is its ability to maintain the same level of intensity for 87 minutes. But one of its greatest weaknesses? It maintains the same level of intensity for 87 minutes. I kind of wish there were more peaks and valleys happening here. Because the ER pilot feels more like a series of small vignettes than one long story, I don’t necessarily feel more invested in the show at the end than I do at the beginning. It’s an intriguing and unique way of doing a television show, but my jury’s still out on whether or not it’s a good way of doing a television show.
I also wish there was more contrast between the different characters. The only one who seems to approach medicine differently from the other doctors is Dr. Benton. His brisk tempo, confident attitude, and low amount of patience make him feel like a character all unto himself. There is only one Dr. Benton. But Dr. Ross, Dr. Greene, Dr. Lewis, Dr. Morgenstern feel virtually identical to me. They’re just doctors doing the best they can to be doctors.
Sure, there’s little shorthand “characteristics” they each have. Dr. Ross is a pretty boy who likes to drink. Dr. Greene is a family man whose wife thinks he should go work at a private practice. Dr. Lewis is a pretty lady who doesn’t like to drink as much. But I don’t actually feel like these people have fundamentally different ways of approaching their lives or their work. I don’t feel like they’re different people at their very cores. And I wish they did. House, M.D. did this quite well, and Grey’s Anatomy makes it work too. But in ER, the situations at hand are all consuming to the point that it hindered the pilot’s ability to develop interesting, nuanced, complex characters in spite of its run time.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Not particularly. Some of that is just the fact that medical dramas are not one of my go-to genres, and the other is that this seems like a high-stress show that actually requires you to be fairly involved while you’re watching. There’s just too many other shows I’d rather watch to fill that void.